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Archive for Wednesday, February 23, 2005

First-time Oscar voters rush to cast judgment

February 23, 2005

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— Keith David popped in a DVD of "Vera Drake" and settled into the comfort of his pillow-strewn brown sofa. The veteran actor had decisions to make -- lots of them -- that would affect careers and coffers alike.

David is a new member of one of the world's most exclusive voting blocs, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He's deciding for the very first time who gets to go home with an Oscar on Sunday.

"My vote counts," he said. "It's like I'm the Electoral College."

David, animator Brad Bird, actress Scarlett Johansson and costume designer David C. Robinson were among 127 people invited to join the 5,808-member academy this past year.

"It's really nice to be able to feel like you have some part of who is recognized," said Johansson, 20, one of the youngest voters. "Maybe I should've done a bet with somebody to see if my picks win."

Watching 35 movies -- plus 10 short subjects and 10 documentaries -- and listening to five CDs of nominated songs in barely three weeks would be nirvana to most film fans.

But it's been a race to the deadline -- a very firm 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline -- for many academy members, most of whom have jobs and families to attend to each day. David, for instance, had to cram two or three movies in after midnight one recent evening.

Bird has also felt the squeeze.

"I feel a real rush, almost a panic, to see them all," he says, "so I'm voting from a place of knowledge and not just because I know someone on a film or I like someone on a film."

Sometimes, the movies meld into a confusing blur.

Bird, nominated this year for original screenplay and animated feature for "The Incredibles," recently attended the academy's nominees luncheon and met best-actress contender Annette Bening. He told her he loved her in "Finding Julia."

Oops! Bird had confused "Being Julia" with best-picture nominee "Finding Neverland."

"I immediately corrected myself," he said. "I've seen so many in so little time."

Bird took his screeners -- the free tapes and DVDs of the nominees -- with him everywhere and watched at least one a day. During idle moments, he even resorted to seeing some on his computer.

Animated feature and original screenplay were Bird's easiest votes -- for himself.

"I feel like I did a good job," he said modestly.

Robinson, the New York-based costume designer, watched three movies a day. If he wasn't voting, he acknowledged he probably would have skipped "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Hotel Rwanda."

"It's not brain surgery," he said. "It's the performances and movies and visual things that grab you and make you feel something. I'm going to pick the things that do that," he said in a phone interview last week.

So, did any of our first-timers vote for pals or someone who helped them get a job?

"If I felt two works were equally good and I liked one person more than another, it would push it over," Bird admitted. "But in the end, you're voting on the work."

Some Academy members, including Johansson, simply don't have the time to review all 24 categories, so they abstain from voting in contests they haven't seen.

"You want to be able to really give a fair judgment," said the busy actress.

Others skip the more technical categories, professing ignorance about the nuances of crafts such as sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects and cinematography.

But not David, a Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor whose credits include "There's Something About Mary," "Head of State" and "Barbershop."

"It's my opinion," he said. "Even if I don't know enough about it, when I look at the movie, I look at that aspect. I know how a good editor can save ... a bad director."

After watching "Vera Drake" on his 36-inch television, David scribbled down notes detailing what he liked about the illegal abortion drama starring best-actress nominee Imelda Staunton.

"Torn doesn't begin to describe it," he said. "A lot of them get the same mark, so I go back and narrow it down. The few movies that I'm very hot on, I go back and watch them again. It's hard to compare actors unless you saw them all play the same role."

Bird will be in the Kodak Theatre audience on Oscar night, and Johansson will be a presenter. David and Robinson, meanwhile, will have to watch the fruits of their labors on TV because there's not enough room at the Kodak for every academy member.

But that hasn't dimmed David's regard for Hollywood's highest honor.

"I'm very glad they changed the language to 'The Oscar goes to,' instead of 'The winner is,"' David said. "There are no losers here."

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