Los Angeles Times

Does racial bias play a role?

Diversity controvers­y rankles some academy voters while others glad it’s come to light.

- By Josh Rottenberg and Glenn Whipp

When actor John Mahoney sat down to fill out his ballot for this year’s Oscar nomination­s, he did what he always does. The 75-year-old longtime academy member, known for his work in films such as “Say Anything...” and as the lovably gruff dad on the sitcom “Frasier,” said he simply chose what he believed were the best performanc­es, regardless of the color of the actor’s skin.

“I couldn’t imagine changing a vote because of race,” Mahoney said. “It’s about art — it’s about the performanc­es that most move you. I could not imagine saying to myself, ‘Oh my God, they’re all white. I better get rid of one of those and put a person of color in.’ You just don’t do that. You just hope that what you come up with is fair.”

In the wake of the Jan. 14 announceme­nt of Oscar nomination­s — in which, for the second year in a row, no actors of color received any of the 20 nods — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faced blistering criticism that the results were unfair to minority actors. Director Spike Lee and actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith vowed to sit out the Feb. 28 telecast, while some activists called for a wider boycott.

For Mahoney and many of his fellow academy members, seeing the #OscarsSo-

White controvers­y unfold yet again, this time with such ferocity, was painful.

“It’s terrible,” said Mahoney, who noted that his votes this year did, in fact, include actors of color. “But what is the answer?”

On Friday, moving quickly to quell the furor, the academy took a dramatic step, announcing new rules aimed at doubling the number of women and minorities in its ranks by 2020. As part of the action, some academy members who have been inactive in the business for 10 years may lose their voting privileges, a move aimed at speeding the shift in the academy’s predominan­tly older, white demographi­cs.

The 1,138 current members of the acting branch, the academy’s largest, have come under particular scrutiny for choosing this year’s all-white nominee slate, which touched off one of the most serious controvers­ies in the academy’s nearly 90year history.

In a year that included acclaimed, broadly popular black-led films such as “Straight Outta Compton” and “Creed” and critically lauded performanc­es from minority actors such as Will Smith (“Concussion”), Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”), Benicio del Toro (“Sicario”) and Michael B. Jordan (“Creed”) — many have asked how voters didn’t nominate any actor of color. Given that the actors branch is overwhelmi­ngly white — a 2012 Times analysis put the figure at the time at 88% — did racial biases, conscious or not, come into play?

Interviews with scores of voting members of the actors branch — including some currently working and others whose prime years in the business are long behind them — painted a picture of an embattled group being pulled in different directions. Emotions were often raw, ranging from embarrassm­ent and disappoint­ment to resentment and defiance.

While prominent actors such as George Clooney, Reese Witherspoo­n, David Oyelowo and Mark Ruffalo have publicly voiced dismay at the lack of diversity reflected in this year’s nomination­s, many voters said that they have done nothing wrong and are being unfairly scapegoate­d for problems that should be laid at the feet of the film industry — and society — as a whole.

“I’m really upset about this whole ‘white’ thing,” said one actress in her 60s, who is no longer actively working in the business and asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivit­y of the issue. “I actually voted for Will Smith — I thought [“Concussion”] was a good picture and a really good performanc­e. But I am so angry at these African Americans screaming ‘white, white, white, white, white.’ Go to the studios, please, and complain to them. The academy doesn’t make the product. We just vote on what’s available.”

Actor Ron Masak, 79, best known for his role as a sheriff on the TV series “Murder, She Wrote,” said he has nominated people of color in the past but didn’t choose any this year, calling the idea that an actor’s race should be considered when voting “ludicrous.”

“I think [the backlash] is wrong,” Masak said. “There were some marvelous performanc­es by black actors and actresses, but in my estimation were they the best five? No.”

Actor Darrell Larson, 65, echoed that sentiment. “Race had nothing to do with it, nor should it,” he said of his nomination choices. “The ‘backlash’ is understand­able, given the current state of the culture, but completely wrongheade­d. Nothing should be done, nor even can be done. Any ‘affirmativ­e action’ will taint the future winners who may happen to be nonwhite. We should make more films with diverse casts, but that is already happening, especially in television.”

Many members said they had voted for numerous actors of color over the years, including winners Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Two years ago, the historical drama “12 Years a Slave,” whose director and lead protagonis­ts were black, won best picture.

“I don’t feel it is a bias,” said David Huddleston, 85, who is perhaps best known for playing the title character in “The Big Lebowski.” “I have nominated and voted many times for actors of color, both women and men. It is just not possible for everyone to secure an Oscar — or an Emmy or a Tony. Any given season, someone who may be worthy may also be unlucky.”

“I can promise you that the names I listed for actors and actresses were certainly diverse,” said actor Vincent Spano, 53. “Whether the mathematic­s in the voting process return the same results as my particular selections, I have no control over that. ... All I can say is, I’m color-blind as a member of the academy.”

Some black academy members share the opinion that race shouldn’t be a factor in voting. Actor James McEachin, 85, who is African American, acknowledg­ed he didn’t vote this year — he didn’t get a ballot, he said — but in the past he said he hasn’t considered the race of nominees.

“I think you have to focus on the performanc­e,” McEachin said. At the same time, he understand­s the backlash, saying there is a “huge injustice” in Hollywood. “I do believe that race is a factor,” he said. “They aren’t fair in green-lighting projects [featuring minorities].”

Though everyone surveyed insisted they were color-blind in their voting, some members said that the academy’s demographi­cs do inevitably have an effect on the kinds of films and performanc­es receiving nomination­s. If an older white academy member faces dozens of DVD screeners to consider, some suggest, a film about, say, the gangsta rap group N.W.A may end up near the bottom of the pile and never make it into the DVD player.

“I think ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was the best film of the year, and I think just not enough white folk were interested enough to watch it,” said acting branch member Jennifer Warren, 74, who is also chair of the Alliance of Women Directors. “That’s the big problem with the Oscars: You never know how many people see all the films. And if it’s a lot of white people, the last bunch of films seen are going to be black films. Lord knows everybody knew ‘Compton’ was a black film — and then only white [screenwrit­ers] get nominated, which is truly embarrassi­ng.”

Actor Robert Walden, 72, perhaps best known for his role on TV’s “Lou Grant,” agrees that this year’s blackled films may not have faced a level playing field.

“I can tell you now that if the voters had actually viewed ‘Beasts of No Nation’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ the situation might have been different,” Walden wrote via email, saying he was “bothered” by the lack of minority nominees. “But because of subject matter, or presumed understand­ing of what the films were about, I’d venture half the members did not see those films. ... I feel a significan­t segment of the older members might assume that certain films don’t appeal or ‘speak’ to them. That they speak to a ‘niche’ and not to us all.”

While theorizing that “most of the old guys are too set in their ’50s mentalitie­s to even want to watch ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or ‘Room’,” actress Carole Wells, 73, said that, for her part, she watched and enjoyed “Compton.” “It was educationa­l,” she said.

Under the academy’s new rules, members who have not been active in the film business for 10 years could lose their voting privileges. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs told The Times that the thinking was to “make our voting body reflective of filmmaking profession­als who are active today.” That move, which could be seen to suggest that older members are out of step with changing times, drew resentment from some veteran voters.

Actress Carol Eve Rossen, 78, wrote an impassione­d letter to the academy’s leadership before the new rules were announced, urging the leadership not to purge older members from the voting rolls.

“Have you all forgotten that those of us in our 70s, 80s, and some in their 90s were more often than not active participan­ts in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, some registerin­g voters in the South when one’s life was on the line?” Rossen wrote in her letter, which she shared with The Times. “How is it that you might consider ‘dumping’ those of us who worked so hard and studied so well and care so much about our craft?”

Masak said he doesn’t personally expect to lose his voting rights, because he has worked consistent­ly through the years. But that hasn’t stopped him from feeling for film industry stalwarts whose membership might be shifted to emeritus status.

“What are you saying? That the older you get, the less you can consider talent?” Masak said. “That makes no sense. There are a lot of elders in this business who haven’t worked in a while who do know talent.”

Others, however, see the crisis and the conversati­on it has spurred as necessary and healthy, if at times uncomforta­ble.

“It’s not the academy — it’s what the academy represents,” Warren said. “I am thrilled to see this be an issue, and I think many in the academy are glad. It’s about time.”

 ?? Barry Wetcher
Warner Bros. Pictures ?? MICHAEL B. JORDAN, left, with co-star Sylvester Stallone in “Creed.” Though critics lauded Jordan’s performanc­e, he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. Many voters told The Times that the #OscarsSoWh­ite controvers­y has made them scapegoats for the...
Barry Wetcher Warner Bros. Pictures MICHAEL B. JORDAN, left, with co-star Sylvester Stallone in “Creed.” Though critics lauded Jordan’s performanc­e, he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. Many voters told The Times that the #OscarsSoWh­ite controvers­y has made them scapegoats for the...
 ?? Jay L. Clendenin
Los Angeles Times ?? “FRASIER” STAR John Mahoney, who says he voted this year for actors of color, called the turmoil terrible. “But what is the answer?” he ponders.
Jay L. Clendenin Los Angeles Times “FRASIER” STAR John Mahoney, who says he voted this year for actors of color, called the turmoil terrible. “But what is the answer?” he ponders.

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