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The New Yorker

Best Picture
March 25, 2002
By Hendrik Hertzberg

In 1989, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wishing to minimize the wounded feelings that can accompany being tagged a loser, changed the formula by which the envelope-rippers announce the recipients of the Oscars. The federal bureaucracy, always a bit behind the Hollywood curve, took more than a decade to catch up: not until the 2000 election did Washington get around to ditching the old, hurtful custom of having the voters say "And the winner is . . ." and replacing it with a more sensitive practice, whereby a group of chosen judges, wearing gowns that a Price Waterhouse accountant would die for, consult themselves and then announce, "And the Presidency goes to . . ."

For the movie industry, it's been a rough political season. Campaign spending is through the roof. According to one estimate, by the time the polls close on Tuesday, the studios will have shelled out a record sixty million dollars for full-page newspaper ads, billboards, videotape and DVD mailings, and other promotional goodies. That may not sound like much-Michael Bloomberg paid more last fall for a four-year lease on City Hall-but it's thirty times the production budget for "In the Bedroom," one of the contenders for Best Picture. And the Oscar electorate is a lot smaller than the mayoral one: fewer than six thousand people have the franchise. At these per-vote prices, a Presidential campaign would cost a trillion dollars.

And that's just the "hard money." Hollywood has "soft money," too. Academy rules ban filmmakers from giving parties for Academy members and forbid studios to hold screenings that "feature the live participation of the film's artists before or after the screening" or include "receptions, buffets or other refreshments"-even a lousy bag of popcorn. But if somebody else throws the party, or if non-Academy riffraff are also invited to the screening, then bring on the caviar and the stars. In other words, "independent expenditures" are O.K. So is negative campaigning. This year, "A Beautiful Mind," a front-runner in the big categories, has been the main target. The critics long ago pointed out that the film pretties up the facts about the real-life mathematician on whom the Russell Crowe character is based. Lately, though, anonymous leaks to the Drudge Report and other outlets of dubious respectability have "revealed" some nasty things which the mathematician (who, at the time, was in the grip of schizophrenic delusions that also had him convinced he was the emperor of Antarctica) did and said, and which are omitted from the film. Crowe himself has been slammed for loutish behavior at an earlier awards ceremony. The "character issue" is big this year, both for source material and for actors, if not for what's actually on the screen. Meanwhile, the celebrity endorsements are flowing in, with Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson throwing their support behind Denzel Washington against Crowe. And three of the movie colony's most prominent ethnic groups-Brits, African-American superstars, and hobbits-have been jostling for position. Oscar politics ain't beanbag.

Hollywood, it may seem, has learned all there is to learn from the world of "real" politics. And, God knows, vice versa. But maybe not. Take the wonky, but actually quite important, question of voting systems. To pick Oscar winners, the Academy uses what we call plurality voting and the British call "first past the post." The Oscar "goes to" whichever nominee-there are usually five-gets more votes than any one of the others. This is why mediocre, bombastic movies that are obviously disliked by the majority of Academy members and other discerning filmgoers are so often rewarded with golden statuettes. The nominees, however, are chosen differently. Academy members still get one vote each, but they can list up to five favorites in order of preference. Any film or actor that gets a fifth of the first-place votes is nominated automatically, and the rest are chosen by considering alternative preferences. As a result, meritorious work frequently makes it to the finals.

Something analogous is beginning to happen, in a small way, outside the zone of glitz. On March 7th, voters in San Francisco decided to adopt "instant runoff voting" for mayor and other officials elected citywide. That same day, clear across the country in bucolic Vermont, fifty-one town meetings passed resolutions asking the state legislature to adopt the same system for gubernatorial and other statewide races. Under I.R.V., voters can list their choices in order of preference. If no candidate tops fifty per cent, the losers are dropped from the count one by one and the votes are retallied, with each voter's vote going to his or her favorite still in the race, until someone has a majority. (Computers do the math in a flash.) The system is an exotic novelty here, but it is used routinely in Australia, Ireland, and England, and, of course, in the nominating process of the Academy.

San Francisco and Vermont are special cases. San Francisco previously staged separate runoff elections between the top two finishers, which costs money and rewards zero-sum negative campaigning. In Vermont, if no candidate gets an absolute majority the legislature picks whoever it wants to be governor. That's already happened twenty-one times, and it's likely to happen again this year, because four plausible candidates will be on the ballot. But there are similar movements afoot in places-Alaska and New Mexico, for example-that, like almost all of America, currently use plain old plurality voting.

If the system begins to take hold, the impact on America's political culture could be profound. It would encourage civility, discourage fratricidal negative campaigning, prevent the election of candidates strongly opposed by majorities, and broaden the range of candidates while eliminating the third-party spoiler phenomenon. The two big parties would retain their primacy, but no one can say which would benefit. The only sure winners would be the voters. Remember them? The people who, on the whole, would rather be watching the Oscars?

-Hendrik Hertzberg

 
 
 
 
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