New York Times
French Twist: A Fair Way to Pick Oscars?
By Rick Lyman
March 17, 2002
Steven J. Brams, a professor of politics at New
York University, thinks he knows who should choose the winners of
the 74th Annual Academy Awards on March 24: the Marquis de
Condorcet, an 18th-century social theorist who came up with an idea
called approval voting before dying in prison during the French
"Approval voting is a system in which you can vote for
as many candidates as you like, as long as there are more than two
candidates on the ballot," said Professor Brams, who wrote a 1983
book on the theory with Paul Hager. "I would claim that with
approval voting, you could have your cake and eat it, too."
largely on social choice theory, which concerns itself with how best
to translate a large number of individual preferences into the
fairest and most representative preference for an entire society,
and to a lesser degree on game theory, which involves mathematical
and economic strategy models, approval voting is custom-made for the
Oscars, Professor Brams insists.
Just look at the 1976 best picture
race, he said. The five nominees were "All the President's Men,"
"Bound for Glory," "Network," "Taxi Driver" and "Rocky," the
eventual winner. "I cannot believe that `Rocky' would have won a
head-to-head contest with "Taxi Driver,' " he said, a little
With approval voting, he said, such an injustice would not
have occurred. "In a system where you are forced to pick one of five
candidates, it is possible for the winning film to have gotten only
21 percent of the vote," he said. "It is not necessarily the film
that would have won a head-to-head race with all of the other
Under approval voting, if there is one film that an
academy voter loves above all others, he can vote for it. If there
are two or three he'd feel fine with, he can vote for two or three.
If, instead, he is driven mostly by disdain for one of the films ó
say, "Rocky," ó he can vote for all four of the other nominees.
"Condorcet came up with the idea that if there is a candidate in a
multicandidate race who would beat each of the other candidates in a
head-to-head race, that person is the proper winner," Professor
Proposals are regularly floated to improve the way the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences conducts the Oscars.
Every now and then, such ideas even result in reforms, like the
addition this year of a new category for best animated feature film.
More often, though, the proposals drift away, victims of
longstanding habit and the entrenched interests of those who have
made the Academy Awards into what they are.
Among the ideas that
have made the rounds in recent years:
ï Since it's clear dramatic
films have had a better shot at winning top awards than comedies,
there has been some support for separating the best picture award
into two categories, as the Golden Globes do. The argument against
this is that it would simply ghettoize comedies and reinforce the
notion that they're less worthy than dramas.
ï Others wonder why
the Oscars differentiate between actors and actresses. There is no
best woman director award, so why is there a best actress award?
Perhaps it would be better, some say, to split the acting honors
into a best dramatic performance and a best comedic performance. The
argument against is that since most Hollywood films are dominated by
male actors and written with male actors in mind, the result would
be few women winners.
ï Some academy members, including a few on
its board of governors, are said to favor moving the awards to
earlier in the year. The idea is to cut back on some of the unseemly
campaigning of recent years and perhaps winnow out some of the
plethora of awards shows that have popped up in the weeks between
New Year's Day and the Oscars. The argument against is that Oscar
voters need to be given enough time to see all the important films,
many of which are not released until late December, and the studios
love a system that gives them six weeks to advertise their films as
ï Because studios are essentially allowed to decide
whether a given performance is put up for best actor or best
supporting actor, roles that are essentially lead ones often go up
against true supporting roles, making the contests uneven. This
problem could be eliminated, some feel, by a stricter definition of
supporting roles. The argument against is that such a change would
be impossible and that the will of the voters should prevail.
a mere coincidence that the notion of applying approval voting to
the Oscars surfaced in the same year that one of the front-running
films, "A Beautiful Mind," is about a schizophrenic Nobel laureate
who specialized in game theory?
Yes, Professor Brams said. But
speaking of John Nash, the Princeton mathematician with the
beautiful mind, Professor Brams said he had discussed Condorcet with
him over the years. "I spoke to Nash about approval voting," he
said, "and I think he's favorably disposed."