24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Academy Project

Oscars' oldest voter, 101, offers link to Hollywood's Golden Age

February 21, 2012 |  8:30 am

Gardner Arthur Gardner is grasping for a memory that seems to lie just out of reach. The longtime Hollywood producer looks at a photo on the wall, gazes at his desk then stares back up at the wall. But prompted by a reporter's question about Edward G. Robinson, the star of Gardner's 1953 police procedural “Vice Squad,” his eyes suddenly light up.

“Eddie Robinson? Oh, he was a picnic,” Gardner said as he excitedly recalled the Golden Age actor known for playing gangster parts. “Of course, we got him at the end of his career. We knew it, and he knew it. But he was still fun to work with.”

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is populated with older members -- producers, actors, directors and others -- who serve as a living testament to a time when Hollywood was a small town in the most literal sense. But perhaps none of these figures compares to Gardner, who at 101 is the oldest known living member of the Oscars organization.

Oscar voters studyCritics like to point out that the academy’s older demographic can mean it is out of touch with average moviegoers. But Gardner is a reminder that the same demographic serves as a link to the industry’s storied past. The year he began making movies, a small, relatively unknown body handed out the Academy Awards for the first time at a private banquet at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Gardner joined the academy more than a half century ago, he said, when he first became a producer. He hasn’t made a movie since 1982 -- “Safari 3000,” an adventure comedy set in Africa that starred David Carradine -- but he still tries to come to the office from his nearby assisted-living facility, usually at least once a week.

Gardner still combs through the DVD screeners he’s sent and votes on the nominees and winners almost as soon as he receives his ballot; this year, the producer was particularly taken with Steven Spielberg’s World War I drama “War Horse,” according to his son Doug.

“There's no point asking him to wait. He already has made up his mind and he’ll send his ballot in before I can even help him,” Doug Gardner said.

Raised in an upper-middle-class Jewish family in small-town Wisconsin, Arthur Goldberg arrived in Los Angeles in 1929 at the age of 18, with dreams of becoming an actor. Renting space in various flophouses, he began piecing together a living as an extra.

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Oscar voters: 99-year-old in academy 'never wanted to be a star'

February 20, 2012 | 12:30 pm

Connie Sawyer

At 99, Connie Sawyer is one of the oldest members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Conventional wisdom might say she's precisely the sort of voter apt to fall for “The Artist,” the French-made film about an old-time movie hero whose career runs into trouble with the advent of talkies. The movie is considered a front-runner for the best picture Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday.

But Sawyer, who was a 15-year-old living in Oakland in 1927, when “The Artist's” story begins, wasn’t so enamored of the black-and-white film. The movie was enjoyable enough, she says, but she frankly doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“Hasn’t anybody seen old films?” Sawyer asked in exasperation. “They’re easy to make and easy to act. All you have to do is overact. I saw a lot of those films in my day.”Oscar voters study

Sawyer’s been in show business for more than eight decades — she began working in stand-up comedy in Depression-era New York at the age of 19, after a childhood spent in dance lessons and traveling with her mother to see performers like Fanny Brice in San Francisco — and she takes her duty as an Oscar voter quite seriously.

Every year, Sawyer watches the movie screeners that are sent to her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the Woodland Hills retirement community that’s home to many show business veterans. Many of them she views twice.

On a recent afternoon visit, it was difficult to miss the “For Your Consideration” DVDs scattered around her living room among photographs of her children and grandchildren, birthday cards on display and a painting of her beloved dog Mitzi, named after Mitzi Gaynor.

That’s in addition to juggling a steady work schedule that’s included small parts in films like “When Harry Met Sally” and the R-rated drug comedy “Pineapple Express,” in which she played the grandmother of James Franco's character. The actress also has appeared in several TV shows including “ER” and “Home Improvement,” though she recently lost out on a small part on the NBC comedy series “Parks & Recreation.”

Sawyer joined the academy after appearing in Frank Capra’s 1959 film “A Hole in the Head” with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson. Sawyer says that even then, she’d been interested in joining the prestigious organization for some time, and she recalls Sinatra telling her, “Don’t worry about it, kid, you’ll get in.”

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The Oscar voters: Meet the members at large

February 20, 2012 | 11:00 am

Oscars 2011
One designed the red laser bullets used in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Another choreographed a sold-out tour for Madonna and music videos for Michael Jackson. Then there are the analytical chemist, the former rodeo cowboy who took falls for Frank Sinatra, the longtime assistant director to Alfred Hitchcock, and the Harvard graduate who assembled the cast of “The Wedding Crashers.”

It’s a diverse group, yet they all have one thing in common. They are among the 244 voting members at large of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Members at large don’t belong to one of the 15 specific “craft” branches in the academy, but they share the same basic privileges as the actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and producers who are members.Oscar voters study

“I get to nominate only for best film category, but when the voting comes around, I can vote on every category,” says Vincent Paterson, a choreographer who joined in 2001.

MCA founder Lew Wasserman, actress-turned-publicist Helen Ferguson and MGM house counsel I.H. Prinzmetal were among the earliest members at large, according to announcements in academy newsletters published in 1947 and 1948. The 1946 academy by-laws state that members at large are “entitled to all privileges of active membership except representation on the board and voting for the election of governors.”

Six current members at large agreed to talk with the Los Angeles Times about their careers and remarkably different paths to membership in the academy.

Among them is Lisa Beach, 53. One of her tasks as a casting director is to read lines opposite actors auditioning for parts in a film. She has played the Owen Wilson role in the mother-in-law seduction scene in “The Wedding Crashers” and a suicidal mental patient opposite Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.” Her readings have landed her cameos in “The Wedding Crashers” and all three “Scream” films.Lisa beach casting director academy member at large

Beach has assembled the casts for more than 50 films and TV pilots. She gushes like a teenager when talking about her job, whether it’s meeting Miley Cyrus while casting “Hannah Montana: The Movie” or auditioning women willing to strip down to their “Mother Hubbards and Playtex bras” for the role that eventually went to Kathy Bates in Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt.”

“I love my job,” says the Pittsburgh native. “I consider myself lucky every single day.”

When her first two applications for academy membership were rejected, Beach says she took it in stride. When her third attempt in 2007 was successful, the thrill was akin to getting the “big fat envelope” that admitted her to Harvard 30 years ago, she says.

“Finally, I got the letter saying I was in [the academy], and I just cried my head off,” she says. “It is an honor beyond measure for me.”

Read about these other at large members: Hilton Green, 82, who worked with Hitchcock in the 1950 and 1960s; Beverly Wood, a serial killer afficionado with a graduate degree in analytical chemistry; Nina Saxon, title designer who worked on “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future”; Vincent Paterson, 61, who played the white gang leader in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video; and veteran stuntman Billy Burton, 66, who took horse falls for Frank Sinatra.

RELATED:

The Motion Picture Academy by the numbers

Inside the Academy: 94% white, 77% male

Oscar voters aren't always who you might think 

-- Laura Randall

Photos: Top, The 83rd Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, 2011. Photo by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times. Middle: Academy member at large Lisa Beach. Credit: Kirk McCoy/ Los Angeles Times


Oscars 2012: Who really chooses the winners?

February 20, 2012 |  9:00 am

The Oscars, whose winners are announced on Sunday Feb. 26, are chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But who is this group made up of? And what do members like Denzel Washington, Frank Pierson and others think of its level of diversity?
Nearly 40 million Americans are expected to tune in to the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday. But although most of those viewers will have a sense of which films they'd like to see win Oscars, very few know much about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that chooses them.

Although the group does not publish a membership list, The Times conducted a months-long investigation to uncover just who the members are and where they come from.

Oscar voters studyIn confirming the membership of nearly 90% of the prestigious organization, we found out that the academy, currently made up of 5,765 voting members, is more monolithic than even skeptics might assume: The median age is 62, and only 14% of its membership is under the age of 50. Less than 4% of the academy is black or Latino.

We also learned that the membership isn't always what you'd expect. Acclaimed filmmakers such as Woody Allen and George Lucas are not in the academy, while less Oscar-friendly personalities such as Pee-wee Herman, Meat Loaf and Erik Estrada are part of the group. (You can learn more about our methodology here.)

We've designed a package, titled "Unmasking the Academy," that reveals our findings.

For an interactive look at the group's demographics, head over to our clickable matrix of voters.

For a sampling of views on how the academy should diversify -- from Denzel Washington ("If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black") to filmmaker and former academy president Frank Pierson ("I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population -- that's what the People's Choice Awards are for") click on our main story about academy demographics.

For a look at some unexpected members - -hint: Vin Diesel, Steve Guttenberg and Lorenzo Lamas -- check out our inquiry into academy surprises.

And for profiles of some of the quirky and notable members -- from Madonna to Haley Joel Osment, a Peace Corps veteran to the owner of a mystery book store -- take a look at our snapshots of some of the more eclectic members of the organization.

RELATED:

Unmasking the Academy: Snapshots of membership

Unmasking the Academy: Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male

Unmasking the Academy: Who's who in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

--Steven Zeitchik
twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: An Oscar statue shrouded in plastic. Credit: Mark Ralson / AFP/Getty images


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