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," 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 anything but fair when it came 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 #OscarsSoWhite 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 Jan. 22, moving quickly to quell the furor, the academy took a dramatic step toward offering an answer, 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 for 10 years may lose their voting privileges, a move aimed at speeding the shift in the academy's predominantly older, white demographics.
Still, even with the announcement, the 1,138 current members of the acting branch remain under some scrutiny. As the academy's largest branch and the group responsible for choosing this year's all-white nominee slate, the members were the driving force, as some see it, behind the greatest moment of crisis in the academy's nearly 90-year 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 questioned how voters again failed to nominate any actors of color. Given that the actors branch is overwhelmingly white -- a 2012 Times analysis put the figure at the time at 88 percent -- did racial biases, conscious or not, come into play?
The Times reached out to scores of rank-and-file members of the actors branch to try to gain an understanding of how this year's all-white nominations came about and how it feels to be in the eye of this storm. Interviews with a range of these members -- some currently working and some 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 actors' 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."
"I would hate to have the pressure from the black community to vote for them just because they are black," one actress in her 70s wrote via email, adding, "The Latinos have a much larger population and they are not complaining."
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 affects 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 black-led 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."
(Staff writers Marisa Gerber and Mark Olsen contributed to this story.)
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