13 JANUARY 2007, Page 18

Confessions of an Oscar voter

As one of the greats of British cinema, the director Bryan Forbes is entitled to vote in the US Academy Awards. With the 2007 Oscars approaching, he is bracing himself for battle n 16 May 1929 a modest ceremony took place in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. As the age of talkies began, a number of the great and good gathered to partake of squab, lobster, terrapin, salad and fruit supreme before handing out the first Oscars.

Unlike the contemporary shindig, it was more like a private party for the initial 231 guests who had forked out $100 to join the newly formed Academy. When the dessert plates had been cleared, Douglas Fairbanks, the president, insisted that acceptance speeches should be short and dispensed with the awards in five minutes; the winners duly accepted their statues without blubbing, thanking God, their mothers or their agents. Voting had been carried out behind closed doors by a Central Board of Judges chaired by Louis B. Mayer, the principal founding father. He declared that they had come together to 'give flowers to the living', but there was a hidden agenda and this sentiment concealed the true intent. Initially, honouring achievement was only window-dressing. The Academy really came into being because Mayer and the other power brokers saw it as a convenient tool for the studios to emasculate the nascent craft unions. 'The best way to handle moviemakers is to give them awards,' Mayer said. 'In that way they'll kill themselves to produce what I want. That's why the Academy Award was created.' Only later did the studios wake up to the fact that by patting themselves on the back they could garner an increased box-office take.

Over the succeeding seven decades the Oscars have spawned dozens of lesser accolades, since the denizens of show business have never been shy of massaging their egos in public. We now have awards ceremonies for everything under the sun, even ones for failure and hardcore pornography, some so masturbatory that they invite nausea. As the season of self-congratulation gets underway we have the Golden Globe awards, the Bafta awards, the New York Critics awards, the Writers Guild awards, the Directors Guild awards, the Australian Film Institute awards, the Women in Film and TV awards, to name but a sprinkling, although nothing approaches the hype and money expended on the Oscars themselves.

Over the years this has been fine-tuned into a separate industry and given rise to noholds-barred trench warfare. Despite the Academy sending all members a booklet urging them not to stoop to any form of overt electioneering, this is ignored; every studio takes out repeated full-page ads for the films or artists they are plugging, all coyly headed 'For Your Consideration'. Some companies, such as the one headed by the ubiquitous Harvey Weinstein, treat it like going after a Saudi arms contract. Having figured that a single vote can win an Oscar, Weinstein made sure nobody was overlooked, even hosting screenings at the Motion Picture Retirement Home, where some members could be on life-support machines but still capable of putting their X on the voting paper. He also threw $3 million behind the campaign for Shakespeare in Love, and it paid off. It has been calculated that a Best Picture Oscar can add $40 million to the box-office take, so the spoils are worth chasing with bayonets fitted.

The actual voting is tightly pigeonholed. Members can only vote in their own categories on the nomination forms. I, for example, can only nominate directors and writers, but once the nominations have been announced the final voting is open to the full membership in every category. The mayhem that accompanies all this is a far cry from that original occasion for a select few in the Blossom Room. Louis B. Mayer could not have imagined that his brainchild would grow into such a monster over the years. Number-crunchers now control everything; when the original moguls such as Zanuck, Harry Cohn, the Warner Brothers and Mayer fell off the perch they were replaced by mainly faceless corporate conglomerates — oil companies, Japanese technocrats, newspaper barons. The old guard had endless chutzpah, but lived, spoke and slept films, took risks, respected talent and quality. The new owners have little feeling for the past, and in the main only throw their money at blockbusters.

The race is now on for the 2007 awards (which will be announced on 25 February). The trade papers are crammed with the usual exhortations and superlatives, publicity departments have gone into overdrive, and the bookies are taking bets, though at the moment there is no out-and-out favourite. Robert de Niro's directorial effort The Good Shepherd may prove to be a runner; our own Helen Mirren is widely tipped to be a shoein for Best Actress, although Kate Winslet is also a contender and one can never rule out Meryl Streep or, this year, Annette Bening in the modest sleeper Running with Scissors. Maybe Robert Altman's swansong A Prairie Home Companion will get a look-in from those who regret his passing, while the oftennominated-but-never-a-winner, Martin Scorsese, might finally make it.

Who knows? The only certainty is that millions of dollars will be spent chasing the bluebird of transient fame for a trophy that prompted George C. Scott to withdraw his name when tapped for his supporting role in The Hustler, saying, 'Actors shouldn't be forced to out-advertise and out-stab each other.' It's a tough old world.

I remember that when Dame Edith Evans won a Best Actress nomination for one of my films, The Whisperers , she was feted before the ceremony and driven to the auditorium in a limousine, but when she did not win made to stand on the pavement and wait for a taxi. That year was a curious time for me: I was directing both Katharine Hepburn and Dame Edith; Kate won for Guess Who Coming to Dinner and went straight to Edith's dressing-room and said, 'It should have been yours, Edith, they only gave it to me from sentimentality.'

I'm reliably told that nowadays everybody nominated is given goody bags containing expensive gifts. Oscar has travelled a long way from the short speeches and lobster dinner of 1929, to the point where millions tune in to the telecast. Progress? I wonder. The Academy now allows selected DVDs to be sent to members in full benefit (subscription $250 a year) so that they can view the contenders in the comfort of their own home cinemas. The packages pour through my letterbox but carry scary warnings that if the contents are divulged to anybody other than the recipient, he or she will be investigated by the FBI and can face a fine of $250,000 and up to five years in a federal prison. You could murder for less.

Bryan Forbes Ltd 2007