#OscarsSoYoung

academyThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the finalists this week for the coveted Oscar awards and, sure enough, there was much more diversity than in the past.

It appears the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite – adopted after no African-American actor received an Oscar nomination for two consecutive years – will be retired (for this season anyway).

But a question remains about the degree to which the Academy’s progress came at the expense of  its oldest (predominately white male) members.

The Academy Board of Directors took a short cut to boost diversity last year . Instead of pursuing a thoughtful and deliberate course of action, it adopted a new and retroactive membership rule that was obviously intended to reduce the number of older voting members. According to published reports, the Academy limited most members’ voting status to a decade, with renewal contingent upon whether the member is still “active” in film.

Did  the Academy merely swap one kind of discrimination for another?

The Academy’s new membership rule disproportionately disenfranchises older professionals, many of whom are forced out of the entertainment industry due to pervasive age discrimination. In short, they can’t remain active because no one will hire them because of their age.

Ironically, while the Academy was stripping its oldest members of their voting rights, the CA legislature was debating a proposed bill to combat age discrimination in the entertainment industry.

California Governor Jerry Brown last Fall signed into law a bill that allows actors to demand that their ages be removed from leading casting web sites, such as Internet Movie Database (IMDb). This law is currently being contested by IMDb.

In addition to the new membership rule, the Academy, with almost 7,000 members, has been engaged in an unprecedented recruitment campaign, directly mainly at women and minorities.

Vocal opposition to the Academy’s blatant assault on older members fueled a huge and bitter backlash that reportedly has resulted in fewer older members being ousted from voting membership.  The Academy has declined to say how many older members have been deemed “inactive” and  stripped of their voting status.

The whole episode is unsettling and undermines the Academy’s stated mission of honoring excellence in the industry. If the Academy is correct, its members do not vote for excellence at all but for familiarity, age and “tribe.”

In the past, the inference  was that the Academy failed to recognize excellent performances by African-American actors  because of race discrimination. Should we infer that  the minority actors who were nominated for Oscars this year owe the honor to age discrimination?

#OscarSoYoung and the Willie Lomans of Today

deathofasalesmanThere are a couple of scenes from the great American play by Arthur Miller, Death of A Salesman, that have resonance today as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences strips older  members of their voting rights to increase “diversity.”

Linda, the wife of Willie Loman, the aging salesman, discusses the plight of her husband, who has begged the son of his old boss to let him continue working in New York for a reduced salary:

“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”

Another scene is when Willie remembers the death of the 84-year-old salesman who inspired him to become a salesman in the first place and how times have changed:

“Do you know? When he died, and by the way he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston, when he died, hundreds of salesman and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that. See in those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me anymore!”

The tragedy that Willie Loman represents is being played out today as the Academy revokes the voting rights of “inactive” members, mostly older white males, to achieve the goal of greater “diversity.”

A few months ago, Robert Bassing, a 91-year-old white male who has been a voting Academy member for five decades, received a letter from the Academy telling him that he may qualify for “emeritus status.” This means he will lose voting privileges. Once a working screenwriter for television and movies, Bassing’s last screenplay was in 1977.

Bassing called the Academy’s thinly disguised effort to oust older members like him cruel and threatened to sue for age discrimination. He told a television reporter: “Don’t throw the members under the bus, or put the old people out to pasture … The whole thing offends me.”

Everyone, regardless of race or gender, should be offended by the Academy’s completely unnecessary assault on the respect and dignity of its oldest members who built the Academy into the international powerhouse that exists today. Age discrimination is no more acceptable than race or sex discrimination and has the same devastating impact on its victims.

Diversity can be achieved without age discrimination, which is an easy and cheap refuge for lazy and unimaginative managers.

#OscarsSoYoung

academyA troubling aspect of age discrimination is that it is often perpetrated as a means to combat other forms of discrimination and a lack of “diversity.”

This is evident in the misguided policy adopted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to promote diversity in Oscar nominations by revoking the voting privileges of supposedly “inactive” Academy members. These “inactive” members are disproportionately older writers, directors and actors, many of whom were forced to retire years ago due to pervasive age discrimination in Hollywood.

Last year, African-American actor Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott of the Oscars because no black directors and actors (especially her husband, Will Smith) were nominated for the award.  The movement gained national momentum on Twitter with the hashtag OscarsSoWhite.

At the time, what was portrayed as a chronic lack of minority nominations was blamed on “old white men” in the Academy who supposedly dominate membership voting and fail to appreciate the work of talented black artists and movies.

Let’s concede for the sake of argument that the makeup of voting members is the reason for the lack of nominations for black actors and directors. What can the Academy do? The Academy could invite more  minority group members into the Academy and wait for the “old white men” to die off. That will happen inevitably and soon enough.  Instead, the Academy chose to invite 683 new mostly-minority group members into the Academy this year and to effectively boot out an indeterminate number of older mostly white male members.

A few months ago, Robert Bassing, a 91-year-old white male who has been a voting Academy member for five decades, received a letter from the Academy telling him that he may qualify for “emeritus status.” This means he will lose voting privileges. Once a working screenwriter for television and movies, Bassing’s last screenplay was in 1977.

Bassing has called the Academy’s thinly disguised effort to oust older members like him cruel and threatened to sue for age discrimination. He told a television reporter: “Don’t throw the members under the bus, or put the old people out to pasture … The whole thing offends me.”

Even Jada and Will may someday be old. How they will feel when they get their letter from the Academy?

The fact is that from the victim’s perspective the impact of age discrimination is no different than race or sex discrimination. It fosters a sense of deep betrayal and rage over the unfairness of being singled out for adverse treatment because of an innate characteristic over which one has no control. Moreover age discrimination, like race and sex discrimination, is perpetrated by the powerful over the powerless, like a hammer pounding a nail. 

Age discrimination cannot be justified as a means to increase diversity. It is immoral and wrong, just as race and sex discrimination are immoral and wrong. Age discrimination, like all discrimination, is based upon fear, false and harmful stereotypes and animus directed toward a discrete and often powerless group.

 Age discrimination is a short-cut for lazy and unimaginative leaders who don’t want to do the real work of creating a diverse organization.

What the Academy is doing is to older members like Bassing is a shocking act of betrayal. Bassing’s generation built the Academy into the international corporation that exists today. These members deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, even as the organization changes to meet the challenges of today’s diverse society.

I propose a new campaign, OscarsSoYoung, to demand that the Academy put an end to the purge of older members and its current policy of age discrimination.

Let’s use the hash tag, #OscarsSoYoung.

Let’s demand the Academy abide by its own “strict policy” prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, veteran status, sexual orientation or genetic information.