Snubs, omissions, and a secret publicity race: The thorny diplomacy of the Oscars in memoriam segment

The in memoriam tribute serves a worthy cause, but the scrutiny is real, and errors don’t go unnoticed. Clémence Michallon takes a closer look at a segment that tends to make headlines for the wrong reasons

Wednesday 21 April 2021 06:32
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Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell perform during the memoriam tribute at the Oscars on 9 February 2020 in Los Angeles, California
Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell perform during the memoriam tribute at the Oscars on 9 February 2020 in Los Angeles, California

The in memoriam tribute is not only the most melancholy part of any Oscars ceremony – it is by far the thorniest to produce. The segment, instituted in 2014, serves a noble cause: to honour members of the film industry who have died in the year preceding the event, serving as a reminder of their contributions to the arts. But when the in memoriam sequence makes headlines, it tends to be for all the wrong reasons.

Historically, the outrage has stemmed from the omission of a beloved industry figure (as was the case in 2020 with actor Luke Perry). There have been other hiccups along the way: in 2017 (the year of the infamous gaffe in which La La Land was wrongly announced as Best Picture instead of Moonlight), the segment included the wrong photo for costume designer Janet Patterson, showing an image of a living producer instead.

The stakes are high, the scrutiny real, and errors won’t go unnoticed. There is a real cause for hand-wringing, and even industry veterans aren’t immune to the agony that goes into making the final selection. “It is a beloved segment, but I would much prefer we didn’t do it,” Bruce Davis, the Academy’s former executive director, once told The Wrap’s Steve Pond. The exercise, Davis added, inevitably entails cutting out people with “substantial careers”, which left him “[feeling] like s*** for days afterwards”.

The ways of the in memoriam segment are, to a degree, impenetrable. According to some industry figures, the sequence is the subject of its own, lesser-known publicity race – or, as a 2013 New York Times headline phrased it: “Even for the Dead, There’s a Race to Make the A-List at Oscars.”

But let’s start at the beginning. As the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences explained in a statement to Deadline last year, the organisation receives “hundreds of requests” from people seeking to make sure their “loved ones and industry colleagues” are featured in the segment. An executive committee representing “every branch” of the Academy “makes selections for the telecast based on limited available time”. A longer version of the list is published on the Academy’s website as a way to get around timing restrictions during the broadcast, but that has clearly not quenched requests for inclusion in the actual broadcast.

“The truth is, campaigning is a huge part of every inch of the Oscars, and that includes being included in the in memoriam segment,” says Kate Erbland, a deputy editor of film at IndieWire with five backstage turns at the Oscars. “Campaigning and drumming up publicity is always part and parcel of the awards season, even when it comes to something as sensitive as the in memoriam segment.”

Back in 2013, longtime publicist Sheldon Roskin told The New York Times of his efforts to have Tommy Culla, a fellow publicist and agent, included in the segment. “Unfortunately, my calls to the Academy were not returned,” Roskin said at the time. Tom Sherak, the Academy’s former president, admitted to the publication that “of all the committees, [the one in charge of the in memoriam segment is] the hardest one to do”.

Being well-connected is only one part of the equation, and may in some instances do little to help.  Campaigning the show’s producers, Erbland notes, doesn’t work, since “they’re not at all involved with the creation of the segment”. Being a member of the Academy isn’t a prerequisite for inclusion in the sequence – nor is it a guarantee. “Talents who might be better known for their work in other arenas, like music or on stage, will likely be left off the Oscar segment,” Erbland adds, “as the committee expects they will be honoured elsewhere, like at the Tonys or the Grammys.”

Finneas O’Connell and Billie Eilish perform during the in memoriam tribute at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards on 9 February 2020

While those parameters help explain some omissions, anyone who has kept a close eye on the ceremony over the years will remember several especially egregious misses. Erbland, for example, recounts 2019 as being “particularly weird”: “The in memoriam listing didn’t include such major film names as Carol Channing and Sondra Locke (both Oscar nominees!) and iconic director Stanley Donen. That was a very strange year indeed.”

This year’s in memoriam list is available on the Academy’s website, featuring names such as Chadwick Boseman, Ennio Morricone, and Cicely Tyson. While a convenient idea in theory, it hasn’t completely succeeded in its intended goal as a supplement to the live broadcast. “I do think they need to somehow publicise it more, as I don’t think that the majority of even the most fervent Oscar watchers are aware it exists,” Erbland says.

But the list isn’t the only problem left to solve as far as the in memoriam tribute is concerned – and perhaps not the most pressing. “I think a bigger problem when it comes to inclusion is the show’s continued inability to pivot if a major talent dies in the days leading up to the show,” Erbland adds. “The segment is typically locked weeks before the Oscars air, which leaves a tremendous amount of time for big stars to pass away and thus not be included in the segment. Please don’t tell me that film professionals can’t manage a quick edit in a short period of time. What kind of movie magic is that?”

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