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Academy Awards 2012: why Oscar winners are often head-scratchers

Academy Award winners aren't always the ones the viewing public expects – or wants. But the secretive Academy likes it that way. Don't forget, you're not in the Oscar club

An Oscar statue under a sheet of protective plastic stands on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre as preparations continue for the 84th Academy Awards in Los Angeles. The Oscars will be held on Sunday.

Amy Sancetta/AP

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Woody Allen, up for best screenplay Oscar Sunday night for “Midnight in Paris,” is famous for quoting Groucho Marx's quip: “I don't want to belong to any club that that will accept people like me as a member.” On Sunday night, however, the more likely quote will be: Who, exactly, are the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and why do they vote that way?

Every year, it seems, the Oscars offer at least one pick – and sometimes several – that confound the American filmgoing public. And every year, the fact that those who vote are kept secret confound those seeking a smidgen of accountability. 

But don't expect the Oscars to change. 

“People need to remember as they watch the Oscars that the winners may or may not reflect mainstream tastes, but rather reflect the likes of a very specific constituency – that of their colleagues,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

If you want to know what America likes, check out box-office figures, he and others say.

“This is only the Academy deciding what it wants to reward for excellence and we, the viewers are being allowed to watch in,” says Thompson.

Sometimes, Academy voters feel it’s important to spotlight films that did not do well at the box office, but which they feel are excellent. “Hurt Locker,” which won Best Picture in 2010, is an example. Its box office was only $17 million, compared with $750 million for Avatar, which was also nominated.


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