The politics behind the Oscar’s ‘In Memoriam’ montage

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesFor almost twenty years, the “In Memoriam” montage has been a fixture of the Oscar ceremony, paying tribute to movie industry personages from both sides of the camera who've passed away since in the past year. While generally the list of people memorialized is who you'd expect, some years there are some confusing omissions, such as Eartha Kitt in the 2009 ceremony. It turns out that—shockingly—industry politics plays a role in the selection process.

One such instance was, as publicist Sheldon Roskin told the New York Times, the Academy not returning his phone calls lobbying for the inclusion of popular colleague Tommy Culla, who passed away this December. Culla had, over the course of his career, worked for iconic names such as Tony Curtis, Roman Polanski, John Boorman, and former Academy president Sidney Ganis. Culla being an unfamiliar name to all except a handful of industry insiders, Roskin figured lobbying was necessary.

The “In Memoriam” segment is, in the words of former Academy president Tom Sherak, “the hardest one to do.” The membership of the committee that determines who will appear and in what order is kept strictly secret from the public. With this secrecy, and the vagueness of the selection criteria, inclusion often comes down to who one knew. The late Lois Smith, for example, a publicist like Culla, is considered to have a greater chance of appearing in the montage, because of her wider name recognition among those making the selection process.

There are times, though, when the choice of one person over another makes less apparent sense. In the case of Eartha Kitt, her exclusion at the expense of, for one example, the actress who played Vampira in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” caused a bit of controversy, inspiring Kitt's publicist to accuse the Academy of “living under a rock for the past 60 years.”

Friends and family of other notable “In Memoriam” omissions over the years—such as Harry Morgan, Corey Haim, Farrah Fawcett, Bea Arthur, and Peter Graves—have frequently cried foul. Certainly no one expects relatives and other close intimates to be objective, but in each case a great many fans joined in the outcry, wondering why a character actor such as Morgan, with decades of credits to his name, would be left off in favor of someone known only for organizing test screenings of films.

There may never be satisfactory answers to these questions, as this particular situation falls between the reality that there are only so many spots in the montage in a given year, and that people grieving those so recently departed are still especially upset. While campaigning for a spot in the “In Memoriam” montage may seem crass, it is also a way of ensuring that someone whose contributions to the movies were quiet will have at least momentary acknowledgment for them.