Just before this year's Academy Awards, my colleague Kim Metzger penned a column of predictions for this publication. He did a
pretty good job, missing in only two of the categories where he ventured guesses — Best Song, and Best Supporting Actress.
For the latter, he predicted Lauren Bacall would win for The Mirror Has Two Faces. She didn't. But Kim shouldn't be
faulted since this one had all the pundits stumped. The morning of the Oscars, the prestigious Hollywood Reporter printed the prophecies
of ten leading film critics. They all, like Kim, guessed right for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actor. They
all, like Kim, missed out on Supporting Actress — eight predicting Lauren Bacall, and two forecasting a win for Barbara Hershey in Portrait
of a Lady. (The actual winner was Juliette Binoche for The English Patient.)
The critic for the Hollywood Reporter must have been shocked. He wrote, "There's one absolute lock tonight. and that's in
the Best Supporting Actress category. Indeed, Lauren Bacall may be up for a 1997 best performance award if she exhibits any convincing shock
when her name is called..."
Every other major category went precisely the way the ten major film writers — eleven, counting Kim — figured. But
not only were they all wrong about Supporting Actress, it was the one that many of them figured was, like the man wrote, an "absolute lock."
How did they go so wrong? Better you should ask how they went so right. Oscar Forecasting is one of the least scientific
sciences in the world today. No one really knows the identities of the voters whose preferences are being predicted, or which films they've
even seen or liked. (Box office returns aren't even a reliable indicator, since the Academy members get in gratis to screenings, and often
receive free video cassettes to view at home.)
And even if we did know which films they liked, we'd have no idea which ones they considered Oscar-caliber. Remember, we are not
talking about us deciding which films and performances we thought merited Oscars. We're looking to guess the voting preferences of a
band of vaguely-defined strangers.
In political elections, we usually (not always) have a pretty good idea who'll win because dozens of polls are conducted of the
electorate, and carefully calibrated according to past voting patterns. The Gallup people can tell you that female voters under 50 in a given
precinct usually vote 52.3% Democratic. But no one knows much about the past voting patterns of the Oscar voters. There are no exit
polls, no demographic breakdowns. We don't know if Tom Hanks was a runaway fave for Best Actor or if he won by one vote.
One thing can be said about the voters. They seem to favor the performance that took guts to undertake...the movie that didn't
look like a sure-fire commercial prospect. If a producer walks into a studio and says he has a commitment from Sylvester Stallone or Bruce
Willis to star in a big action flick — resplendent in sex, violence, and/or special effects — he'll probably get a deal on the
spot. His film may get a quick overseas sale and a flood of advance bookings. He may even make a ton of money —
— but he's not likely to see it win any Oscars, except maybe in the technical categories. No one there stretched the
definition of a good movie, nor did they take much of a career or financial risk. (Even then, there are exceptions: This year, Cuba Gooding,
Jr. in Jerry Maguire.) Generally, if it's the kind of movie that can spawn imitations, it ain't Oscar material.
But this guideline only narrows it down a little, and it's of scant help to determine which of five nominees gets to go up on stage and
thank everyone they've ever met. Most Oscar-predicting has to be done based on one impossible-to-quantify indicator, and that is "the
buzz." No one polls what folks in the industry are themselves predicting...but this year, those critics who guessed five out of six accurately
— and concurrently — gauged "the buzz."
(This makes Kim's score all the more impressive, since he did it from Wisconsin. I'm just guessing there aren't a whole lot of
Academy voters and screenings in Wisconsin.)
Each year, the Academy Awards ceremony runs around three and a half hours. Each year, they have TV Guide list it at "3
hrs." and, each year, it runs at least a half-hour over that. This comes as a surprise to no one but the extremely-gullible home viewer who's
taping it on a three-hour tape.
The folks who produce the show know how long it's going to run. They're professionals. They've routined the show and
limited the acceptance speeches and even figured out how long it's going to take all those ladies in all those expensive gowns to stroll to center
stage to present. (One year, to save time, they cut out all those long walks, and were deluged with complaints. A large segment of the
audience doesn't care who wins — they just want to see the clothes. That's why they got rid of podiums or they make them
And the network certainly knows how long the show is going to run and, what's more, they're delighted when it runs long. They've
sold all those hugely-expensive commercials for the latter segments. If the show finished under three hours, someone would lose an awful lot of
Still, every year, everyone acts surprised that the show runs so long...even the host who, late in the show, does the obligatory joke
about how they're about to start serving breakfast. Ha-ha.
I've never been to the Oscars. I have no desire whatsoever to endure all that, plus the traffic jam that surrounds the
event. I've been invited a few times, and once I could have been paid to be there. That's right: Paid. You see, the show is
so long, they employ people called Seat Fillers.
The job of a Seat Filler is to fill a seat. In the middle of the show, when they're presenting the statuette for the best
catering of prune danish on the set of a documentary shot in Guam on a Tuesday, the big stars are all out in the lobby, shmoozing and talking
deals. So that you don't see a lot of empty seats when the camera shoots the audience, especially in front where they place the biggies, a Seat
Filler is sent down to sit there and politely applaud.
The Seat Fillers are mostly outta-work actors and actresses and it's not a bad job. You get paid to see the Oscars —
usually from the best seats — and you get to go home and tell everyone how you sat next to Barbra or Arnold or Sly. The only real
requirement for the job is to have your own tuxedo.
Which I do. Many years ago, I was writing a variety show when our costume person came by my office and said, "I'm ordering some
expensive designer tuxedoes if you want one." They listed for $1000 but she was obtaining these for 75% off and would pass the savings on to
It's tough to pass up a bargain like that, even for something you never expect to use. Still I figured, when you wear a tuxedo,
that's as good as you're ever going to look. There's nowhere to go but down. On the other hand, if you don't wear a tuxedo, then
at least people can look at you and say, "Well, maybe if he had a tux..."
I told her thanks but no thanks. Then, a few years later, I had to attend a function where a tux was mandatory. Sure, I
could have rented one...but I was afraid that I'd get killed in a car accident, they'd bury me in the rental, and then the payments would wipe out my
So I called Madeline (that was her name) and asked if she could still get me a thousand-buck tux for $250.. She said yes, and I
gave her all my sizes.
It wasn't until the day before the affair that I was able to get by there and pick it up. It was a magnificent outfit —
jacket, pants, ruffled shirt, cummerbund, the works — but it needed taking in here, letting out there. Alas, Madeline was snowed under
with a show she was dressing, and her staff couldn't spare two seconds to do my cuffs. "What'll I do?" I asked her. "I need to wear this
"No problem," she said. She suggested I go to a local discount clothier — a store whose owner advertised relentlessly on
TV, hawking suits with the panache of a used car dealer. "They have a staff of tailors on the premises and they can alter it for you while you
wait. I send people there all the time."
I drove over there with the $1000 tux and the guy from the TV commercials himself waited on me. He had me don the tux, which he
marked with soap chalk. Then I changed back into my street clothes while his tailors did the fixes.
While I waited, he engaged me in conversation, trying to quietly broach the subject of the double-knit sport coats he had on
sale. "Nice tux," he said. "But you should have come here. We sell the same thing for $130."
"That's a designer tuxedo," I huffed. "It retails for a thousand dollars."
He nodded, walked over to his tuxedo rack, and pulled out a jacket and slacks. Mine was ready by then, so he laid the two of them
out, side by side. "Tell me the difference," he said.
I carefully inspected the two tuxedoes. "They look pretty much the same," I had to admit.
"Not pretty much the same," he said. "They are the same." He showed me the stitching and the way the lining was cut,
and other evidence. "These were made in the same plant by the same people, working with the same materials." He named a factory in Korea
that was the most likely source and added, "Your fancy designer company just sews their label inside and charges a thousand balloons. You know
what I pay for these? Forty-five dollars."
Gulp. I staggered home with my thousand-dollar tuxedo for which I paid $250 (plus $20 for alterations) and which I could have
bought for $130 from a guy who gets them for $45 each. Somehow, it didn't seem as magnificent as it had back at Madeline's.
The following year, a friend of mine was working on the Academy Awards and she called up and asked me if I had a tuxedo. I told
her I did. She then asked, "How would you like to be a Seat Filler at the Oscars?"
I thought it over for about a second but I told her no.
After all, you can't go to the Academy Awards in a $45 tuxedo now, can you?