LOS ANGELES » On Oscar night everyone is dying — sometimes literally — to win something.
Since March 21, 1994, when the first regular obituary segment was dropped into an Academy Awards show, a spot on the yearly scroll of recently deceased movie luminaries has become one of the evening’s most hotly contested honors. And as in most Oscar races it is the focus of sometimes ferocious campaigning.
This time around it is a safe bet that Ernest Borgnine, Charles Durning, Nora Ephron, Tony Scott, Richard Zanuck and Marvin Hamlisch will get their few seconds in a roughly three-minute remembrance.
Beloved figures all. But who fills the next 30 or so spots in the memorial for this year’s show, which takes place on Feb. 24 at the Dolby Theater, is open to debate. And that debate is under way at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where a committee of members whose names are discreetly concealed from other members and the public are measuring celebrity, weighing achievement and trying to ward off entreaties from those who believe a loved one, friend or former client should have a last moment in the limelight.
"Unfortunately, my calls to the Academy were not returned," Sheldon Roskin, a longtime publicist, said in an email this week, of his efforts to seek the inclusion of Tommy Culla, a public relations colleague unknown to moviegoers.
"Of all the committees, it’s the hardest one to do," said Tom Sherak, whose three years as president of the Academy ended last year.
"The committee’s names are never mentioned, ever," Sherak added.
He and others spoke this week of a process that in the last few years has shifted responsibility for the obituary roll call from a narrow group that once mainly included the Oscar show producer and both the president and the executive director of the Academy to a slightly broader group of insiders who now share the task of choosing a few dozen peers from this year’s especially large group of about 500 candidates for a final Hollywood farewell.
It is not a pretty business.
Roskin has so far hit a wall in his efforts on behalf of Culla, who had turned his gift for Damon Runyon-esque banter into a calling card with friends and sometime employers like Tony Curtis, Roman Polanski, John Boorman and another former Academy president, Sidney Ganis.
But things might go better for Lois Smith, a publicist who died last year. With clients as prominent as Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and some well-placed support within the Academy, Smith is perhaps poised to join Warren Cowan (who was remembered in 2009) and Ronni Chasen (who made the list in 2011, shortly after her gunshot murder) as one of a small number of publicity executives ever to make the cut.
While the committee’s anonymity is supposed to curtail aggressive campaigning, "there’s no shortage of input from out there in the community," said Ric Robertson, the Academy’s chief operating officer. The Academy, he pointed out, has tried to expand the memorial by posting a much longer — if currently somewhat hard to find — obituary list, on its website Oscars.com.
Those remembered on the show itself do not have to be Academy members, Robertson said. But institutional service can help. Frank Pierson, a screenwriter and former Academy president who died in July, for instance, appears to have a strong case for inclusion this year.
Mostly, though, the winnowing process combines measured judgments about accomplishment — who has broken ground? won awards? impressed the public? — with a determination to spread the honors across various moviemaking crafts, and some gut calls about who ought to be remembered.
Which has led to some maddeningly unpredictable honors and snubs.
In 2009, for instance, Maila Nurmi, a film-business also-ran, credited as Vampira in Ed Wood’s megaflop "Plan 9 From Outer Space," was included. But Eartha Kitt, with a long history of soundtrack and acting performances, was not. ("The producers are either 12 or have been living under a rock for the last 60 years," Kitt’s former publicist, Andrew Freeman, subsequently told The New York Post.)
Last year Harry Morgan, whose roughly 100 feature film credits included "High Noon" and "The Ox-Bow Incident," found no place in the Oscar-night memorial; yet Joseph Farrell, an inside player who was known mostly for conducting audience tests of films, was in.
"I cannot imagine why it left my dad out of its tribute segment," Morgan’s son Charley said of the Academy in an email this week. "It would never have occurred to me to check with or otherwise lobby the Academy to be sure that he was mentioned."
Robertson said Harry Morgan was skipped because he had become more known for television shows like "Dragnet" and "M*A*S*H" than for movies. "It’s a subjective process," he added.
According to Libby Wertin, a researcher with the Academy, an early prototype for the obituary sequence was part of the 50th ceremony in 1978. That year, Sammy Davis Jr. sang a Hamlisch song, "Come Light the Candles," over a memorial montage.
But Gilbert Cates, who produced 14 Oscar telecasts before his death in 2011 (and inclusion in the 2012 memorial) first introduced the remembrance as a regular feature on the 66th Oscar show, in 1994. Chuck Workman, who edited or supervised a number of the memorial sequences over the years, said in an interview this week that he believed Cates was trying to get more film clips into a ceremony that often played like a variety show.
Of the 30 film workers included that first year, 23— fully 77 percent — were actors. And it was an all-star cast, featuring Lillian Gish, Myrna Loy, Joseph Cotten, Helen Hayes, Ruby Keeler, Don Ameche, Vincent Price and Audrey Hepburn.
The shortest roster appeared in 1998, when Cates, again the producer, included just 23 on a list that remembered Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Red Skelton and Chris Farley. The longest sequence, in 2008, had 43 honorees.
Typically the memorial montage has been screened over a sentimental song, like "Smile," performed by Celine Dion in 2011. Virtually always the sequence ends with a big name: Billy Wilder, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor. One ironclad rule, according to Bruce Cohen, who produced the 2011 show, is that it must come just before a commercial break.
"You never want to have anything come after it," Cohen said of a sequence that momentarily breaks the building tension on awards night.
In the last decade, Robertson and others noted, the shift toward a more inclusive approach, recognizing contributions from makeup people and others not in the spotlight, led to longer lists.
But the commemoration of lesser-known figures has led to some omissions over the years — Corey Haim, Farrah Fawcett, Bea Arthur, Peter Graves — that feel less like benign neglect than an unforgettable slight.
"It is hard to imagine," said Morgan in writing of his father, Harry, "that his absence from the tribute was due to simple oversight."