French Twist: A Fair Way to Pick Oscars?

By RICK LYMAN, New York Times 17 March 2002

STEVEN J. BRAMS, a professor of politics at New York University, thinks he knows who should choose the winners of the 74th Annual Academy Awards on March 24: the Marquis de Condorcet, an 18th-century social theorist who came up with an idea called approval voting before dying in prison during the French Revolution.

"Approval voting is a system in which you can vote for as many candidates as you like, as long as there are more than two candidates on the ballot," said Professor Brams, who wrote a 1983 book on the theory with P.C.Fishburn. "I would claim that with approval voting, you could have your cake and eat it, too."

Based largely on social choice theory, which concerns itself with how best to translate a large number of individual preferences into the fairest and most representative preference for an entire society, and to a lesser degree on game theory, which involves mathematical and economic strategy models, approval voting is custom-made for the Oscars, Professor Brams insists.

Just look at the 1976 best picture race, he said. The five nominees were "All the President's Men," "Bound for Glory," "Network," "Taxi Driver" and "Rocky," the eventual winner. "I cannot believe that 'Rocky' would have won a head-to-head contest with "Taxi Driver,' " he said, a little testily.

With approval voting, he said, such an injustice would not have occurred. "In a system where you are forced to pick one of five candidates, it is possible for the winning film to have gotten only 21 percent of the vote," he said. "It is not necessarily the film that would have won a head-to-head race with all of the other nominees."

Under approval voting, if there is one film that an academy voter loves above all others, he can vote for it. If there are two or three he'd feel fine with, he can vote for two or three. If, instead, he is driven mostly by disdain for one of the films -- say, "Rocky," -- he can vote for all four of the other nominees.

"Condorcet came up with the idea that if there is a candidate in a multicandidate race who would beat each of the other candidates in a head-to-head race, that person is the proper winner," Professor Brams said.

Proposals are regularly floated to improve the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences conducts the Oscars. Every now and then, such ideas even result in reforms, like the addition this year of a new category for best animated feature film. More often, though, the proposals drift away, victims of longstanding habit and the entrenched interests of those who have made the Academy Awards into what they are.

Among the ideas that have made the rounds in recent years:

* Since it's clear dramatic films have had a better shot at winning top awards than comedies, there has been some support for separating the best picture award into two categories, as the Golden Globes do. The argument against this is that it would simply ghettoize comedies and reinforce the notion that they're less worthy than dramas.

* Others wonder why the Oscars differentiate between actors and actresses. There is no best woman director award, so why is there a best actress award? Perhaps it would be better, some say, to split the acting honors into a best dramatic performance and a best comedic performance. The argument against is that since most Hollywood films are dominated by male actors and written with male actors in mind, the result would be few women winners.

* Some academy members, including a few on its board of governors, are said to favor moving the awards to earlier in the year. The idea is to cut back on some of the unseemly campaigning of recent years and perhaps winnow out some of the plethora of awards shows that have popped up in the weeks between New Year's Day and the Oscars. The argument against is that Oscar voters need to be given enough time to see all the important films, many of which are not released until late December, and the studios love a system that gives them six weeks to advertise their films as Oscar nominees.

* Because studios are essentially allowed to decide whether a given performance is put up for best actor or best supporting actor, roles that are essentially lead ones often go up against true supporting roles, making the contests uneven. This problem could be eliminated, some feel, by a stricter definition of supporting roles. The argument against is that such a change would be impossible and that the will of the voters should prevail.

Is it a mere coincidence that the notion of applying approval voting to the Oscars surfaced in the same year that one of the front-running films, "A Beautiful Mind," is about a schizophrenic Nobel laureate who specialized in game theory?

Yes, Professor Brams said. But speaking of John Nash, the Princeton mathematician with the beautiful mind, Professor Brams said he had discussed Condorcet with him over the years. "I spoke to Nash about approval voting," he said, "and I think he's favorably disposed."

Return to main page