[EM] NYTimes.com Article: French Twist: A Fair Way to Pick Oscars?
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French Twist: A Fair Way to Pick Oscars?
March 17, 2002
By RICK LYMAN
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 Paul Hager. "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
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
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."
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