The Oscars’ In Memoriam bit will break your heart (one way or another)

There’s little suspense at the Oscars anymore, given the parade of precursor awards. We know that “Oppenheimer” is taking home best picture Sunday. We can confidently predict at least three out of four acting winners. We expect Jimmy Kimmel, the host, to be risqué in the safest way possible.

But there’s one thing we don’t know: which deceased filmmakers will be included in — or omitted from! — the In Memoriam segment, and who will be featured in the climactic final spot.

Over the past 30 years, the In Memoriam segment has become many things: a guessing game, a Hollywood history lesson, a heartfelt pause during a frenetic show, a chance for things to go painfully wrong, an opportunity for publicists and family members to lobby on behalf of the dead — and a reason for viewers to get really, really angry about something other than who wins or loses an Oscar.

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“It is a segment that elicits true emotion,” says Entertainment Weekly executive editor Patrick Gomez. “Some people, including myself, are sometimes moved to tears. So it does do that job. But then the second it’s over, it’s time to tear it apart. The traditional American media experience: Lift you up to tear you down.”

In the past, sportsbooks would take bets on who would be left out of the segment. In the heyday of Twitter (remember Twitter?), Oscar watchers would go nuts over esoteric omissions. There was an uproar just last month when Matthew Perry didn’t make the In Memoriam segment at the BAFTAs.

This year, Oscarologist Michael Schulman has a wild-card choice for the final spot: William Friedkin. Schulman has his reasons:

  1. Friedkin won an Oscar for directing a best-picture winner, “The French Connection” (1971).
  2. He was on the academy’s board of governors and produced the Oscar telecast in 1977.
  3. His widow is Sherry Lansing, a former chief executive of Paramount, who in 2007 was awarded a special Oscar for her humanitarian work.

“So I think he has the whole package,” says Schulman, who wrote “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears.”

The runner-up? Maybe singer-actor Harry Belafonte, who also received an Oscar for his humanitarian work.

“Or,” Schulman says, “maybe someone else will die” before the ceremony.

The segment became a regular part of the telecast in 1994, when it began with silent-film legend Lillian Gish and ended exactly two minutes later with “Moonstruck” actor Vincent Gardenia. The musical accompaniment was the score to “Terms of Endearment” — an either schmaltzy or sentimental choice, depending on your Blood Cynicism Level. It was a brief but nostalgia-stuffed montage featuring a wide range of Hollywood’s recently deceased.

Soon, nearly every awards show adopted the practice. And the Oscars’ segment got more crowded. Lately, the In Memoriam lasts around five minutes and features a live musician — James Taylor in 2010, for example, and Billie Eilish in 2020 — performing onstage.

Last year, Lenny Kravitz somberly sang “Calling All Angels” center stage as still photos — not motion pictures! — flashed placidly behind him. Perhaps this understated version was a reaction to the chaos of the year before, when the segment included a dancing choir (cooing their way through “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan), sudden eulogies (Bill Murray popping up in a beret to salute Ivan Reitman) and Jamie Lee Curtis holding a fidgety rescue puppy named Mac & Cheese (in honor of Betty White, an animal lover).

It’s a show within the show. Even people who love the segment find it easy to criticize.

Some take issue with the focus on the live musician. “Sometimes they’ll cut a wide shot, and you can’t read what’s on the screen. Please, academy, stop doing that,” Schulman says. “It’s become a little bit more of a mini-concert for some music star. … The point of it is not to see Billie Eilish playing the piano.” It’s “to appreciate the people who died.”

Each year, a primary griping point is the omissions. A brief list of those who died in 2022 and were left out of the segment in 2023: Anne Heche, Leslie Jordan, Charlbi Dean, Tom Sizemore, Paul Sorvino, Philip Baker Hall.

Instead, a QR code flashed on screen as the segment concluded, linking viewers to a fuller list of filmmakers who had died that year. “I don’t think it played very well,” says Gomez, the Entertainment Weekly editor. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We couldn’t include everyone.’ It’s another to say, ‘We included everyone, but you have to go to this separate place to find that information.’”

Sorvino’s widow, Dee Dee, said in a statement the following day: “Paul was not the only deserving soul left out, and a QR Code is not acceptable.”

In 2017, Australian producer Jan Chapman’s photo flashed on the screen, which was strange — because Chapman was not dead. Stranger still: The photo was accompanied by the name of costume designer Janet Patterson — who was indeed deceased, and happened to be a friend and collaborator of Chapman, who was “devastated” by the mix-up.

“Janet was a great beauty and four-time Oscar nominee and it is very disappointing that the error was not picked up,” Chapman told Variety at the time. “I am alive and well and an active producer.”

Bruce Davis always braced himself for a barrage of phone calls the day after the telecast from bereaved, aggrieved family members who often berated him through tears.

“What do you tell a daughter to make her feel better when she was so expecting her parent to be in the In Memoriam?” says Davis, the executive director of the academy from 1989 to 2011. “I’m never going to be able explain that to a family member who calls me tomorrow morning. And that’s who they would call: me!”

Adds Davis, “In all the years I was doing this, I don’t remember ever getting a call thanking the academy for including their parent or their uncle or whatever in the sequence.”

The academy declined to speak about how the segment is put together, citing respect for the recently deceased. How such a discussion would disrespect Piper Laurie (1932-2023) is anyone’s guess.

What we do know: A committee that includes a representative from each of the academy’s 18 branches chooses its own “nominees.” The committee gathers to discuss who should make the final cut. The segment can only be so long, which means not everyone is included.

And all the while, publicists and family members are lobbying academy members to get their loved one into the segment. It’s a “shadow Oscar campaign,” Schulman says.

Gomez has received calls from family members asking how get their dearly departed into the segment, despite the fact that Gomez is a magazine editor who has nothing to do with the process. Davis once received a call from an emotional stranger who said he was leaving Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where his father had just died. How could he submit his name to the In Memoriam segment?

“I had never heard his father’s name,” Davis says, “and I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable of who’s had a significant career in the industry.” So Davis looked him up. The man had three tiny nonspeaking roles in 1940s Westerns.

“I’m thinking: This poor guy is going to be watching the show, waiting for his father’s name, maybe even a picture of him,” Davis says. “He has no concept of how many people would qualify.”

The producer of the show is generally left out of the process of choosing names, “because they will understandably have a prejudice toward famous faces,” says Davis. “They want those bursts of applause both in house and at home. If you’re making tough decisions about your last five slots [on the list], they’re going to be inclined to pick actors rather than film editors.”

In 2022, the Academy sparked outrage for not including Bob Saget in the segment — which actually made sense. Saget may have been popular, but he was known for television and stand-up. Giving him a slot would mean taking one away from someone who worked on movies. Meanwhile, in 2020, basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who won an Oscar in 2018 for an animated short film, led the segment.

“It reflects a tension in the Academy Awards more generally, in that they’re both an industry event for all the branches of the academy and a TV event that has to appeal to a mass audience,” Schulman says. “You have to include a cinematographer who was very big in the field, but then you might also have to throw in Kobe Bryant because the viewing audience expects that.”

Eventually the list is finalized, and a segment producer begins knitting it together, deciding who goes where, trying to create a soothing flow that syncs with the music.

“You try to find an emotional structure, like you do in trailers,” says filmmaker Chuck Workman, who has worked on 22 Oscars, often producing the In Memoriam segment.

The night arrives. The segment airs. Some people get weepy. Some get angry.

Others just hit the bathroom.

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