Will the Oscars ‘In Memoriam’ Be the Biggest, Saddest Ever?

Probably not – here are four reasons why not

When it comes to celebrity deaths, everybody knows that 2016 has been brutal. It started with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then claimed Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Prince, Garry Shandling and Anton Yelchin. The last two months of the year took Leonard Cohen, George Michael and Carrie Fisher — as well as her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died the next day.

The spate of high-profile deaths has led to lots of 2016 bashing on Twitter, and it’s also raised a question: Will the “In Memoriam” sequences on next February’s Grammy and Oscar shows be the biggest and most wrenching ones ever?

TheWrap put that question to Recording Academy President Neil Portnow earlier this month. He said that he expected that the 2016 deaths wouldn’t have as much impact on the upcoming show as they had on last February’s Grammys, which came only weeks after the deaths of musical luminaries like Bowie, Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole and Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister.

“This year’s deaths have been more spread out,” he said. “So I don’t think they’ll dominate the show the way those deaths that happened right before the last show did.”

The Oscars ceremony, which always includes the most watched, discussed and often criticized memoriam sequence of any awards show, will no doubt feature a large number of iconic figures. But in truth, it’s not likely to look much bigger or be much sadder than a usual Oscar memoriam. Here’s why:

1. Fewer Academy members have actually died this year than in most other recent years.
Yes, 2016 seems to be the worst year ever for celebrity deaths – but if you go by the Memoriam page of the Academy’s website, it’s actually a less deadly year than usual. As of December 28, there were 60 names on the page, which lists Academy members who have died since the beginning of the year.

That’s the fewest deaths listed at this point in recent years. Last year, 77 members were listed at the end of the year; the year before it was 86, and in 2013 it was 73.

The list, which doesn’t contain the names of non-Academy members who died, includes actors Patty Duke, Pat Harrington, Ken Howard, George Kennedy, Rickman, William Schallert and Abe Vigoda; directors Hector Babenco, Michael Cimino, Guy Hamilton and Arthur Hiller; writers Stanley Mann and Peter Shaffer; and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

It’s a lot of loss — but again, there are fewer deaths than in recent years.

2. Several of the biggest stars were included in last year’s In Memoriam.
The Oscars memoriam doesn’t cover the calendar year, but the 12 months beginning in early February, when the previous year’s clip package was locked.

That means that notables who died in January 2016 were already included in the Oscars memoriam clip last year. Bowie was part of that sequence, as were Rickman and Zsigmond.

3. Many of those who died in 2016 may not have enough of a film presence to be included.
The biggest debate surrounding the Oscars memoriam every year is the inevitable omissions. There are inevitably arguments that people like Farrah Fawcett, Joan Rivers and George Carlin did their most notable work in arenas other than film.

You could say the same thing about many of this year’s most notable deaths. Leonard Cohen, for example, has had a far greater presence in music than in film, even though he’s been the subject of documentaries like “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” and Robert Altman made extensive use of his songs in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” And his song “Hallelujah” has been featured in more than a dozen films.

Cohen is a likely inclusion, but he’s probably not a slam dunk. (One easy fix that might be too obvious: Set the In Memoriam film package to a live or pre-recorded version of “Hallelujah.”)

Muhammad Ali’s fame transcended sports, and a documentary about one of his fights, “When We Were Kings,” won the Oscar in 1997. (His appearance on that show was a highlight of the night.) That’s probably enough of a reason to include him — though his fellow sports icon, Arnold Palmer, doesn’t have as much of a film connection and is likely to be omitted.

Prince was mostly a pop star, but he made a couple of movies and won an Oscar for the song score to “Purple Rain.” He’s definitely in.

George Michael had far less of a screen presence, particularly if you don’t count the brilliant use of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in “Zoolander.” That makes him a longshot.

Garry Shandling and Florence Henderson are known far more for their television work than their film appearances; there will be an outcry if one or both are omitted, but the Academy can certainly make the case that they are more rightly saluted on the Emmys.

And there are plenty of others who fall into a gray area. In general, 2016 was a tougher year for losses in the music world than the film world, which means that at least a few big names will probably be left out.

4. There’s a limit on how many people can be included, and that limit always results in lots of worthy honorees being cut.
While the producers of the Oscar show — this year, Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd — hire a filmmaker to put together the In Memoriam package, the list of names is supplied by the Academy. And that list always involves agonizing decisions, even though in recent years the number of people saluted in the package has risen from 25 to 30 into the high 40s.

“It’s awful, just awful,” former Academy executive director Bruce Davis once told me. “When you sit down to do the list, the last 15 or 20 cuts you make are people with substantial careers. You just feel like s— for days afterwards. And there is nothing you can say to somebody’s wife or daughter about why they didn’t make it into the sequence.”

So the constraints of live TV — and of a show that inevitably runs long — will mean that the In Memoriam sequence can’t truly be super-sized. And while it’ll be emotional when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Gene Wilder and Prince appear on the screen, the overwhelming sense of loss that many of us feel as 2016 ends may not be as acute once we get to February’s awards shows.