Oscars In Memoriam: A Look at the Segment’s History of ‘Glory and Grief’ in Its 30th Year

The telecast’s emotional high point is “also guaranteed to infuriate part of the audience,” former Academy executive director Bruce Davis tells TheWrap

Oscars' In Memoriam montage in 2023 (Getty Images)
Oscars' In Memoriam montage in 2023 (Getty Images)

Happy birthday to you, In Memoriam. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the emotional and beloved – but often derided – Oscar segment that celebrates movie industry names who have left us since the last telecast. The montage is so popular that, since 1994, it has been adopted by practically every other awards show in the business.

At those 66th Academy Awards, on March 21, 1994, “Schindler’s List” won Best Picture. The two-minute In Memoriam montage was set to the music of “Terms of Endearment” and presented by Glenn Close, who had been onstage earlier that evening to give an Honorary Oscar to Deborah Kerr. The segment was placed late in the run of show, right before Tom Hanks won Best Actor for “Philadelphia.”

Among the 30 faces featured that year were John Candy, Audrey Hepburn, Federico Fellini, Lillian Gish and River Phoenix. While predominately loaded with actors and directors, the montage also deliberately cited lesser-known artists, such as production designer Ted Haworth (“Some Like it Hot”), in order to provide industry balance. See the segment at the 2:13:00 mark below.

“We would start by picking a number of total names,” former Academy executive director Bruce Davis explained to TheWrap. He served in the position for 20 years until his retirement in 2011. In 2022, he published the Oscar history book, “The Academy and the Award: The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Davis described the input of Academy librarians, executives, producers and several Board of Governors members that would convene to whittle down the obituary list.

“The fact is that we only had room in the segment for a certain amount of people,” Davis said. “Even with 5 or 10 seconds per person, it’s difficult to get 20 or 30 people in the montage. We knew that it couldn’t just include the famous actors who died, but we were aware that the audience in the theater would respond to the great names, the great faces that they remember. And they would applaud, even though we’d asked people not to.”

The montage has since evolved into a high point of the Oscars telecast, often introduced by a regal member of the Hollywood community – Close, George Clooney, Annette Bening and John Travolta have each done so twice – and accompanied by a famous musician performing live. Last year, that was Lenny Kravitz.

The impact of the segment was understood by Davis from the beginning. “We took it very seriously as a really important aspect of the show,” he said. Even though, Davis admitted ruefully, “The segment is also guaranteed to infuriate part of the audience.”

Inevitably, the In Memoriam montage is criticized for the deceased people snubbed from the list – a response that occurred from that first time in 1994 and every year since. Last year’s outcasts, for example, included Paul Sorvino, Anne Heche, Tom Sizemore and two-time nominee Melinda Dillon.

The next-day wave of indignation has been amplified by the Internet. But even back in 1994, Davis remembered lengthy and difficult phone conversations with upset family members and friends whose loved ones had been left out.

“Those were tough,” he said. “When people would call, the operator would send them to my office and I would decide whether I had the stomach for this conversation again today. I understood why they were angry. And for some of the names we cut, we could foresee the problems that would come.”

Davis added, “I’ve had some really mean calls from people that thought I’d done this all by myself. They wanted to blame somebody. So I had to try to calm them down during the call, and that sometimes took a half hour to an hour. Of course, they didn’t want to hear me explain how many well-known people die in the course of a year and how impossible it would be to put together a tribute to all of those 650 people. I tried to be as gracious as I could.”

In a few cases, Davis also wrote condolence letters to aggrieved families. “There was the obvious issue of how much time we had on the telecast,” he said, “but sometimes we just missed a name, every once in a while.”

Still, Davis remained light-hearted as he recalled his experience. He mentioned that he offered the In Memoriam point-person job to every Academy president who served during his 20-year tenure. “I’d say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t you like to do this?’ And they’d tell me, ‘Hmm, I think we’ll let you handle that.’”

In order to stem the bad vibes, several options were discussed over the years, including the elimination of the segment altogether, or restricting the montage to include only Academy members or past Oscar nominees.

“Just including nominees has been suggested and that would have a kind of a rationality and give an answer to the people who are agonizing about the absences in the sequence,” Davis said. “But then you realize that there are a lot of awfully talented and magnificent people who never got an Oscar nomination. And you start thinking, ‘Boy, there’s no way to win this.’”

Among the film industry professionals who died in the last year, the ones never nominated for an Oscar include Harry Belafonte, Chita Rivera, Michael Gambon, Andre Braugher, Paul Reubens, Carl Weathers, Frances Sternhagen, Richard Roundtree, Treat Williams and Tina Turner. Those are only examples from the actors’ branch and we are likely missing a lot of names, as would be expected. “You may get a few phone calls,” Davis said with a laugh.

“There’s always moaning about the segment and for several years we wondered, ‘Is it more trouble that it’s worth? Are we obligated to do this, if it gives us more grief than glory?’” Davis questioned. “But the answer is yes. It’s very emotional, the audience loves it while it’s happening, and most importantly, it maintains a respect for the history of the art form, which is a huge part of what an arts Academy should be all about.”

Davis was a regular attendee at the Oscars for decades, and while he received an invitation this year, he’s planning to enjoy the show – and the In Memoriam segment – at home with his wife. “On the couch with a cold beverage of some kind and some good food,” he noted.

But ever a loyal Academy soldier, Davis refrained from choosing a top film from among 2023’s movies. “I would feel off base naming my favorites, but I’ll tell you after the show,” he said, though added with a knowing laugh, “not that anybody is going to change his vote based on what I’m liking.”

Comments

One response to “Oscars In Memoriam: A Look at the Segment’s History of ‘Glory and Grief’ in Its 30th Year”

  1. Evelyn Mahre Avatar

    I thought the Inmemoriam section was a three ring circus.  It was difficult to listen to two singers, the ballerinas running around and read the and see who was being honored.

    A simple reading of the names and the pictures of the deceased would have been much classier and more effective.  Please consider the many learning styles of your viewers and consider that simpler may be better.

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