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Friday, 2 April, 1999, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Those who decide Britain's Oscar fortunes
By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

The fate of Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench on Oscar night, as well as this year's other Academy Award nominees, will rest upon the votes of people like Mark Roberts and Tom Sito.

Oscars '99
There is every reason to believe that these two men will look kindly upon the work of many of the British nominees.

Roberts and Sito are just two of the 5500 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who have until 16 March to mark up their ballots which determine the recipients of the film world's most prestigious statuette.

Exhalted institution

hollywood sign
Academy does not publish membership details
The Academy has become such an exalted institution that it is frequently spoken of in overly reverential terms. But many of its members, like Mark Roberts and Tom Sito, seem quite down to earth and normal.

However, those seeking to enter this illustrious body must have an outstanding list of film credits, better still an Academy Award nomination, and they have to be sponsored by two other members.

Mark Roberts, 77, has been a member of the Academy's actor's branch for almost 40 years.

He has made some 50 films, including appearing with Rita Hayworth in the 1946 classic Gilda, when he was under contract to Columbia and working under a different name.

As an Academy member he says he strives for "extreme diligence", trying to see as many nominated films as he can before he casts his vote.

Dame Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench: Up for an Oscar
The Academy does not publish details of its members, but it is no secret that demographically it skews old, as opposed to young, hip and trendy.

Mark Roberts, in certain key respects, is typical of the older membership.

He is thoughtful, seems to have a strong humanitarian streak, and respects fine acting and creative film-making.

Tom Sito, a 42-year-old Hollywood animation director who worked on the recent Dreamworks pictures Antz and The Prince of Egypt, is more representative of the Academy's younger membership.

Sito became an Academy member in 1990, after working on The Little Mermaid and other animated features.

He too, takes his Academy responsibilities quite seriously and says he has been to about 40 screenings in the last two months.

He admits there is a "drudge factor" to the work, but he is enthusiastic about this year's crop of films. He says the quality is really exciting, and he is pleased that there are several quirky films like Shakespeare in Love.

Cultural affinity with Britain

Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love: Leading British hopes
Both Tom Sito and Mark Roberts deny any Anglophile bias in the Academy's voting practices, but their attitudes help explain why British film talent consistently does so well at the Oscars.

Roberts says: "I honestly believe it is the quality of the work", but adds that he has a special feeling about England, and that when he first went there in the 1950s he had a sense of "deja vu and felt I was coming home".

This cultural affinity with Britain is fairly widespread among older Academy members.

But Sito also says when it comes to British films "we lap 'em up and adore them ... what really comes over here is the finest in British cinema".

Anti-Spielberg backlash

Older Academy members respect Saving Private Ryan.

They like the film-making, and that it deals with the sacrifices made during World War Two, which many of them experienced firsthand.

Mark Roberts is really impressed and says Spielberg "outdid himself with an important picture that had action and message."

Saving Private Ryan
Older members favour Saving Private Ryan
Tom Sito believes Saving Private Ryan has universal factors that everyone likes, but says there could be an "anti-Spielberg" backlash from Academy members who feel the "kid is getting too much."

Both Tom Sito and Mark Roberts seem to have a special fondness for Shakespeare in Love.

Sito told me he likes the "psychology of the humour," and Roberts is clearly impressed by "the imagination, the delicacy and creative genius" that went into the film.

He likes the "wonderful inside jokes" about show business in Shakespeare in Love, which he thinks "resonates with Academy members".

This strong personal identification many in the Academy have with the characters and conflicts in Shakespeare in Love may have a powerful impact on their voting.

Personally, I think Spielberg will walk away with the best director trophy and probably win best picture too.

But Mark Roberts, who is enthusiastic about all the five best picture nominees, seemed to be hinting at an upset.

He said this year voting for best picture was a "tough choice, I think we might be surprised. Remember when Chariots of Fire came from left field?"

He was of course referring to the Oscars ceremony on the night of 29 March 1982, when the David Puttnam's British film Chariots of Fire took Hollywood by storm, winning best picture and prompting its screenwriter Colin Welland to take to the podium and shout "The British are coming!"

Tom Brook writes this regular entertainment column exclusively for BBC News Online.

A well-known BBC entertainment correspondent, Tom has lived in New York and travelled extensively in the US for the past 20 years.

He has reported on cinema throughout his broadcasting career - interviewing most of the top Hollywood stars and directors and attending nearly all the Oscar ceremonies in the past 15 years while keeping up with new trends in mainstream and independent cinema.

See also:

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