Why People Care So Much About ‘In Memoriam’ at the Oscars


For all of their sweep and scale, the movies can be a curiously intimate art form. Like members of our extended family, movie stars with long careers dip into and out of our consciousness over the course of decades. We watch them grow old. Audiences who discovered, say,

Jimmy Stewart

early in his stardom were able to see, in real time, his evolution from a stammering, rangy youth to a shambling eminence as familiar as a grandparent. Each new movie represented another page in the scrapbook.

When such stars finally leave us, the news can cut to the quick. From

Rudolph Valentino

to

Natalie Wood

to Chadwick Boseman, movie history is replete with untimely deaths that leave fans devastated. But even the less shocking departures—such as Mr. Stewart’s at the age of 89—can have an impact, reminding us of our own ticking clocks. We age along with our stars, and if death can rob us of them, it is sure to come calling for us, too.

An enduring expression of this bond with the movies and their stars is an integral part of what is often considered a superficial annual tradition—the Academy Awards. After a one-time appearance in 1978, each Oscar broadcast since 1994 has included an “In Memoriam” segment: a sometimes syrupy, often elegant and always earnest montage of film clips and stills assembled in homage to the movie greats who died during the previous year.

The segment has become one of the most beloved, and debated, parts of the program. “There were some people who said they cried when they looked at some of the images,” said

Michael J. Shapiro,

81, who helped develop the segment and edited it for many years. “I love that I was able to touch somebody with images of people that we grew up with in darkened theaters.”


‘In many cases you’re seeing a piece of your life go by.’


— Film critic Leonard Maltin.

On Sunday night, the first coronavirus-era Academy Awards will air live on ABC. Due to the pandemic, there will be a new main venue (Union Station in Los Angeles), and the exact status of red-carpet arrivals, song-and-dance numbers and other Oscar staples is unclear. Producers have said that some traditional elements will be omitted—but not “In Memoriam.”

“It’s a segment of the show that, although started later than people probably think in terms of the lengthy history of the awards, is one that I imagine the audiences will expect to see for all eternity,”

David Rubin,

the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, told me.

In its seriousness and sentiment, the “In Memoriam” segment stands apart from the trivialities that can often define Oscar evenings. For a few minutes, concerns over which star is wearing which dress, or which producer will win which prize, are swept aside. Instead, audiences at home are given a chance to take stock of what, and who, drew them to the movies in the first place.

The segment normally devotes just a few seconds to each honoree, reflecting a Proustian notion that those brief, flickering images—

Audrey Hepburn

standing in the rain in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or

Madeline Kahn

turning to the camera in “Paper Moon”—are enough to trigger cinematic sense memories in the audience.

“In many cases you’re seeing a piece of your life go by,” said film critic

Leonard Maltin.

“You see a shot of

Sean Connery,

and you breathe a heavy sigh and remember maybe the first time you saw him as James Bond.” Mr. Connery died in October and, along with Mr. Boseman,

Olivia de Havilland,

Christopher Plummer

and

Cicely Tyson,

is sure to be featured this year.

The idea of making “In Memoriam” an Oscars fixture was initially met with skepticism by then-producer Gilbert Cates when Mr. Shapiro suggested reviving the feature for the 1994 show. “Gil said, ‘Oh, God, Mike, we’ve tried that once. It was deadly. ABC hated it because it stopped the show.’” Mr. Cates (who died in 2011 and, of course, appeared in the next “In Memoriam”) was referring to a performance of

Marvin Hamlisch’s

“Come Light the Candles” sung by

Sammy Davis Jr.

at the 1978 Oscars, accompanied by an uninspired roll call of stills.

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Mr. Shapiro proposed a more carefully considered montage that incorporated film clips: “I said, ‘It should be an affectionate goodbye to all of these people, and we should see them when they were at their very best.’” That first edition of “In Memoriam” provided a much-imitated template—similar segments started springing up on other award broadcasts—and remains an exemplar of the form.

Instead of listing the decedents alphabetically or chronologically, the new segment was edited intuitively. One film clip bled into the next to form a montage that captured both the breadth of film history and the depth of losses during the previous year:

Lillian Gish

adrift on the ice floes in “Way Down East” followed by Myrna Loy speaking a line of witty dialogue in one of the “Thin Man” films followed by

Joseph Cotten

chomping on a cigar in “Citizen Kane”—and on and on.

Mr. Shapiro couldn’t resist ending the segment with a flourish most years: In 1994, it was Vincent Gardenia gregariously blowing a kiss; in 1999, a young

Roddy McDowall

philosophically leaning his head against a doorway. “One ends with

Marcello Mastroianni,

” Mr. Shapiro said. “He waves goodbye. That is the kind of shot I was looking for—for everybody.”

An image of the late Carrie Fisher is displayed as Sara Bareilles performs during the “In Memoriam” tribute in 2017.



Photo:

Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press

Once the feature took off, families and friends began jockeying for the inclusion of their departed loved ones. “It was always controversial who they picked,” said

Chuck Workman,

a longtime creator of montages for the Oscars who also worked on “In Memoriam.” “Relatives would come in and say, ‘My father was so-and-so.’” Oscar postmortems typically detail jaw-dropping omissions each year (including, last year,

Luke Perry

and “Bonnie and Clyde” Oscar nominee

Michael J. Pollard

).

Today, Mr. Rubin stresses the importance of having “In Memoriam” reflect the range of artisans and craftspeople who make movies, not just the stars. “It has evolved into not just a parade of famous faces but a way of honoring much lesser-known film professionals who are equally important,” Mr. Rubin said. (To Mr. Shapiro, that emphasis has meant the segment risks losing some emotional heft for the wider audience: “Nowadays, I think the last ones that I saw, they were even putting agents in,” Mr. Shapiro said. “That’s not what this is supposed to be about, but, then, I’m an old-timer now.”)

The controversies associated with “In Memoriam” suggest how much the segment has come to mean to many movie fans. More than a year into the pandemic, the segment may also serve as an unlikely vessel for collective grief. Mr. Rubin was mum about what particular shape the segment will take on Sunday night, but he acknowledges its special significance this year. “There’s an element of celebration to the segment, as well, because these are people who have contributed to a medium that entertains and uplifts,” he said.

So here’s to “In Memoriam”—the only part of the Academy Awards where, any given year,

Kirk Douglas

might look you square in the eyes,

Carrie Fisher

might gamely grin and Marcello Mastroianni might wave goodbye.

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