Many in the Hollywood community are reeling from the tragically premature death of 40-year-old actor Paul Walker in a car crash over the holiday weekend. Unfortunately, in this industry, young people seem to die fairly regularly. What's interesting -- and often confounding -- to Oscar watchers is how the Academy determines which of them to include in its "In Memoriam" montage at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, which marks the one time the whole industry collectively pauses to remember people it lost over the past year.
The facts are these: The Academy has an "In Memoriam Committee" that is charged with compiling a list of 25 to 30 people who will be highlighted during the ceremony. They are asked to seek out (a) people who have made significant contributions to the industry and (b) people from a variety of different sectors of the industry. In other words, they cannot all be actors -- most members of the Academy itself are not.
So, at the 86th Oscars on March 2, are we likely to see Walker -- an actor who was primarily known for the Fast & Furious blockbuster franchise, but who also popped up in Pleasantville and Flags of Our Fathers -- included in the clip reel, or among the hundreds for whom there is simply not enough time on the telecast? Based on the history of how the Academy has handled other premature deaths in recent years, I could see this going either way.
At the 80th Oscars, Heath Ledger made the cut, but Brad Renfro did not. At the 81st Oscars, Isaac Hayes, Bernie Mac, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack made the cut, but George Carlin did not. At the 82nd Oscars, John Hughes, Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy, Natasha Richardson and Patrick Swayze made the cut, but Farrah Fawcett did not. At the 83rd Oscars, Ronni Chasen, George Hickenlooper, Sally Menke and Pete Postlethwaite made the cut, but Corey Haim did not. At the 84th Oscars, Tim Hetherington, Whitney Houston, Steve Jobs, Bingham Ray and Laura Ziskin made the cut, but Jeff Conaway did not. And at the 85th Oscars last year, Michael Clarke Duncan, Nora Ephron, Tony Scott and Adam Yauch made the cut, but Donna Summer did not.
If the people who missed out share anything in common at all, it might be this: They were all once "big names," but their heyday had long since passed. Renfro and Haim were famous child actors who faded from the scene as they reached adulthood, becoming better known for their substance abuse and legal problems. Carlin, Conaway, Fawcett and Summer were marquee names in the 1970s and '80s but hadn't had many new hits since then. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, as much as anywhere, the question always is, "What have you done for me lately?"
Walker, for his part, was at the center of five of the six Fast films already released -- all of which have been released since 2001, and the most recent of which came out just this past May -- which have collectively grossed nearly $2.4 billion. (He was on a break from shooting Fast & Furious 7 when he died in Southern California on Saturday.) That means that a lot of people saw and enjoyed his work, and fairly recently, too. Moreover, he was someone whose career was not on the decline and who was not just doing purely paycheck movies, but rather someone who was challenging himself in new ways, as demonstrated by his involvement with and work in the forthcoming independent dramatic thriller Hours, which chronicles a father's struggle to keep his newborn alive as Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.
For these reasons, I think that he probably will be -- and should be -- included in the "In Memoriam" montage on Oscar night.