Why Joan Rivers didn’t make the Oscars’ ‘In Memoriam’ segment

Published 3:13 pm Monday, February 23, 2015

It’s become a popular Oscar night ritual: Watch the annual “In Memoriam” montage, wipe away a tear or two — and then take offense on behalf of the dearly departed not recognized in the segment.

On Sunday night, it was the late Joan Rivers that many viewers felt had been unfairly snubbed.

Should Rivers have been included with other household names like Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and James Garner? On the one hand, she is far better known as a stand-up comedian and TV personality than for any of her distantly scattered film work (“Rabbit Test,” “Serial Mom,” “Spaceballs”).

On the other hand — HELLO? Can we talk? — Joan Rivers with her snarky fashion commentary basically transformed the red carpet from something the stars walk on to an event that now rivals the Oscars themselves in length and viewership.

Academy officials were quick with an acknowledgement of the Rivers omission, if not exactly an explanation.

“Joan Rivers is among the many worthy artists and filmmakers we were unfortunately unable to feature in the In Memoriam segment of this year’s Oscar show,” they said in a statement issued to the Hollywood Reporter just hours after the show’s conclusion. The academy noted that they did include Rivers in a larger photo gallery of deceased notables enshrined over the weekend on its website.

The sheer size of that gallery — encompassing some 120 VIPs who died in the past year — may do a better job of explaining the academy’s decision-making than their statement. With only three or four minutes of TV time devoted to the memoriam segment, not everyone can make the cut.

The academy’s former executive director Bruce Davis explained to the Washington Post in 2011 just how brutal the process can be.

“You make more people disappointed or angry than you make happy,” he said. “You’re leaving on the floor whole remarkable careers.”

He explained at the time that his staff kept a year-round tally of notable deaths (more than 200 in 2010-11), and a committee of academy governors would whittle down the list for the tribute reel. While many viewers expect to see every familiar showbiz face that died in the past year, a lot of famous folks inevitably fail to make the cut. That’s because the reel isn’t just made for worldwide TV audiences but for the Hollywood industry types sitting inside that auditorium, who see the Oscars as their own annual community gathering. So for every A-lister who makes the montage, there are generally three or four folks you’ve never heard of — studio execs, cinematographers, writers, etc.

That’s why the Academy tries to limit the list to celebrities who were truly focused on film, as opposed to other mediums. But that doesn’t mean feelings don’t get hurt.

Last year, the social-media outrage was over the absence of Cory Monteith — best known for TV’s “Glee” — and James Avery of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” In 2013, it was the lack of attention for Donna Summer — whose “Last Dance” was Best Song in 1978. In 2010, the Academy issued a sort-of apology for not including Farrah Fawcett.