Here’s how the Oscars work: Members from each individual branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences determine the votes for the nominees within their own category, e.g., actors vote for the actors, writers vote for the writers, etc. Once the nominations are announced, all 6,000+ active and lifetimes members of the Academy get to vote to determine who wins in every category. You’re supposed to have seen every nominated film in each category before voting, but you’re pretty much just working on the honor code. Voting is supposed to be anonymous meaning you never hear how close a vote was or why people voted the way they did.
That’s why it’s so awesome that for the past couple of years The Hollywood Reporter has been posting “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots” in the lead-up to the awards ceremony. These are loose transcripts of often lengthy conversations in which Academy members explain their voting process. The main takeaway every year is that the Academy members collectively comes off no differently than your average Oscar watching party. Sure, no one at your party probably wants Robert Duvall to win Best Supporting Actor or Alexander Desplat to win Best Original Score simply because they are friends with them. But, still, there are some who take all of it very seriously and saw every film, others who mostly care about the movies they actually liked, a few who are really sick of seeing Meryl Streep nominated again, and others who have plenty of opinions even though they didn’t see many of the nominated films. Plus, no one has any idea how to really judge sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects, very few see any of the nominated shorts, and everyone is most interested in the Best Picture category.
So, when someone says, “I’d like to thank the Academy” these are the type of people they’re actually thanking:
#1 (Public Relations Branch): I’m going to hold my nose and vote for The Imitation Game because when you vote for best picture, what you should try to do is vote for the movie that, years from now, people will still watch and talk about. For some years, it’s like, “Huh?! Around the World in 80 Days [the winner for 1956] won best picture? Are you kidding me?” So I try to vote in a way so that, in 50 years, people aren’t going to go, “Huh?!”
#2 (Member of Animation Branch Who Was Previously Nominated for an Oscar): But Theory [of Everything] I loved. It was the only one of the nominees that fully worked as a whole film — it was beautifully performed, nicely directed and it was about something — although Boyhood is pretty special for its own reasons
#3 (Writer Nominated for an Oscar in Last Decade): Birdman I just thought was incredibly ambitious on all levels: directing, acting, the editing of those “continuous” shots. It’s not like anything I have seen. It just stood for everything that I love about film.
#4 (Actor Most Known For Work in the 1970s): I kept postponing watching Boyhood because I didn’t think I’d like it, but when I finally saw it I was very impressed by the amount of work and care and thought that went into it over the years while everybody else was off doing other projects — that movie, to me, embodies movie-making.
#5 (Member of the Sound Branch Who Was Previously Nominated for an Oscar): American Sniper? Bradley Cooper did just a ridiculously phenomenal job, the way that the movie was made brought me back to the way movies used to be made and I completely got who this guy was and his struggle. I don’t condone killing in any way, shape or form, but what resonated with me was his motivation for making a change in his life: 9-1-1 [a reference to Sept. 11, 2001]. He wasn’t arbitrarily killing people; he was protecting his men and that was his job. People can call him whatever they want; I took the movie just the way it was intended by Clint Eastwood. I mean, I love that movie.
#6 (Oscar-winning Writer): I loved Birdman. I thought it was genius on many levels. You know how sometimes when you watch a film, something will jump out at you that doesn’t work? Everything in this film worked, even the magical realism, because I felt like I was inside the actor’s head experiencing what he was experiencing.
#7 (Actor Since the 1950s): I saw Whiplash twice. I think that a film that celebrates excellence rather than mediocrity is something to be admired. To go crazy over how he [J.K. Simmons] treated the kid [Miles Teller] is to miss the point.
#1 (PR): I’m voting for Richard Linklater. I think that what he did — as a “thing” — is extraordinary.
#2 (Animation): What he [Boyhood’s Richard Linklater] did is amazing. Trust me, it’s not easy to make a film over a few months. Twelve years? That’s incredible and demanded a lot of vision and effort.
#3 (Writer): This year, though, I just thought [Alejandro G. Inarritu]’s film was so ambitious and was such a great journey and so challenging that I felt like he deserved best director.
#4 (Actor): Boyhood was so well put-together that I have to say [Richard] Linklater.
#5 (Sound): I give kudos to the Birdman guy [Alejandro G. Inarritu] because I’ve never seen anything like that; I didn’t like it [laughs], but I thought it was really bold. But I voted for [Boyhood‘s Richard] Linklater because when a passion project like that actually lands it’s remarkable and you’ve got to applaud it.
#6 (Writer): I really love Birdman but I had to go with Linklater because I thought it was a monumental achievement on his part — his film took relentlessness, tenacity and real vision that had to be sustained over 12 years.
#7 (Actor): I went with the Birdman director [Inarritu] over the Boyhood director [Richard Linklater] because I think he took a bigger leap and I think he largely succeeded in getting it done in his way. He had to solve a lot of things. Linklater had a more controlled situation.
#1 (PR): I’m voting for [Birdman‘s] Michael Keaton because I love him and for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is he seems like a completely sane person who lives in the middle of the country and works when he wants to work. I’ve loved every interview that he’s done. He seems grateful, not particularly needy, and I don’t know when he’ll ever get another chance at this; the other nominees will.
#2 (Animation): I’ve met Stephen Hawking and this guy [The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne] got him just right — he was the most believable character in all of the movies this year and it’s an amazing performance.
#3 (Writer): Although every one of the nominated performances were incredible, this one is kind of easy for me because I always think in terms of what was the most transformative, and it seemed to me that Eddie Redmayne was clearly that. It just was so real.
#4 (Actor): This was hard because the others were all within millimeters, but I’m gonna go with [Foxcatcher‘s] Steve Carell because he just blew me away. It was such an intense performance and totally unlike anything he’s ever done before.
#5 (Sound): I voted [for Birdman‘s Michael] Keaton because (1) I thought he gave an Oscar-worthy performance, (b) he has had a whole career that shows he’s a true actor and (c) I’ve never seen someone more humble and grateful for this opportunity. I find that to be so endearing and I want a guy like that to win.
#6 (Writer): Michael had to take his role, without reference points, and make it his own just by virtue of his pure talent.
#7 (Actor): I admire [The Imitation Game‘s Benedict] Cumberbatch‘s clarity, but he has the English approach: he shows you everything the character went through, but he doesn’t go through it like American actors do, like [Birdman‘s Michael] Keaton did. I didn’t buy it the same way; he didn’t take me on the journey. [The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie] Redmayne, I think, made an American effort to embody his journey. He had a very challenging job and he was very successful at it.
#1 (PR): The minute I saw Still Alice, I remember thinking, “This [best actress race] is over. Four other women are going to have to get dressed and go to 5,000 dinners knowing they have no chance.”
#2 (Animation): I loved the movie [The Theory of Everything] and I thought [Felicity Jones] was great. [Still Alice’s] Julianne Moore and the others were all fine but in movies that leave a lot to be desired, and I just can’t separate a performance from the film it’s in.
#3 (Writer): [Still Alice] Julianne Moore‘s was the most transformative.
#4 (Actor): There’s no doubt that it’s Julianne Moore.
#5 (Sound): The Gutillard girl [Two Days, One Night‘s Marion Cotillard] was out ’cause I never saw the movie. I’m kind of done with [Wild‘s] Reese Witherspoon — I feel like she always plays the same character and I’m just done with it. I really loved Theory and she [Felicity Jones] was such an amazing complement to him [Redmayne]. The Still Alice thing, man, was just so depressing, and as much as I think she [Julianne Moore] did a phenomenal job, I just didn’t like the movie — it depressed the shit out of me. I went with a real underdog: I liked Gone Girl — I didn’t love the movie — and I thought she [Rosamund Pike] did a great job.
#6 (Writer): I tried to watch Still Alice a second time and couldn’t because it was so sad and moving because I’ve known people with Alzheimer’s Disease, and to imagine someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s was a lot to handle. There’s just something about her [Moore] — her expressions and her gestures were so convincing that I forgot it was her acting, and when an actor can do that? Oh, my goodness.
#7 (Actor): I was tempted to vote for the woman in The Theory of Everything [Felicity Jones], but [Two Days, One Night‘s] Marion Cotillard was my choice because, as you can tell, I like acting that’s private, not public, that’s internalized, not showy.
Best Supporting Actor
#1 (PR): But J.K. Simmons‘ performance was in a different league. It’s kind of ironic that he’s in “supporting,” right? I’m voting for him because he was great in the movie — and because he was in 5,000 episodes of Law & Order.
#2 (Animation): [The Judge’s Robert] Duvall was fine but he generally needs to do a better job of picking movies; like Bobby De Niro and Barbra Streisand, he would probably have a few more Oscars if he wasn’t in so many bad movies.
#3 (Writer): This was a tough one because I thought [Foxcatcher‘s Mark] Ruffalo was so nuanced and understated. But I don’t know if he had as much screen time as [Whiplash‘s] J.K. [Simmons] — and J.K. was just unreal
#4 (Actor): Ethan Hawke, out of all of the elements of Boyhood, was probably the least interesting to me. Edward Norton didn’t do anything for me in Birdman and may be one reason why I was so not into it.
#5 (Sound): I voted for [The Judge‘s] Robert Duvall because I don’t believe that this will happen for him again, and nothing would thrill me more than to hear his name called and get to see him get up on that stage.
#6 (Writer): .K. Simmons was such a surprise. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen him do before. I always sort of thought of him as the guy selling insurance [in television commercials], you know, and then he came up on the screen in this, and I forgot all about that.
#7 (Actor): I went to school with [The Judge‘s] Bobby Duvall at the Neighborhood Playhouse and I voted for him.
Best Supporting Actress
#1 (PR): I’m voting for Arquette. She gets points for working on a film for 12 years and bonus points for having no work done during the 12 years. If she had had work done during the 12 years, she would not be collecting these statues. It’s a bravery reward. It says, “You’re braver than me. You didn’t touch your face for 12 years. Way to freakin’ go!”
#2 (Animation): I loved Into the Woods a lot more than most people and her performance [Meryl Streep’s] is the main reason why. She’s unbelievable. And no, it doesn’t bother me that she’s won three times before; that’s not how you should be voting.
#3 (Writer): Arquette captured this single mother raising children while trying to keep it all together so well.
#4 (Actor): Emma Stone, who I’m in lust with — I’ve always been — did not do it for me in Birdman; really nothing did in that movie except for Michael Keaton
#5 (Sound): [Into the Woods‘ Meryl] Streep‘s out ’cause I just can’t do it again. The role wasn’t worthy — she did it as well as you can do it, but it just wasn’t a great role — I mean, come on.
#6 (Writer): Keira Knightley is always beautiful, but I’m not very taken with her as an actress.
#7 (Actor): Arquette was there — I could tell how she raises her kids from that performance.
Best Adapted Screenplay
#1 (PR): I put in the Inherent Vice screener, and it became apparent that it’s a terrible, incoherent movie, so I turned it off. I thought it was not possible for me to hate something more than I hated The Master, but I hated this more.
#3 (Writer): Inherent Vice I thought was a disaster, an embarrassment almost. I don’t know, I was just so disappointed because [writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson] is one of my favorite filmmakers and it just felt lazy, incoherent and a waste of such talent and money.
#5 (Sound): I didn’t see Inherent Vice because I had several people I respect tell me it was terrible and I said, “Okay, I don’t need to go there.”
#7 (Actor): A lot of people had a real problem with Inherent Vice, which is by a writer [Thomas Pynchon] who is pretty original and unusual. I admit I had to see it twice to be totally clear about the picture, but I think it’s pretty amazing. He [Paul Thomas Anderson] very successfully captured the drug period in LA that some of us lived through — life upside-down in Hollywood. A very quick story: I was once at a party with Jack Nicholson in Laurel Canyon with a lot of pretty girls. We were blasting loud music and two young cops cops came to the door to say they were getting complaints. They saw all the pretty girls in there and inside of five minutes each of them had a girl and each of the two girls were wearing the cops’ hats. I never forgot that. I think Inherent Vice captured that.
Best Original Screenplay
#1 (PR): I’m not voting for Nightcrawler — that was really unpleasant. With Foxcatcher, they said seven words in the whole movie and the rest of it was people staring at each other, so I’m not voting for that. I didn’t really get the sense of a screenplay with Boyhood — it was more like they just turned on the camera once a year.
#2 (Animation): Boyhood was a very good film but I feel like they came up with the story as they went along. I thought Nightcrawler was masterful.
#3 (Writer): Budapest just didn’t grab me. Nightcrawler was more performance-driven than script-driven. Boyhood was a little simplistic. I loved Foxcatcher, but I just thought Birdman was so original and interesting and deserves to be awarded.
#5 (Sound): I voted Boyhood because I’m really looking for Richard [Linklater] to have his night.
#6 (Writer): I was disappointed that Nightcrawler wasn’t nominated for best picture — it was disturbing, but it was important that it was disturbing and it was a really fine film — so I was happy that it was at least acknowledged in this category.
Best Animated Feature
#1 (PR): If you can call anything a “snub,” this year, it was The Lego Movie, which was one of the best movies of the year. I don’t know what happened there, but it is inconceivable to me.
#2 (Animation): Where’s our Finding Nemo this year? It’s not a very great group.
#5 (Sound): The biggest snub for me was Chris Miller and Phil Lord not getting in for [The] Lego [Movie]. When a movie is that successful and culturally hits all the right chords and does that kind of box-office — for that movie not to be in over these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw [an apparent reference to the Japanese film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, as well as the Irish film Song of the Sea]? That is my biggest bitch. Most people didn’t even know what they were! How does that happen? That, to me, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.
#6 (Writer): I saw all five. I like to sit down with [the young people in her family] and watch them. We all loved Big Hero 6 and there was no discussion, no argument, no nothing. The kids watched that one three times — what does that tell you?
Best Foreign Language Film
#3 (Writer): I saw one film and I thought it was excellent: Ida. Everything about it was fantastic.
#5 (Sound): I didn’t get around to seeing any of them. You want the truth? I shouldn’t have voted, but I did. This is bad, but here’s the power of advertising: everywhere I looked, I saw pictures of this stupid carcass — whatever the fuck that was — and I thought, “That’s a cool-looking thing.” And I fucking voted for [Leviathan] based on the dead whatever it was in the ad thinking that it looked cool. [laughs]
#3 (Writer): I had to go with Virunga — which I watched on Netflix before I got the screener — because I just feel that the plight of the gorillas, matched with what’s going on in the Congo, matched with what we do for oil, impacted me more.
#5 (Sound): I didn’t see any of the nominees, but goddamn Virunga is running commercials late-night every freaking hour, and those gorillas, man — I was like, “Wow, that looks heavy.” I said, “That looks good,” and I voted for it.
#6 (Writer): I thought Citizenfour was brilliant and brave, I greatly admire the woman that directed that [Laura Poitras] and she made me proud to be a woman, actually, as did Selma, frankly
#7 (Actor): Citizenfour will win, but I like very much that [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings made a fight for Virunga. He went dollar-for-dollar with Harvey [Weinstein of The Weinstein Co., the Radius division of which distributed Citizenfour].
#5 (Sound): People are obsessed with the single-shot concept [employed on Birdman], but it wasn’t my cup of tea — it’s like, big fuckin’ deal. When a cinematographer has a body of work like Roger Deakins [who has never won an Oscar], and did a beautiful job this year [on Unbroken], I’m gonna vote for him.
#7 (Actor): I don’t think Mr. Turner is gonna win anything, but I loved it. I think he [Mike Leigh] is a fucking genius and it’s visually stunning. It’s like I was suddenly in that period, whatever it was — in the painting! How about that crazy art gallery, and the places they lived and the ocean? It’s amazing.
Best Costume Design
#1 (PR): I know some people are excited about Into the Woods, but to me it just looked like that fairy-tale show that ABC airs Sunday nights [Once Upon a Time]
#5 (Sound): I’ve just been there and done that with the [Into the Woods‘ Colleen] Atwood thing. [This is Atwood’s eleventh nomination; she has three wins.] She’s a brilliant lady, but I’m just done with it, and I was so unimpressed with the movie. I voted Maleficent because I watched it with my kid and I liked it and I thought, “Well, what the hell, man, it’s got no love anywhere else in the whole deal. Let’s give it something.” But it really isn’t something I should be voting on because I really don’t know anything about costume designing. You know, we nominate our own [meaning the nominees in each category are chosen solely by the members of the corresponding branch of people who work/worked in that area], but then it goes out to the freakin’ collective membership who have not a clue what anyone else does except their own shit. It shouldn’t work like this. And yet I have a ballot, so I vote, you know?
Best Film Editing
#6 (Writer): I went with Grand Budapest again because I wasn’t conscious of the editing when I watched it — which is the way I like it — until my second viewing. I think I was more conscious of Boyhood‘s editing because I knew it was a 12-year film.
#7 (Actor): Boyhood was made over 12 years but flows so seamlessly. It propels your focus. Less is more. You never think about it and you never notice it.
Best Makeup & Hairstyling
#1 (PR): I was happy to have the chance to vote for Guardians of the Galaxy. It could have and should have been nominated for best picture; I nominated it.
#2 (Animation): Here’s a chance to give Guardians of the Galaxy an award. It was a tremendously entertaining and fun movie.
#6 (Writer): I loved Guardians of the Galaxy! I was so happy that it got nominated for adapted screenplay [at the WGA Awards]. If you love film, you should take every genre seriously.
Best Original Score
#2 (Animation): My children make fun of me for my lack of knowledge about music, but I do actually sit and listen to the scores when they’re sent to us. I turned off Budapest after a few cuts. I was torn between Interstellar and The Theory of Everything, but concluded that [Interstellar composer] Hans Zimmer overdid it a little.
#5 (Sound): I voted for my friend Alexandre Desplat [who is nominated in the category for both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game] because I want him to win and, to be honest with you, I don’t give a shit which movie he wins for.
Best Original Song
#1 (PR): It’s not even close for me: “Everything Is Awesome” is a great song and voting for it is a way to give something to The Lego Movie.
#3 (Writer): I thought The Lego Movie [in which “Everything Is Awesome” is featured] was horrible. It was whack and I just did not like it at all — I mean, I couldn’t even get through the film.
Best Production Design
#2 (Animation): They did a difficult, brilliant, original job on Into the Woods — I mean, a lot of that was shot on sets built on a soundstage! To me, the movie worked on every possible level.
#5 (Sound): I saw Into the Woods and I hated it — even my kid said, “Dad, that movie sucked.”
Best Sound Editing & Sound Mixing
#1 (PR): I never vote for these categories because I have no idea what’s good sound or bad sound — and believe me, I’m not alone among Academy members.
#3 (Writer): In all honesty, I don’t understand the distinction between sound editing and sound mixing.
#4 (Actor): I have absolutely no idea what the difference is between this and sound mixing. [laughs] I vote for the movie that I like.
Best Visual Effects
#1 (PR): I don’t think I should be able to vote for this category either, but I can’t resist another opportunity to support Guardians of the Galaxy. It should get something
#5 (Sound): I’ve never seen more freakin’ frontrunner ads for VFX — covers, inside, back covers — than I have for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I mean, it was relentless. It brought me back to Apollo fuckin’ 13, which took every cover of everything for like three weeks straight.