The annual In Memoriam segment of the Oscar broadcast is always poignant – and controversial. Emotions automatically swell when we’re reminded of the showbiz giants we’ve lost in the past year: Peter O’Toole, Shirley Temple, Harold Ramis, and so many others. Yet there are always complaints. The good people of Chicago are steamed that native son Dennis Farina was overlooked. My film noir pal Alan Rode laments the absence of Jonathan Winters. And I’ve heard gripes that Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t deserve the climactic spot at the very end of the segment. (I disagree: of all the people on that list, his loss perhaps made me the saddest, because he had so much more to give.)
It’s tragic to lose a gifted individual because of his own bad choices. It’s even more tragic, though, to lose someone who falls victim to other people’s carelessness and bad policy decisions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going on in Greater Hollywood.
In the ramp-up to the Oscars, a young woman’s death on a movie set galvanized thousands of below-the-line folk who believe their well-being is often compromised by higher-ups more worried about keeping to their schedule than about basic safety concerns. Sarah Jones, a popular young camera assistant, was killed in rural Georgia on February 20 while working on an Allman Brothers biopic, Midnight Rider. The accident is still being investigated, but it involved a scene being shot on a railroad bridge. No trains were expected: when one suddenly appeared, the crew scattered, with fatal results for Sarah, who was apparently struck by debris from a damaged prop.
Sarah’s grief-stricken co-workers launched a “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page, campaigning to have her death recognized as part of the Oscar ceremony. Though 58,000 people signed an online petition, her photo was ultimately not included in the ranks of the In Memoriam honorees. Still, Sarah got her own tiny moment. Just before the networks cut to commercial, there appeared at the bottom of my screen a small banner, mentioning Sarah and pointing the viewer toward a more complete list of passings on the Academy website, titled “Oscar Remembers.” (Sarah is represented by a full-color photograph; she’s #38 on a list of 112, tactfully arranged in alphabetical order.)
Sarah’s death has elicited grief, but also anger. Many who know the industry well are convinced that it was preventable. It seems those in charge of her set did not bother to take adequate precautions. I gather no representative of the railroad was present to oversee the filming, and just-in-case procedures were inadequate, at best. Years ago, I interviewed Haskell Wexler, the ace cinematographer who has won two Oscars for his work. Haskell, a firebrand from way back, self-financed a 2006 documentary called Who Needs Sleep? It was a plea to his colleagues to limit a film crew’s work hours, in response to the death of a cameraman in a car crash after working 19-hour-days on the film Pleasantville. Haskell’s commonsense proposal of a 12 on/12 off work day was soundly rejected, both by movie producers worried about the bottom line and by his own union colleagues, unwilling to seem weak. Today a heart-sick Haskell blames Sarah’s death on “criminal negligence.” Footnote: this would never have happened to the film’s stars, who on a set are always beautifully protected from harm.
When Hollywood’s glitterati put on their designer duds and celebrate the magic of cinema, I hope they occasionally think about the crews who make their movies possibles. Those who work the long hours and get none of the glory. And occasionally die doing what they love.
Here, from an industry web site called Stage 32, is one producer's angry and anguished reaction to Sarah's death.