Fairly late in his entertaining, lengthy look at the history of the Oscars, Michael Schulman suggests that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) made a mistake by trying to appeal to Joe Moviegoer with the addition of pseudo-awards voted on by members of the public.
“The Oscars should be celebrating merit regardless of profitability, and they should be lifting up small movies,” he writes, rather than “contort[ing] itself in trying to be something it’s not.” The emphasis is in the original, and it’s worth lingering on momentarily because so much of Schulman’s book is about the ways in which the award was made to serve other purposes than a pure celebration of artistry.
Indeed, AMPAS itself was founded in an effort to head off not only government censorship, a growing problem for the nascent art form, but also negative publicity in the movie colony of Hollywood as scandals like the murder of William Desmond Taylor plagued showbiz. The Oscars themselves were almost an afterthought, “wedged among” higher priorities like “tak[ing] aggressive action in meeting outside attacks that are unjust” and snuffing out labor troubles.
Fighting off the nascent labor unions was an early goal of the academy, one that caused no shortage of trouble for the organization. Eventually, it fell to Frank Capra—the immigrant success story who saw winning an Academy Award as his ticket into the establishment but feared that the organization would be destroyed if it went to war with the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild—to break the union-breaking power of the academy once and for all. By 1937, the academy officially washed its hands of labor negotiations; “a decade after its conception as Hollywood’s League of Nations, the Academy was now, thanks to Capra, little more than the body that gave out statuettes.”
Schulman details some of the storied fights over those little statues, like the effort in 1935 to get Bette Davis a trophy for her work in Of Human Bondage, a performance that had earned raves but fell prey to studio bickering and the machinations of the producers eager to get their own stars nominated. Following a concerted protest, the academy’s awards committee announced they would allow write-ins, which in turn led to trade rag intrigue. Those of us who have paid attention to this year’s Oscar campaign and heard whispers about the supposed illegitimacy of Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for her work in To Leslie—a grassroots effort that seemingly came out of nowhere—can sympathize with the wags of the 1930s.
The question of campaigning is a tricky one. The section of the book I found most riveting detailed the rise of Harvey Weinstein and the ugly fight between Miramax and DreamWorks SKG during the 1999 season. It is one of those races that escaped the gravity of Los Angeles and became fodder for the general public, particularly after Shakespeare in Love shocked the world by defeating Saving Private Ryan in the best picture category.
Weinstein and Miramax had spent years perfecting their Oscar game plans. Say what you will about Weinstein (“sure, he’s a monstrous sexual deviant who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, though aside from that…”), but he understood the Oscars had little to do with who or what “should” win and everything to do with what sort of narrative you could craft. One of his favorite tricks was getting his awards-season movies wrapped up in some sort of political or social cause. It’s why Daniel Day-Lewis went to Capitol Hill to screen My Left Foot during the debate over the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It’s also one of the reasons Weinstein was such a generous donor to Democratic politicians: the ability to call in big guns at key times. The flip side of the phrase “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people” is the idea that the Oscars are presidential races for Hollywood. And when Weinstein was trying to figure out how to turn Sling Blade’s Arkansas-born-and-bred Billy Bob Thornton into an awards-winning savant, who better to get on the horn than another Billy boy?
“I was so appalled that the president of the United States would spend half an hour with us on the phone,” a Miramax staffer told Schulman. Weinstein had gotten then-president Bill Clinton to give him some pointers on making the Arkansan palatable to the Hollywood set. “I lost all respect for him well before Monica Lewinsky, because I could see how much access the Clintons were giving Harvey.”
As any good politician will tell you, it’s not enough to have a good message or a good story generally: You have to have one that resonates with the voters you’re trying to convince, specifically. A congressman in Missouri is speaking to a different voting population than a congresswoman from the Bronx. And, as we learn in Schulman’s book, changing demographics within the academy itself is a repeated story of the Oscars. We’ve seen it most recently in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, during which activists argued that the Academy Awards—one year removed from awarding 12 Years a Slave best picture—was irreparably racist because there were zero black nominees in the acting categories in 2015 or 2016.
A diversity initiative kicked into high gear; the membership rolls were expanded to include a younger, more diverse, more international voting body, and older members were not-so-gently pushed aside. Outrage ensued, open letters were written, angry campaigns were initiated… but all of this has happened before, and it will, likely, all happen again. In 1967, faced with declining TV audiences and a slate of nominees that could only be described as stodgy, AMPAS president Gregory Peck oversaw an initiative to get new blood into the academy. Two years later—after outrage, letters, and campaigns—Peck did what he thought needed to be done with the aid of the then-starlet Candice Bergen to freshen up the rolls.
In terms of attracting audiences, the movies themselves are only half the battle, of course: The show itself has to offer some entertainment value, though the question of both “entertainment” and “value” are somewhat tricky. Schulman argues that the reaction to 1989’s opening number with Rob Lowe and Snow White is overblown, more the inevitable product of an era of excess than anything else. (People forget, but the previous year’s proceedings had featured Robocop getting into a shootout with PeeWee Herman.)
The debate over the show remains ever-relevant, at least in part because the modern equivalent of blockbuster hits like The Godfather, Titanic, Braveheart, and Forrest Gump now have almost no chance of winning. The reasons for this are multiple and complicated: Hollywood has largely abandoned the mid-budget movie for adults because adult audiences have largely abandoned theaters; streamers have gobbled up prestige directors and given them budgets traditional studios could never dream of; modern blockbusters are more focused on spectacle than storytelling; middlebrow crowd pleasers like Green Book, the last movie to win best picture that comfortably fits in this category, are seen as passé, old-fashioned, the modern equivalent of Oliver!
This brings us back to the question of what the Oscars should be in the business of rewarding. But there is, perhaps, another question underneath that question. Oscar Wars documents with style an era in which movies were the biggest element of mass media, the apotheosis of American monoculture. But what do the Oscars mean when films are subordinate to streaming and prestige TV, to video games, to TikTok and YouTube? When the monoculture is irreparably shattered? When the industry itself splits off between “big and dumb and profitable” and “small and unwatched but inarguably artistically superior”?
If the answer to what should be rewarded—what is only really worth rewarding—continues to drift toward “movies seen by few and judged to be excellent by even fewer,” it’s hard to imagine the ceremony remaining relevant to anyone other than committed cinephiles.
And our number, sadly, seems to be shrinking by the year.
Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears
by Michael Schulman
HarperCollins, 608 pp., $35
Sonny Bunch is culture editor of the Bulwark, where he hosts the podcasts Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, and is a contributing columnist at the Washington Post.