Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears, written by Michael Schulman and published by Harper Books, is a must-read.
The Academy of Motion Pictures got its start because then-MGM chief Louis B. Mayer wanted to avoid negotiating with unions. Ultimately, guild members would later threaten with boycotts and resignations and the Oscars would go onto become an awards show. Frank Capra made a name for himself during the early years and transformed Columbia Pictures from a studio on Poverty Row. Anyway, the Academy does more things now but that’s the gist of how the Academy got its start.
Schulman makes the deep dive and no stone goes unturned. After discussing the Citizen Kane drama, the author gets into the drama of the Hollywood blacklist and how Robert Rich won on Oscar. This begs the question of wanting to know just who is Robert Rich anyway. The big stars of this chapter are Dalton Trumbo, Carl Foreman, and Michael Wilson. A recent short film on TCM, High Noon on the Waterfront, shows how these films were born out of the blacklist.
As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, we get into the Best Actress race that pitted Hollywood veterans Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis against each other. But while the veterans were making waves with their comeback, Born Yesterday star Judy Holliday was quietly positioning herself for Best Actress. It was a classic example of two veterans splitting the field let alone Davis going against another All About Eve cast member. In event event, Holliday won the big award. Of course, when we talk about Oscar rivalries, you can’t forget the rivalry between sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. They feuded over roles and the Oscars to the point in which they stopped talking to each other.
The rise of New Hollywood as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s would mean another change in the Oscars. Candice Bergen had some ideas and wrote a letter to then-Academy president Gregory Peck. Her proposals would greatly benefit the Oscars and almost certainly would impact the nominations and wins. The Academy needed a change without a doubt. Both Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were making waves at this time. If not for Bergen’s proposals, those films might not have made some noise on Oscar night.
Without the changes, the 48th Academy Awards might gone differently. Of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had a big night. The film faced off against the likes of Jaws, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, and Nashville. It could have gone in any direction, really. Funny enough, Stanley Kubrick couldn’t get his Napoleon film off the ground so he used his research to make Barry Lyndon instead. Years later, Steven Spielberg announced that he’s working on a miniseries for HBO.
In 1989, the Oscars were an epic disaster produced by Allan Carr. All you need to know, really, is that Snow White introduced the Oscars and there was a musical number about the stars of tomorrow. Carr became persona non grata in Hollywood but the show would have an impact for future Oscars. Billy Crystal’s act was the highlight of the night and he would start hosting in 1990. This started an on-again, off-again stint of hosting the Oscars. His most recent show was in 2012 but I enjoyed watching Billy host as I was growing up. He made the Oscars fun with his musical or video montages each year.
In the late 1990s, the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein changed Oscars campaigning as we know it. He changed the rules in the years leading up to 1998, when Saving Private Ryan faced off against Shakespeare in Love. This was probably the most expensive Oscar race to date at the time. Weinstein wasn’t below going negative but his efforts resulted in one of the worst Best Picture wins ever. Moreover, the race led to the rise of the Oscar bloggers. I’ll say it right now: the Oscar conversation is dominated by the same people to the point in which its hard to break into the conversation. I’ve tried with my own Oscars Watch column to no avail. When columns don’t get any traction, you get the idea that there are too many voices already. Perhaps this is why women directors have a hard time breaking into the race.
There’s a chapter devoted to the token wins (Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, and Halle Berry). It’s a shame that so few actors of color have been able to hear their name called on Oscar night. It’s been over 20 years since Halle Berry won and who knows if or when another actress of color will win Best Actress again. Michelle Yeoh could be the first Asian woman to win Best Actress unless the Academy decides to give Cate Blanchett another Oscar.
Of course, no book on the Oscars can be completely without discussing Envelopegate. Big names have traditionally announced the Best Picture winner, at least in the past few decades. Bonnie and Clyde celebrated 50 years in 2017 so it made sense to pair Warren Beatty with Faye Dunaway. Unfortunately, they were handed the wrong envelope. Many things have been written about the night but Schulman adds his own touch, even describing the friendships between the La La Land and Moonlight teams. Where Film Twitter has a way of making films rivals, these two teams grew a friendship during award season. It’s why Jordon Horowitz said he was proud to present the Oscar to his friends from Moonlight. The two films will forever be intertwined even as they represented two different schools of filmmaking.
This all leads us to last year. The big news should have been that the streamers made history at the Oscars. At the same time, they would present eight categories during a pre-show presentation and edit them in later. Thankfully, this nonsense will never happen again. Instead, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock when Rock was presenting Best Documentary Feature. It’s a moment that nobody expected but it placed a sour note on the night especially smith Smith was going to win Best Actor for King Richard.
If you’re a fan of the Oscars, you need to bring home Oscar Wars as soon as you can.
Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman is now available in bookstores.
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