clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The surprising lesson from a century of Oscar scandals

Michael Schulman on why the Oscars are always behind the times, and his new book, Oscar Wars.

US actress Halle Berry celebrates as she holds her Oscar statuette.
Halle Berry strikes a pose after winning her Oscar in 2002. She’s still the only Black woman to win the top award in the Best Actress category.
Lee Celano/AFP via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

What even is the point of the Oscars?

Every year, I find myself asking that question, and every year I have a different answer. They’re a cultural barometer. They’re a way to spotlight movies that got lost in the mega-blockbuster vortex. They’re ridiculous. They’re surprising. They’re a big, hot mess.

Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears, by New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman, wades into that perennial question via a terrifically entertaining structure: He looks at a decade of scandals at the Oscars, the things that went horribly wrong, the shenanigans people talked about and argued about and still get a little salty about every year when the Oscars roll around again. In so doing, he traces an evolution in the way the Oscars — and the industry group that gives them out, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences — have evolved. And along the way, we get to learn how scandals around bad behavior, weird winners, snubs, and blow-ups tell us something about ourselves as a country.

It’s a great book, and I was delighted to talk to Schulman about it. In our conversation (which has been lightly edited for clarity), we discuss some of the zaniest chaos the Oscars has provoked, the reason they even got started in the first place, and what the future could hold, maybe.

Every year, people ask me the same question: “Is there a cash prize if you win the Oscar?” When I say no, the follow-up is often, “Then why does everyone work so hard to get one?” I explain that winning an Oscar can come with indirect monetary gain (winners may get more and better work), but more importantly, it’s about gaining cultural power.

That’s what you say at the beginning of your book, that the common thread through all of the Oscar controversies is the story of people looking to get power, hang on to power, and decide who else gets to have power. Was there a point that you realized that’s what was behind all of this Oscars hubbub?

I spent four years researching and writing the book, and I think I wrote that section about power at the end, when I was trying to stand back and figure out what the common threads were. Of course, there are a couple, like cultural change and generational conflict.

But when I really thought about what human theme was beneath every episode covered in the book, it was power. It was people trying to maintain their power or snatch power from outside the system or beat someone else at the Oscar game.

From the time that the Academy Awards were created, it was this talisman for people. As soon as there was an award to win, people wanted to win it. And I think there are a lot of psychological reasons for that. I mean, who doesn’t want adulation from their peers and reinforcement for their ego? It’s certainly good for your career most of the time — with the notable exception of the “Oscar curse” that strikes some people.

But it’s hard. People are always trying to attain power in Hollywood. It’s a very tumultuous, uncertain, unpredictable business. So besides money and position, the Oscar is one tangible way of attaining power and influence.

I have a friend who always says that it’s relatively easy to tell how much money you have because you just look at your bank account and you kind of know. But it’s impossible to tell how much power you have. So any marker of power is something to grasp after, even if from the outside it looks like you’re a very powerful person.

Yeah. Or how much talent you have. People who make any kind of art are always insecure, trying to grasp at some proof that they’re good at what they do.

I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Writers included!

So prizes for artistic pursuits give you some reassurance. There’s a quote near the beginning of the book from Terry Press, who is a longtime marketing executive. I asked her at one point, what is all this for? Why do people want Oscars?

And she said, “Ego and bragging rights. It’s a town built on a rock-solid foundation of insecurity.”

One thing I love about your narrative is that it’s not just a collection of weird anecdotes, which is certainly a book someone could have written; it’s an argument. You make the case, explicitly but also implicitly, that when we look at Oscars and Hollywood more broadly, we’re seeing a weirdly entertaining encapsulation of very specific anxieties in American culture at that moment. The great film critic and cultural historian Jim Hoberman calls it the “dream life” of the country. It’s the fantasies and the fears all wrapped up into one.

But I think what people forget — and what you bring to life — is that it really all started with fears about respectability, and also labor. Those two issues actually are the reason we have the Oscars at all.

The Academy was founded in 1927 by 36 founding members who really represented a cross-section of influence and power in Hollywood in the silent era. Their rhetoric from that time is so utopian. They talk about how they wanted to be “the League of Nations for Hollywood.” They talk about creating harmony and promoting motion pictures throughout the world, and that’s all well and good, but there were basically two underlying, ongoing crises for Hollywood that are the subtexts of those statements.

One is that Hollywood was, by and large, not a unionized town in the ’20s. The craftspeople were unionized, but not the artists, not the actors, writers, and directors. There were signs that they might start to organize, and that was a big problem for people like [MGM founder] Louis B. Mayer and the other studio heads.

Mary Pickford, Warner Baxter And Hans Kraly Receiving An Oscar 1929
William C. Demille, Mary PIckford, Warner Baxter, and Hans Kraly at the first Academy Awards in 1929.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

So, one of the reasons the Academy was invented was to mediate disputes over salaries or hirings and firings and to oversee contract negotiations. There was a lot of resentment from the rank and file because they saw this as a kind of company union that would preempt actual labor unions. Which was true! The birth of the Academy managed to push off the creation of guilds in Hollywood for about five years, until the Depression hit and the labor movement of the ’30s gave rise to SAG and other guilds.

The other thing that was happening in 1920s Hollywood is that there was a series of very salacious scandals, like the arrest of Paramount’s Fatty Arbuckle for rape and murder, and other murders and sex scandals and drug scandals. Then as now, there was a culture war in the country. The conservative element saw Hollywood as a cesspool of sin. There was a real threat of censorship laws.

So the Academy, this new organization, helped rebrand Hollywood not as a cesspool but as an “academy,” a very lofty idea. The Academy Awards were originally just kind of one item on a long list of ideas the Academy had. But it has to do with that goal of elevating the idea of motion pictures as an art form, so that it wasn’t seen as this gutter activity that would corrupt whoever stumbled into its path.

All of this points to something I’m always thinking about: that Hollywood is a fundamentally conservative place, in the sense that on the highest levels of decision-making, it’s risk-averse and fixated on what’s “okay” to show the country about itself, on what won’t rock the boat. For a long period in the 20th century, the studio execs even explicitly saw themselves as guardians of America’s morality. That arises in some of the scandals in your book: that they were and are conservative on matters of gender and power, homophobia, race, and more.

One particularly notable example is what happened with the Hollywood blacklist and HUAC. I had never heard that wild story about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Oh, isn’t it great?

It’s incredible.

One of my favorite semi-forgotten Oscar scandals, because it’s so weird. In 1957, the award for Best Motion Picture Story — a category that no longer exists — went to someone named “Robert Rich” for a movie called The Brave One, which was about a Mexican boy and his bull. Robert Rich was not in attendance. In the days after the ceremony, no one could locate him. That is because he did not exist.

The producers of the movie said he was a guy they met in Munich, an ex-GI, who sold them this story, but they didn’t know where he was. Maybe Europe, maybe Australia. Life [magazine] actually ran an illustration of what Robert Rich might look like, based on their recollections. It’s such a funny picture. It says he has an aquiline nose, parted hair, such-and-such height.

But really, he was a pseudonym, a front for Dalton Trumbo, who was the most famous screenwriter on the Hollywood blacklist. He had actually been to prison already, as one of the Hollywood Ten.

Protesters hold signs that read, “The reds are back in Hollywood,” and, “Preminger, did you have to hire the notorious commie Trumbo?”
In 1960, a group of protesters demonstrate. against Communist sympathizers outside the Fox Wilshire Theatre at the premiere of film Exodus, which marked the end of the Hollywood Blacklist. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a Communist Party member from 1943 to 1948 and a member of the Hollywood Ten, was credited as the screenwriter of the film.
American Stock Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

What I really love about this story is that once Trumbo saw that this phantom person, “Robert Rich,” won an Oscar for his work, he realized he could use that to turn the tables on the blacklist and try to destroy it by creating a PR crisis for the Academy. He used his wit and his cleverness and his words, and he played the press in order to fan this ridiculous controversy. It went on for two years.

He actually wrote a poem and sent it in to Life. It’s so funny. It goes, “Come back, Robert Rich, wherever you are / Return so the ghost can be shriven. / Do you live on the moon? Do you live on a star? / Is that where your legends are scriven?”

Trumbo was such a smart, waggish writer, and at the end of all this, he managed to basically manipulate the Academy into dropping its rule against blacklisted people being eligible for awards. The rule only lasted two years because the Academy realized it was unenforceable, and it just kept creating one embarrassing PR crisis for them after another. It was an open secret that these really prominent screenwriters were working on the black market under fake names and being paid bargain rates. Trumbo exploited that hypocrisy by playing up this Robert Rich scandal to the hilt.

It does seem like the history of the Oscars is a history of PR crises that the Academy created for itself and failed to anticipate — right up to the present, with #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. Is there some reason that this keeps happening?

Well, yes. Hollywood is built on perception and optics and public relations. And on one very fundamental level, the Oscars are a marketing event. Often, in Hollywood, things don’t happen unless they become a PR problem, and people are forced to change something or move or do something.

That sounds very cynical, and it mostly is. But when you think about it, #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite became big movements because of a herd mentality. They had to build until the point where the powers that be felt that it was more damaging to stand still than to enact change.

The Academy tends to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to criticism and changing with the times. This is the same story as 1969, 1970, when the Academy was woefully out of step with the baby boom and it hadn’t really reached across the generation gap. The Academy president, Gregory Peck, realized that something had to be done.

So, just like in 2016 after #OscarsSoWhite, he realized that the only way the Academy could survive and be relevant was to bring in more people and update the membership. But this was 1969 and the Academy was still giving Oliver! Best Picture.

Then, in a single year, the Best Picture winner went from Oliver!, which was rated G, to Midnight Cowboy, which was rated X. So I asked, what happened in that year to make the Academy change course so drastically and finally embrace the counterculture?

What you’re describing when you say that Hollywood is slow to change is, in a sense, the story of American society. One thing you write about that really underlines this is all the racism and tokenism that has marked the Oscars over nearly a century. Something I gleaned from your book is that the milestones illuminate failures rather than wins. It’s not really a win when it’s the 2020s and someone is the first minority to be nominated in their category.

I have a chapter that braids the stories of three pioneering Black Oscar winners: Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind, Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, and Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. They were all the first Black actors to win in those categories. And I thought it was amazing that their stories had so many parallels. Each won the Oscar, and it was hailed as this historic moment by the Academy and by Hollywood.

However, for each of them, it was a very isolating experience. They had to represent everyone, but they were pleasing almost no one. And they all received backlash from the Black community. In Hattie McDaniel’s case, for instance, she won for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and then spent the rest of her career fighting with the NAACP, which was trying to get Hollywood to broaden its role for Black actors beyond mammies and the like. She was really stuck in that mammy archetype.

Sidney Poitier had a similar issue where he was suddenly criticized for being too wholesome and upstanding, and quickly fell out of fashion during the rise of Blaxploitation.

And then Halle Berry — I think we forget how much criticism and ridicule she received for her speech. It was almost shocking to go back just to 2002 and look at what the public reaction was like. People writing in to newspapers saying that she shouldn’t have made it all about race, that she embarrassed herself by crying so much, that she had been too sexual in her role in Monster’s Ball.

All three of them had these experiences where they could be held up by Hollywood as proof of progress, and yet their experience of these victories was something very different.

That is absolutely still true today. Every time I have to come up with a list of “milestones” in the Oscar nominations, it’s like, “Really? This person is the first to be nominated in this?” It’s really kind of shocking.

There still hasn’t been a Black Best Director winner. I mean, seriously? A Black person has never won Best Director. No person of color has won Best Actress since Halle Berry. And she was the first! She was the only one!

I end that chapter with something Halle Berry said in 2016: She had waited 15 years to see someone follow in her footsteps, and no one did. She said that it was heartbreaking because in her speech, she said, “Tonight a door has been opened.” But 15 years later, she realized she thought it was a moment that was bigger than her, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she hadn’t opened a door. That was heartbreaking to her.

And there certainly isn’t going to be a Black Best Actress winner this year because nobody is even nominated.

That raises a final question for me. The Oscars hold an outsized place in the minds of ordinary people. People care more about the Oscars than any other awards; they don’t care about the Emmys the same way, or even the Grammys. There are reasons for that. The Oscars story is very neat; it acts like a sports season crossed with a political campaign. It’s got the players and the shockers and the plot twists.

But now that we’ve reached 2023, it’s very clear to me that the Oscars as a cultural phenomenon are on the decline. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. There are factors at play. Having written this book, what do you think the future of the Oscars is?

It’s an interesting question, but it’s hard to say.

We’re in a moment of extreme skepticism toward longstanding institutions in general, whether it’s the Oscars or Washington or the New York Times. We’re in an anti-institutional moment. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe it’s a bad thing. But it’s undeniably true.

The Oscars’ ratings have been on a downslide. They bumped up a little bit last year; the low point was 2021, the pandemic Oscars that were held in an LA train station.

But I think part of the problem is that firstly, the monoculture has declined. It’s very hard now to get the entire country, much less the world, to all watch the same thing on TV. Pop culture is much more fragmented. So I don’t think there’s ever going to be an audience for the Oscars like there was 30 years ago.

The other thing that’s really changed is the role of movies in our lives. Movies themselves aren’t as central to American culture as they once were. In particular, Hollywood is very bifurcated right now between these big tentpole movies like the Marvel movies and Avatar, which seem to be the only thing that people rush out to the theaters to go see, and then on the other side, indie movies and stuff that winds up on streaming that people are very comfortable staying home and watching on Paramount+ or HBO Max or Netflix.

What doesn’t exist as much anymore is the mid-level movie. And those have always helped tie the Oscars to mainstream American culture. For instance, when you think back to the ’90s, you had movies like Forrest Gump and The English Patient or Good Will Hunting. Those were adult dramas that everyone saw. They were big hits, and they weren’t superhero movies, but they also weren’t little indie movies.

Because of that, when the Oscar list came out every year, people had seen these movies. And I think now when the Oscar nominations come out, a lot of people are left scratching their heads. They complain, “I haven’t seen any of these. What the hell?

But I don’t think that’s the Oscars’ fault, and I don’t think that the Academy can really do anything about that. They keep trying to incorporate more popular movies. Last year, you could vote online for your Audience Favorite. Years ago, they tried to add a Best Popular Film category, and people ridiculed it so much that they basically just retreated it into the hedges and it never happened.

I think that’s fine. I don’t think that’s what the Oscars are for.

But it is an issue for the relevance of the Academy Awards because people need to be invested, they need to be watching the movies, and the Oscars do a great job of lifting up and giving oxygen to little movies like Tár and Women Talking and Aftersun and stuff that’s nominated now, against the Avatars and the Top Guns.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t think the Oscars will cease to exist anytime soon. But as I look at the book and the almost century of history that it covers, I do wonder, is this the history of something that is, on some level, over? Or is it just cyclical? There are so many times in Hollywood history where the technology changes or taste changes and it gives birth to something great, like it did in the New Hollywood of the ’70s.

I don’t know. I’ll be interested to see.

Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears is available at booksellers nationwide.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.