The Scandalous, Clueless, Irresistible Oscars

As a film critic, I have complicated feelings about Oscar season, a baggy calendrical concept that now includes every month of the year, from the indie-film discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival in January to the awards voting by critics’ groups in December. The complaints about the Academy Awards are as well rehearsed as the acceptance speech of a surefire victor: The most deserving nominees seldom win, and the most inventive movies of the year typically get no nominations at all. The voting process is so opaque and so subject to external influence—barraged by ever more expensively managed PR campaigns and buffeted by political and social forces far outside the Academy’s garden walls—that to say the prize has little to do with the recognition of artistic merit is to join a weary chorus. And yet the whole cinematic world dances to the rhythm of the Oscars’ baton, and I refer not merely to the film industry itself, but to a sprawling satellite economy of run-up awards, Oscar-branded media coverage, fashion marketing, and social-media conversation.

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To scoff at or criticize or even ignore the annual ritual that is the Academy Awards is not to escape its hold on our culture. Indeed, the doubters and haters make up a crucial part of the system. Resistance to the Oscars’ outsize influence is what sparked the creation of alternative prizes such as the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards, now glamorous institutions in their own right. Some award-giving bodies, such as the dubious Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes for the Golden Globes, have become foils that make the Academy look like a model of uprightness by comparison. Decades of recurring scandals—including voter-swaying payola campaigns and an accusation of sexual assault—have destroyed whatever legitimacy the Globes ever had. (I should disclose that I’m a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose annual ceremony—started just six years after the first Oscars were handed out—has long been a station of the cross on the awards circuit. So even in critiquing the Oscars, I’m one more cog in an awards machine that offers no real place for an observer to stand outside it: Critics’ awards, reviews, lists, and rankings are routinely deployed in Oscar campaigns.)

The Academy has managed, somehow, to maintain its legitimacy, at least insofar as its trophies have retained their potent symbolic value. But the history of the Oscars is a history of the struggle to sustain that legitimacy, as scandal, embarrassment, and a remarkable ability to be one step behind the zeitgeist continually seem to threaten the entire enterprise. In 2015, one such fracas became a spur for reform: In response to an all-white slate of acting nominees, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, started by a Black activist, quickly went viral. When the acting slate was all white again in 2016, a fresh surge of outrage finally shamed the Academy into recruiting a younger, more diverse membership. Some dared to anticipate that a watershed was at hand. Notably, the years since have delivered Best Picture wins to such atypical Oscar fare as Moonlight, Parasite, and Nomadland, artful, downbeat films made outside the Hollywood system by nonwhite and, in one case, nonmale filmmakers. Results like these, and the reforms that abetted them, are welcome and overdue. They are also clearly insufficient.

Yet once again, like the indestructible star of an action franchise, the Oscars have reemerged, ready for another sequel. We keep watching, or refusing to watch, even as we can’t resist debating what the lists and the ceremony—“this farcical charade of vulgar egotism and pomposity,” as its own frequent host Bob Hope once described it—may have to tell us about Hollywood and ourselves. Not that we believe in oracles, or that the Oscars have ever been one. But the ceremony and its extended prelude offer us a shared spectacle that prompts discussion of very American questions. Who’s up and who’s down? Which dreams and fears are selling this year? In what direction might this mass, and so often messy, medium be headed?

In Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears, the New Yorker writer Michael Schulman provides just what we need as the same old love-hate drama plays out yet again for Oscar fans and shunners alike: a rich array of unflattering but spellbinding stories about the feuds and failures of judgment that the Academy has thus far managed to weather. Schulman explores nine decades of Oscar-related turf battles, examining the institution’s constant missteps and often bumbling self-reinvention as it strives to sustain its influence. “If there’s a common thread running through the decades of Oscar wars,” he writes, “it’s power: who has it, who’s straining to keep it, who’s invading the golden citadel to snatch it.” As everyone in the movie business knows, that particular story line appeals to brows high and low.

A sparkling compendium of show-business anecdotes as well-researched as they are dishy, Oscar Wars reminds us that a power struggle inspired the very creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was formed in 1927, when the silent era was coming to an abrupt close and the studio system’s grip on the industry was tightening. As the craft guilds formed in the 1920s began to threaten strikes, the MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer banded together with a group of influential industry players, including producers, directors, writers, and actors, to establish a bulwark against growing labor unrest. The following year, the Academy introduced the concept of an annual awards ceremony: What better strategy for pacifying and thereby controlling the talent? “If I got them cups and awards,” Mayer crowed in an interview decades later, “they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.”

For the next few decades, Mayer’s plan worked, at least on the surface. MGM retained its clout in the yearly Oscar race, right up until the studio system finally disintegrated in the 1960s, after nearly two decades of slow decline. Yet well before that, the Academy had acquired its own aura of prestige, independent of (and soon much more sought-after than) the approbation of any individual member of its voting group. By the mid-’30s, the statuette of a nude bronze man sketched in 1928 by the legendary MGM designer Cedric Gibbons had become the world’s most desirable piece of mantel candy.

Of course, just because the awards have long been sought-after doesn’t mean they’ve always gone to the most deserving recipient. Whether the Oscar merits respect as an arbiter of artistic quality is a debate as old as the Academy itself. Nor was it always the case that the bestowing of “cups and awards” worked to facilitate the top-down control of talent that Mayer envisioned. Schulman devotes an early chapter called “Rebels” in part to the recurring standoffs between a fierce, artistically driven young Bette Davis and an Academy already headed, Variety declared, for “the ash-can of oblivion.” (A resurgence of the Hollywood labor movement in the Great Depression had left the power of the Academy looking less secure.) Having lost the 1935 Best Actress race despite her widely admired performance in Of Human Bondage—and having then won in 1936 for a role in what she considered the “maudlin and mawkish” Dangerous—Davis hardly revered the Academy’s standards. But she wasn’t about to opt out of the game. Leveraging the power of the Oscar she disdained, she staged a “one-woman strike,” breaking the terms of her Warner Brothers contract and signing on to make two films with a European production company. She was sued by Warner Brothers and lost, but her defiance opened the way for a history-making win by Olivia de Havilland in a lawsuit against the same studio a few years later: Henceforth, studios could enforce exclusive contracts for at most seven calendar years, enabling actors to work as free agents.

By 1939, Davis the rebel was poised to become an Academy insider. She had another Best Actress win under her belt (this time for a film, Jezebel, that she felt deserved the honor), and her influence had grown to the point that she had earned the nickname “the fourth Warner Brother.” She was elected the Academy’s first female president in November 1941, a leader with her own ideas about the institution’s elite-but-democratic balancing act. Less than two months later, she resigned after daring to disagree with the board’s view that the ceremony should be canceled in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Davis argued that a toned-down event, staged, in Variety’s words, “sans orchidaceous glitter,” could be a boon to American morale. The board, feeling that no event would be preferable to an event so modest as to “rob the Academy of all dignity,” was appalled—but ended up adopting Davis’s approach for the 1942 awards.

That same year provides one of the most salient examples of the by-now-general rule that the Best Picture Oscar seldom goes to the movie that, in retrospect, has the greatest long-term impact on the motion-picture medium. As Schulman recounts, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, a box-office flop lauded by critics but tepidly received by audiences, was presumed to be in contention for the award with Howard Hawks’s widely beloved World War I drama Sergeant York, the top-grossing film of 1941—until both lost to John Ford’s nostalgic Welsh-mining-family drama, How Green Was My Valley. Given that the United States had entered World War II just a few months before the prizes were awarded, the Academy’s choice to bypass a dark social satire like Kane is understandable. The patriotic Sergeant York’s eclipse was a surprise, but a welcome one for the Academy, which was all too happy to skirt controversy: Isolationists were threatening a Senate investigation of “war hysteria” issuing from “non-Nordic” Hollywood. The Senate probe fell apart after Pearl Harbor, and by the end of 1943, the war had become, Schulman writes, “the driving force in American movies.”

Citizen Kane’s fate, in Schulman’s telling, was also ensured by the fierce campaign waged against it by the film’s thinly disguised subject, William Randolph Hearst. And Welles’s insistence on complete creative freedom, paired with his developing reputation for being behind schedule and over budget, scarcely endeared him to his higher-ups at RKO Studios. If Kane had won the industry’s most valued prize despite its failure to recoup the studio’s investment in an untried 24-year-old theater director, film history from 1941 on might have looked different. But even without the Oscars’ help—or rather, wearing its lone trophy for Best Original Screenplay as a badge of anti-establishment pride—Citizen Kane now regularly appears on, if not atop, lists of the best and most influential films of all time. And Welles did get his Oscar payback 30 years later, receiving an honorary award in the New Hollywood era, when a generation of young directors was on the rise. He didn’t show up to accept it, though. His cover story was that he was “filming abroad.” In fact, Schulman writes, he was watching from a house in Laurel Canyon. Perhaps Welles was tired from years of battling Hollywood insiders, and just couldn’t face a fickle awards process that was busy buttressing its own reputation by delivering a belated apology.

Soon enough, the Academy was lagging behind once again. In 1976, Miloš Forman’s bleak anti-establishment parable One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest swept all five of the top awards, the first film to do so since Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1935. To call the bonanza belated is an understatement. Here was the Academy catching America’s new wave of auteur-driven filmmaking as the wave was receding: By then, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, three New Hollywood masterworks that were also box-office hits, had all failed to secure the Academy’s top prize. Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg, whose Jaws had been the box-office juggernaut of 1975, wasn’t nominated for Best Director, and his film won only for Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing. Yet the mid-1970s would be remembered as the moment when summer blockbusters and big action franchises started to pump renewed energy and large profits into the corporate studio system.

For anyone eager to think that the #OscarsSoWhite turmoil just might have marked a decisive swerve in the Academy’s approach to diversity in Hollywood, Schulman’s late chapter “Tokens”—a harsh but accurate title—is sobering. His foray into the history of the Academy’s recognition of nonwhite performers requires a temporal montage, a departure from his technique of focusing on episodic tales decade by decade. Drawing connections among the careers of Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, and Halle Berry—the first Black actors to win, respectively, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Actress—Schulman emphasizes the dispiritingly long stretches of time between each of these milestone wins: McDaniel for Gone With the Wind in 1940, Poitier for Lilies of the Field in 1964, then Berry for Monster’s Ball in 2002. (During the nearly four decades that elapsed between the last two victories, four other Black actors won Oscars for supporting roles.)

black-and-white photo of Hattie McDaniel in evening wear with flower in hair accepting Oscar statuette
Hattie McDaniel arose from a segregated table in 1940 to collect her Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Gone With the Wind. (Everett Collection)

Schulman avoids making the parallels among their very different cases too explicit, but shows how all three went on to have trouble escaping the stereotyped roles that had brought them their biggest success. He writes that McDaniel, who had made her name as a bawdy vaudeville singer, searched in vain for films that would let her break out of the “servile, sexless ‘mammy’ archetype.” Poitier spent most of his career boxed into the role of upstanding, “exceptional” Black man in stodgy if well-meaning liberal race dramas. Nearly 40 years later, the biracial Berry, a former pageant queen, struggled to find her place in the early-21st-century film industry: Just three years after winning her Best Actress Oscar, she was awarded the Golden Raspberry (or “Razzie”) Award for the disastrous Catwoman.

Schulman wisely resists any tidy summary of the Academy’s long history of internal strife, and instead closes by giving his readers a surreal behind-the-scenes glimpse of gleeful celebration after an Oscar night from hell. Before leaving the Vanity Fair party following last year’s ceremony, he observes Will Smith’s triumphant turn on the dance floor, holding his newly acquired Best Actor statuette for his role in King Richard, after his much-discussed on-air slap of the presenter Chris Rock. “In a matter of hours,” Schulman marvels, “he had assaulted someone on live television, ripped his soul open while winning an Oscar, and written himself a bizarre new chapter in Academy Awards history. Had we witnessed a psychic breakdown? A husband defending his wife? A jerk? A victim? A monster?”

Schulman’s response to the most recent Oscars dustup feels entirely of a piece with the foregoing 500 pages of skirmishes, upsets, subterfuges, rivalries, reputational machinations, and unforeseen personal and historical dramas. The trajectory of the Academy, it seems, has always featured just such lurches, usually with unintended consequences. First comes what looks like a bold breakthrough or egregious oversight or violated taboo, followed by controversy and complaint and, naturally, intense competition. Last of all comes the self-celebratory spin on the dance floor, a dizzying commemoration of the Academy’s ever-changing sense of its own meaning, purpose, and future—however out of sync that sense may be with what the film industry, and the society it aspires to entertain, has in store. On the morning after Oscar night, ritual preparations for the next year’s dance begin again.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “The Scandalous, Clueless, Irresistible Oscars.”

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