' ' Cinema Romantico: Book Review: Oscar Wars

Friday, March 08, 2024

Book Review: Oscar Wars

At the end of the 89th Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, 2017, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood to announce the winner for Best Picture. Beatty opened the envelope, hemmed, and hawed, and held the card inside the envelope out to Dunaway as one might hold a menu at a roadside diner in the middle of the night upon realizing they do not, alas, serve breakfast all day. Seeming to think Beatty was being a card himself, Dunaway chuckled, glanced at the card in his hand, and announced the winner, or what she thought was the winner, “La La Land.” But the winner was not “La La Land.” They had the wrong envelope. The winner was “Moonlight.” The kind of mishap typically relegated to the realm of urban legend had happened, and even if people behind the scenes of the Oscar ceremony were scrambling in real time to set things right, it was essentially left to not victorious “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz to explain what had occurred, summoning the real victors from “Moonlight” to the stage.

Even now, it’s surreal to watch, the show’s host, a crestfallen, almost visibly ill Jimmy Kimmel, trying to intercede, and Beatty explaining himself as in the background various people hand the Oscar statues they did not win to the people who did. (Dunaway, at some point, disappears backstage before flitting out for the Governor’s Party, as if quietly suggesting the shindig’s overriding frivolity no matter who wins, or that maybe the ceremony is just a vessel for the afterparties.) This is where New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman concludes his sensational 2023 book Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears. After all, in recounting the nine decades of Academy Awards, the author finds an institution mired in perpetual crisis, where the line between winners and losers is often blurred, and the line between Black and White is not, and a ceremony that tends to be most rememberable when something goes wrong.

What are the Oscars, and who, exactly, are they for? This is the broad query regularly put forth by the inimitable collective “people” in advance of the Academy Awards, and then after them, especially if the TV ratings were bad. As Schulman’s intro suggests, however, the Oscars are essentially anything for everyone. They are for the pundits, some of whom have regrettably transformed Oscar prognosticating into a full-time job, an enervating year-round activity a la equally enervating never-ending NFL mock drafts. They are for fashionistas, the red carpet just one more runway. They are fodder for opinion columnists, and culture writers. They are the enemies of art, judging it rather than considering it, even if they are what force an industry to view their commercial products as art in the first place. They are as much a scapegoat for the industry’s flaws as they are a symbol. They are for you, and they are for me, and so, they are for all of us and none of us, which is why, as Schulman wryly notes in his first sentence, the Oscars are always getting it wrong. But more than anything, Schulman reckons, the Oscars are about power, “who has it, who’s straining to keep it...perpetually redrawing the bounds of the Hollywood establishment.”

Through this light, the colloquial and existential adage that Awards Don’t Matter has never rung hollower. They do matter, a lot, an industry talisman, and Schulman proves it again and again in eleven rollicking chapters spotlighting Oscar season altercations between management and labor, between Old and New Hollywood, between independents and studios, between rival producers, and rival actors. And they mattered, Schulman illustrates, almost immediately, long before they possessed a historical footprint, highlighting not just the ambitious nature of Hollywood but the innate magnetism of awards. Echoing Carey Mulligan, who recently told The Hollywood Reporter that any actor claiming not to care about winning an Oscar is lying, Schulman evokes the cravings of the silver screen’s biggest, from Frank Capra to Bette Davis to Joan Fontaine to Olivia de Havilland. When the latter lost to Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress in 1940, she told Entertainment Weekly years later that she “ceased to believe in (God).” For one night, at least. 

Yet, the scope of Oscar Wars simultaneously puts into perspective how so often these awards season scuffles are rendered immaterial by the ultimate agent of indifference, time. William Randolph Hearst and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper might have worked to kibosh Orson Welles winning Best Picture for “Citizen Kane,” or maybe, as Schulman also submits, that was the studio system putting the kibosh on an uppity auteur, but either way, “Citizen Kane” has essentially gone down in the record as the greatest movie of all time, rendering its lack of Oscar love as laughable. The yawning 62-year gap, meanwhile, between McDaniel becoming the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940 and Halle Berry becoming the first African American to win Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball” in 2002 demonstrates the overriding inadequacy of the victories. Like Sidney Poitier, who became the first Black man to win Best Actor in-between in 1964 but whose career ultimately became stuck between a rock and a hard place, the passage of time exposed McDaniel and Berry’s awards as Potemkin Oscars, mere emblematic offerings, a way for Hollywood to claim progress even as everything continued like normal (a new normal, you might say), and the winners were cruelly left twisting in the wind. The book’s most heartbreaking moment is Berry recalling how returning home in the aftermath of her historic victory, she was already sensing how nothing was going to change. The Oscar might lead your obit, as William Goldman said, but so often their real value proves fleeting. 

Given such recurring narrow-mindedness, it almost beggars belief that the Academy Awards could have lasted a century. It’s not just their homogeny, but their cowardice during the 1950s blacklist, and the anti-labor sentiment rooted in their very conception. Yet, while it might be a stretch to deem the Academy adaptable, more like grudgingly reactive, Oscar Wars also illustrates how it has proved itself to be a wily survivor. Unions threatened the existence of the Oscars almost before they got rolling, yet they wound up co-existing instead, and when the Academy became old and out of touch in the 1960s and was revealed as too old and white in the 2010s, voter purges and infusions of diversity from Academy presidents, respectively, Gregory Peck and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, managed to keep the ship on course. They even survived the infamous opening number of 1989 starring Rob Lowe and Snow White, though show producer Allan Carr did not. You begin the chapter thinking Carr made his own bed; you end it feeling as if Hollywood metaphorically slit his throat, an appeasement to the public so that next year, the show could go on.

Despite the Academy’s instinct for self-preservation, in his epilogue, Schulman nevertheless leaves us with the unmistakable impression that the Oscars are at a crossroads. True, they have benefitted from the most recent membership makeover engineered by Boone Isaacs, apparent in this year’s nominations, and there has always been a push and pull between the public’s taste and that of the Academy. But the divide has never seemed bigger, provoking questions not just about Oscar taste but relevance, reflected in dwindling ratings that has led to all sorts of desperate attempts to rope in a broader viewing audience, exasperating the motion picture lifers, a real lose-lose. And that’s to say nothing of the larger existential questions like streaming, and supply chain issues affected by the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. In another time, Will Smith’s Best Actor win in 2022 might have been held up as a happy moment, but instead his slapping Chris Rock mid-ceremony became a symbol of something else, an Academy on the verge of coming undone. Schulman ends his book by describing the image of Smith dancing at the Oscar afterparties, a man Gettin’ Jiggy wit it as Hollywood burns.

No comments: