In 'Oscar Wars,' the Long History Of Hollywood Chronicled In Wins, Losses, Controversies And Stunning Gowns
Author Michael Schulman writes about how the Academy Awards have grown from a small industry gathering to a glittering affair watched by millions—and how they always reflect our ever-changing culture
BY KATE TUTTLE
"Each Oscar year is a suspense tale, a choose-your-own-adventure story," writes Michael Schulman on the first page of Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears. Schulman, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has been attending the awards ceremony in person since 2017, but in researching the book he watched scores of old Oscar television broadcasts, seeing everything from the streaker who infamously ran across the stage in 1974 to the bizarre Snow White dance number in 1989 to last year's moment now known simply as The Slap.
Throughout its 90-plus years, no matter what else the Oscars demonstrate, the awards ceremony has demonstrated the ever-shifting culture in which it takes place. "In recent years," Schulman writes, "the Oscars have become a conflict zone for issues of race, gender, and representation," with an increasingly diverse roster of nominees and winners—a vast improvement from 1940, when Hattie McDaniel won for her role in Gone With the Wind, but was forced to sit at a segregated table, away from the White attendees. She was, Schulman writes, "not only the first Black Oscar nominee but also the first Black attendee who wasn't serving the guests."
Schulman talked with PEOPLE as he prepared to make the trip to Los Angeles to take in this year's event.
For people who don't know much about the history of the Oscars, how were the ceremonies different in the earliest years from the event we know now?
They started out as a banquet and it was members of the Academy in a hotel ballroom. The very first ceremony was the Academy's second anniversary dinner — there were various speeches about Academy business, and then the actual awards were handed out in something like 15 minutes at the end.
So it really wasn't a show the way we think of a show now. Eventually, these banquets got a little bigger and they added things that seem now very familiar, like the drama of opening the envelopes. In the '40s, they moved it into a theater and invited an audience. And then starting in 1953, they began televising it. And it hasn't changed terribly much since then.
Have you watched a ton of old Oscar ceremonies?
Oh my gosh, it's so much fun to do that! love the really over-the-top schlocky opening numbers of the '80s and in the '70s as well. I mean, during the era of variety television, they just reached a height of absolute ridiculousness.
One whole chapter of the book is about the Snow White stuff in 1989. Can you describe what happened and why was it such a disaster?
Oh my gosh. This was probably the most fun chapter to work on. So this ceremony went down in history as the worst Oscars ever because it opened with a completely over-the-top, amazingly campy and ridiculous 11-minute opening number that featured Rob Lowe singing Proud Mary with a woman dressed as Snow White in a replica of the Coconut Grove with dancing cocktail tables. It was such a trip. And this ceremony comes up every few years in some list of cringey Oscar moments, or worst Oscars ever, or something like that. And I really wanted to look a bit more deeply at what was behind this famous catastrophe.
And it really was the story of a man named Alan Carr, who was the producer that year. Alan Carr was known at the time for having produced Grease and La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. He was this flamboyantly gay man in a very homophobic era who wore an array of caftans and threw bacchanalian house parties at his place in Benedict Canyon. And he dreamt, his whole life, of producing the Oscars. And when he finally got a chance in 1989, he put his name absolutely everywhere, telling everyone this is going to be the Alan Carr Oscars, they're going to be bigger, glitzier, more glamorous. But then when it was a disaster and got completely ripped apart in the reviews, everyone knew where to point the finger because he had put his name everywhere.
And so Carr really got scapegoated and his career and really his life were ruined overnight. So to me, it was really a kind of tragedy. It was like an Icarus story of this man who flew too close to the Oscar sun and got seriously burned by it.
So 1989 was weird. What happened last year with the slap was weird. Where do you rank last year's slap among the weirdest or most outrageous things that have ever happened at the Oscars?
It's right up there with some of the wildest stuff! Part of what makes the Oscars great television is that there's always some room for spontaneity and raw emotion, just because we don't know who's going to win. So there's an element of surprise every year amid the pomp and formality. But then there's this echelon of wild and crazy things that happened that are on a different level, like the streaker of 1974, and Sacheen Littlefeather declining the award on behalf of Marlon Brando for The Godfather.
You write in the book about Citizen Kane, now seen as the apex of American cinema, getting all but shut out. What do you think were some of the biggest flubs in terms of the Academy voters just getting things wrong?
The Citizen Kane Loss is probably up at the top. The fact that Citizen Kane lost every category except for screenplay, It is just a scandal. Another one that came about 10 years later is when Cecil B DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth won best picture against High Noon. And a lot of that had to do with the blacklist politics of the time. DeMillewas not only an industry veteran, but he was an arch-conservative and a Red-baiter. And High Noon was not only a metaphor for the blacklist, but it was written by a blacklisted screenwriter, Carl Foreman. But that was also the year that Singin' in the Rain wasn't even nominated for Best Picture! That was the first year the Academy Awards were televised, and the world not only got to see how glamorous they were, but how wrong they could be.
You write about the Academy voters and how that has changed over the years. But some people feel that as a group they haven't changed enough.
It's interesting. After Oscars So White in 2015 and 2016, the Academy really made a proactive effort to dramatically change the membership. And I think they did over the course of the year, they brought in hundreds of new people who are much more reflective of the diversity of the population and of the industry. So you have a lot more people of color, women, younger people, and international members.It's so much more global now, and I think that's a good thing. And I think you do start to see that reflected in a win like Parasite or even the breakout of Everything Everywhere All at Once this year. It does not seem as stodgy.
The Academy is like a big ship, and it's hard to turn around very quickly. They've done quite a substantial job of bringing more voices in, but that doesn't mean that you're going to get an immaculately diverse set of nominees every year. And in fact, every year is a bit of a mixed bag.
Just look at this year: you have a breakthrough number of Asian nominees like Michelle Yeah and Hong Chau, and yet there is no Black woman nominated for best actress. There's no woman in the Best Director category, even though the last two years a woman has won. So it always feels like three steps forward, two steps back. It's a work in progress.
Most of us will only ever watch the Oscars on TV. What is it like when you're in the room — what's different?
Well, certain things are the same. For instance, people typically go to the bathroom during the sound category. I'm sorry to say that to the sound designers. Please forgive me, sound designers! Other things that are different? I mean, well, for instance, I don't think a lot of people realize that the Oscars are in a mall. When you walk in--
They basically dress up this mall to look like a palace. And so you walk in and everything is swathed in gold curtains and red carpet, and then you peek through a little crack in the curtain and you'll see a Sunglass Hut or something, like a Sbarro, and you're like, "What? We're in a mall?" So as with a lot of things in Hollywood, the line between glamor and the banal is very thin. It's all smoke and mirrors.
Do you have any predictions for this year's awards?
Well, I feel like this picture's kind of an easy prediction this year, which is Everything Everywhere All at Once. I think if anything's going to steal it, it might be All Quiet on the Western Front. Best Director is really hard. I'm feeling the Daniels. A month ago I thought it was going to be Spielberg, but now I think it's just going to be the rising tide of Everything Everywhere.
Best Actress is really hard. I have no idea what's going to be Michelle Yeah or Cate Blanchett. I really don't know. I'm going to be excited to see that one. Best actor, I predict Austin Butler, just because you should never bet against the Academy awarding someone who plays a self-destructive music legend. That just seems to work.
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