How one can love a trashy Oscar production number and also be an astute and witty critic of the Oscars as a political and cultural barometer of American life is a bit of a mystery, but somehow Michael Schulman has managed to pull off this trick.
A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, Schulman has written Oscar Wars, a compulsively readable history of an event that began in part as a union-busting maneuver and ballooned into a global spectacle whose dramas sometimes exceeded whatever film it was honoring. And say what you will about “the Slap,” that gesture got the actual telecast more press than it has had for years.
Oscar Wars is as much a history of Hollywood and ego and subterfuge as it is about those half-headed golden statues of a knight holding a sword. The book is so enjoyable it should come with a bucket of buttered popcorn.
JIM KELLY: You had me hooked with the very first paragraph of your book, when you write, “Twenty-four centuries after Euripides came in third place at the Athenian dramatic festival, Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to Crash, and the outcry will probably last another twenty-four centuries.” There are so many other examples of great films losing to mediocre ones that I wonder why you think we pay so much attention to the Oscar race every year.
MICHAEL SCHULMAN: Because it’s fun! As a pure barometer of cinematic worth, the Oscars will always leave you heartbroken—or enraged. Fundamentally, the Oscars are a game, and it’s human nature to get caught up in competition. We love to root for our favorites and argue about what’s good and what’s bad, who’s deserving and who’s not, and who’s making a fool of themselves in the effort to win. Oscar season invites us to express our own taste, even if it’s griping about what the Academy gets wrong.
Then there’s the show itself, which can be schmaltzy, meandering, and long, but also glamorous, suspenseful, and, occasionally, bizarre.
The argument of Oscar Wars is that, besides all of the above, the Oscars are a battlefield where cultural forces collide, whether it’s #OscarsSoWhite in 2016 or the rise of the counterculture in 1970, when Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were nominated and the bewildered host, Bob Hope, said, “This is not an Academy Awards. It’s a freak-out, ladies and gentlemen.”
J.K.: Louis B. Mayer is credited with creating the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a clever maneuver to give a growing yet divisive and scandal-plagued industry some unifying gloss. The awards were almost an afterthought, yet Mayer later took credit for coming up with the idea as a way of dangling awards in front of artists to get them to do what he wanted them to do. Has it ever worked out that way?
M.S.: It’s happened in a million ways, direct and indirect. What’s more enticing (or intimidating) to an aspiring starlet than an executive suite lined with Oscars? Hollywood is built on cachet, and the Oscar confers an unparalleled level of soft power.
But the example that comes to mind is a dark one: Harvey Weinstein. In the 90s, he built a reputation as the man with the golden touch, and he used the promise of an Oscar—or, at least, a full-throttle Oscar campaign—to lure talent or keep them in line (or keep them quiet). One colleague recalled him on the phone with Gwyneth Paltrow the day she didn’t get nominated for Emma, insisting that she’d been robbed. This was already after he’d asked her to massage him at a hotel room, by her account, and she refused.
“Hollywood is built on cachet, and the Oscar confers an unparalleled level of soft power.”
It must have been a difficult calculation for her to work with him again on Shakespeare in Love. Would she have done it if she didn’t believe that he’d mount an aggressive best-actress campaign? It’s hard to say, but he certainly knew how to dangle the possibility of Oscar glory—and keep his talent relations intact, despite his ghoulish behavior.
J.K.: Cary Grant never won an Oscar. Is there a more damning sentence about the awards than that? And, by the way, why didn’t he?
M.S.: I know, right? I’ve seen it theorized that the Academy iced him out because he was such a thorn in the side of the studio system, and in the old days the Academy was even clubbier than it is now.
To his credit, he shunned them right back. After one too many snubs, he stayed away from the Oscars for 12 years, until, in 1970, Academy president Gregory Peck moved heaven and earth to get him to break his boycott and accept an honorary award. This coup was almost undone when, weeks before the ceremony, a woman threatened Grant with a paternity suit. Howard Hughes had to persuade him that the best way to ride out the scandal would be to show up, and he wound up delivering a wonderful speech.
J.K.: Is there such a thing as an “Oscar curse”? Ernest Borgnine won best actor in 1956 for his starring role in Marty, defeating James Dean, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, and Spencer Tracy. Yet afterwards he found it a mixed blessing, with no flood of casting calls. Is there another example or two of this happening?
M.S.: There are too many examples to name. Where did Hilary Swank go after her double Oscar win (for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby)? Or Melissa Leo after The Fighter? Anne Hathaway’s win for Les Misérables seemed to prompt a backlash against her that lasted for years.
Notice that these examples are all actresses—our culture loves to build women up and tear them down. It’s even worse for Black women. After Angela Bassett was nominated for What’s Love Got to Do with It, she says she didn’t get an offer for 18 months. And Halle Berry followed up her historic win for Monster’s Ball in 2002 with … Catwoman.
“Our culture loves to build women up and tear them down.”
J.K.: True or false: Making the ceremony a TV show with lavish and often tacky production numbers has debased the purpose of the awards presentation, which is to honor excellence in filmmaking. And no matter your answer, what is the worst Oscar telecast you have seen? And not to predict your answer, but how did Rob Lowe ever survive that?
M.S.: You are talking to the wrong man, because I love nothing more than an over-the-top production number. The Oscars honor film, but they’re really a TV show, and the production numbers grew out of the era of glitzy variety specials. They were particularly excessive in the 80s—check out the one from 1988, which involves lasers and dancing Oscars in spandex suits.
But the most notorious opening number came in 1989, with, yes, Rob Lowe singing “Proud Mary” with a woman dressed as Snow White. I devoted an entire chapter of Oscar Wars to this disastrous ceremony and the man behind it, the caftan-wearing impresario Allan Carr, best known for producing Grease. His career was ruined after those Oscars, but Lowe … well, two months later came his sex-tape scandal, so he had bigger problems. And the Oscars learned to tamp things down—they hired Billy Crystal, who started doing his great best-picture medleys, which were low on decadence and high on wit.
J.K.: It is not always clear how much a best-picture win helps a movie at the box office. What is your best example that it does help—and your best example that it does not?
M.S.: Little movies tend to benefit more than giant hits, because the margin makes that much more of a difference. Parasite earned $8.8 million in the week after it won best picture in 2020, amounting to a fifth of its domestic box office to date. You simply had to see it, if you hadn’t already. But Titanic had already made all the money in the world by the Oscars, and after it won, its box office dropped 11 percent—still raking in money, but who hadn’t seen it already?
Of course, so much about the distribution model is in flux right now, with streaming taking over and theater chains disintegrating, so it’s hard to predict how any of this will apply in the future.
J.K.: You attended the ceremony last year and perfectly captured the confusion and shock and bewilderment about the Slap. If you had been producing the show, would you have had Will Smith escorted out?
“As a pure barometer of cinematic worth, the Oscars will always leave you heartbroken—or enraged.”
M.S.: No, but I am, admittedly, a lover of Oscar chaos and drama. No sooner had the Slap happened than everyone there realized, Holy shit, this guy is about to win best actor and give a speech! I was among the people who were dying to see what he’d have to say, and, sure enough, it was an unforgettable display of raw human emotion—in other words, great television.
I get the argument that booting him immediately would have been the more ethical choice, but that would have come with its own quandaries: Was he really a danger after that moment? Would he have resisted? Then what? It could easily have escalated the situation and produced even worse optics, with a Black man being perp-walked out of the Oscars.
J.K.: Our fantasy questions continue! Thanks to your terrific book, you are named the producer of next year’s telecast. What is the first thing you do?
M.S.: Put the lifetime-achievement award back on the telecast. It’s insane that the Academy doesn’t put these living legends out front, and their speeches have historically been emotional centerpieces. (See Cary Grant.)
Also, let the acceptance speeches run longer, dump the awkward comedy interludes, and hire Billy Eichner to host. He’s got what every great Oscar host needs: a combination of unbridled love for show-business excess and the irreverence to knock it down a peg.
But my unsolicited advice is to stop trying to make the Oscars cool. It’s like watching your principal try to twerk.
Michael Schulman’s Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears is out now from Harper