The Shady, Anti-Communist Origins of the Oscars
The Academy is essentially the NRA of movies.
There are currently over 900,000 posts tagged "#oscars" on Instagram. One in particular is a photoshop of Leonardo DiCaprio as Indiana Jones, poised to grab the award, substituted for the boulder-triggering idol in the first movie. Are all of the posts like this? Images as encouragement for multi-millionaires whom the poster will never meet? DiCaprio is a celebrity among celebrities who works with great directors and has multiple models Uber'ed to him on any given Wednesday. He doesn't need you to root for him.
But of course this is the point of the Oscars. When they're not meaningless, they promote nothing more than the status quo, and then try to make us excited about it. Thankfully, they are most often meaningless.
In 1970, the film critic Rex Reed appeared on The Dick Cavett Show just before the ceremony, to kneecap the awards. "I don't think they can be bought," said Reed, blasé, "but blocks of votes can affect awards because studios get behind their personnel." He goes on to correctly guess that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won't win because it had to split its votes with another film made by the same studio. Reed also has a "terrible, lurking, poisonous suspicion" that John Wayne will finally win Best Actor by reminding everyone of his cowboy legacy in True Grit. (In case you can't tell, Reed does not like John Wayne.)
Reed's prognostications remain excellent because they draw attention to something we all suspect to be true about the Oscars: that they do not aim to reward talent, and that most of the time they are a fait accompli due to weird agendas, inscrutable studio politics, and arcane etiquette. Anyone who's seen the 2004 best picture, Crash, knows that on some level. Perhaps Reed's other compelling element is his disaffection with the whole shebang. Because if you regard the Oscars as anything but the annual, televised offsite retreat of a company that is hugely profitable despite everything about itself (complete with the crummy inside jokes), the problem is really with you. The Academy Awards were never meant to be anything but that.
Initially founded as the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, the Academy was the brainchild of MGM kingpin Louis B. Mayer, who saw it as a way to circle the wagons and protect every studio from the twin threats of talkies and unionization. Insularity being the whole point, the "international" part was dropped not long after this.
The Academy was first and foremost a trade group, there to keep Hollywood running smoothly from a business and publicity perspective. Mayer's primary concern was the Studio Basic Agreement, the first major agreement between the studios and the unions, but the awards, first a gimmick, came to be useful too.
"I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them," Mayer said later, in Scott Eyman's Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. "If I got them cups and awards they'd kill themselves to produce what I wanted." The awards were never intended to do anything but reward the most profitable movies that featured politics and morality attractive to Hollywood at the time. The first ceremony was held in May 1929, at a private dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the first best actor award went to Emil Jannings, a literal Nazi who would go on to work for Joseph Goebbels.
The awards were also never intended for public consumption, but that first year publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst instructed Louella Parsons, gossip columnist for his papers, to pump them up, because he assumed that he'd be able to obtain one later for his actress girlfriend Marion Davies, according to Anthony Holden's Behind the Oscar. The awards were only broadcast on television, for the first time in 1953, to offset their growing costs.
Over the years the Academy Award—if it came to mean anything at all—meant a higher gross for a nominated movie and a higher pay rate for an actor in future roles. In 2010, a study out of Colgate University found that male actors can expect an 81-percent bump in salary after winning an Oscar. Actresses tend to experience no increase at all, perhaps because their wins tend to come in their mid-30s and the ageist industry offers women fewer roles as they grow older.
Politically, the Oscars have never really shaken these conservative, business-oriented origins, and there are dozens of examples of Hollywood showing its true colors during the Cold War, from the loyalty oath required of Academy members ("Any person who... shall have admitted that he is a member of the Communist Party... shall be ineligible for an Academy Award") to its awarding the 1952 best picture to a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 44 percent), because it made $12 million (roughly $107 million today), over High Noon, a film written by blacklisted writer Carl Foreman that also happens to be one of the finest pieces of art to come out of that era.
"I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them."
The spectacle of the awards has come to eclipse the other activities of the Academy. Last year the event is estimated to have hauled in $100 million in ad revenue. This is not to say its new cause is not any more worthy. Writing on the 2012 telecast, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane likened the whole thing to "teenage sex": "It's all about the fizzing buildup, and the self-persuading aftermath," he observed, a fizz that's only been encouraged by the internet over the past ten years. "The dafter the matter in hand," he wrote, "the more swollen the spleen of our opinions."
But even without an anti-union agenda and the inflated apparatus, the fact that the Academy is essentially the NRA of movies has led to all kinds of horrible decisions over the years. Studio dynamics, and a general sense that one has a duty to support what's best for business, are the only way to account for the fact that Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman never won best director, or the fact that a movie like Forrest Gump won over Pulp Fiction. Anyone over the age of 12 should have a memory of some year where a truly bizarre movie swept the Academy Awards for reasons that are completely inexplicable unless you work for a studio.
This year more people are finally paying attention to how old, white, conservative, and frankly boring the Academy is, and that's great. But it's important to remember that each Oscar statuette only costs around $100 to make. To us, the moviegoing public that subsidizes all the surrounding glamour, the award should never appear to be much more valuable than that.
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