For Americans of a certain age — that is to say, Americans who were born and grew up during what Henry R. Luce called the American century — the annual Academy Awards ceremony wasn’t just another overblown TV spectacular. Like the World Series and the Miss America pageant, it was an unabashed celebration of Americana. It was a reminder that the U.S.A. wasn’t just the planet’s economic powerhouse and the fortress of democracy, but the chief wellspring of international culture.
Yes, Europe had its venerable museums and libraries, its theaters and opera houses; and during the early postwar years, of course, directors like Bergman and Fellini and Kurosawa were busy discovering their own rather non-American ways of telling stories on celluloid. But the movies that people around the world queued up to see were, overwhelmingly, from Hollywood. Hitler loved Captains Courageous; Stalin adored The Lost Patrol; Churchill was bonkers for Mrs. Miniver, saying that its pro-British wartime propaganda was “worth a hundred battleships.” Hiding away in occupied Amsterdam, Anne Frank decorated her walls with pictures of Norma Shearer, Ray Milland, and Greta Garbo.
He lingers lovingly over producer Bert Schneider, who, winning the Documentary Feature Award for Hearts and Minds (1974), gushed about Vietnam being “liberated” by the Communists.
In those days, the Academy Awards were the closest thing to an ultimate official arbiter of cinematic distinction; by the time some of us came along in the postwar decades, they felt like an ancient, time-honored tradition. But of course the first Oscar ceremony had only taken place as recently as 1928. And why had the Motion Picture Academy been founded in the first place? Largely because Louis B. Mayer, the mogul who ran MGM Studios, wanted Hollywood’s products to be viewed not just as cheap entertainment but, at their best, as art.
Out on the Coast, Mayer wasn’t alone in his high regard for his business, his merchandise, and, well, himself. As Michael Schulman notes in his entertaining if occasionally exasperating new doorstop of a book, Oscar Wars, director Cecil B. DeMille, recognizing Tinseltown’s worldwide influence, compared himself and his fellow dream merchants to America’s Founding Fathers. And once the Academy had been founded, Mary Pickford, the biggest female star of the day, called it “the League of Nations of the Motion Picture Industry.” (That turned out to be an understatement: whereas the League lasted only 26 years, the Academy is now closing in on its centennial.)
Soon enough the Oscars were born — and quickly became objects of competition. In his early chapters, Schulman focuses on a handful of juicy conflicts. He recounts at length the lifelong rivalry between sister Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, which spilled out onto the Oscar stage when Olivia lost to her Gone With the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel in 1940 only to see Joan win the next year for Rebecca. (Olivia would go on to be the long-term victor, snagging Best Actress trophies later in that decade for To Each His Own and The Heiress.) Schulman also serves up the oft-told story of the making of Citizen Kane, whose single Oscar win — for Best Original Screenplay — led to unending debate as to which of the two men who shared screenwriting credit, Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, deserved the lion’s share of it.
Schulman devotes a chapter to three of the nominees in 1951 Best Actress category — namely, the two veterans Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, who, playing aging stars in All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, ended up losing to a young newcomer, Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday). Here as elsewhere in this book’s early chapters, “Oscar wars” is largely a structural device used to slap together a bunch of fun (if, to some, very familiar) Hollywood stories. For example, the plot of All About Eve was inspired by actress Elizabeth Bergner’s unnerving experience with a sycophantic stage-door phony; the scene in Sunset Boulevard in which Norma Desmond is greeted at Paramount Studios by old crew members is based on what actually happened when Swanson arrived at Paramount to start shooting the picture.
Then comes the inevitable chapter on the Blacklist, which Schulman inevitably labels “one of Hollywood’s darkest chapters.” Mocking the claim that there were plenty of Communists in the postwar film industry, he then writes — sympathetically — about the Hollywood Ten without mentioning that every last one of them was a card-carrying member of the CPUSA. He’s also benign toward the loathsome Bertolt Brecht, who, he declares, “denied being a Communist and promptly returned to Europe.” The implication is that Brecht was some kind of unjustly pilloried man of principle; in fact, Brecht beat a path for East Germany, where he spent the rest of his life as a pampered ornament of the totalitarian regime in Berlin — even as he traveled on an Austrian passport and kept his money in a Swiss bank account.
This is, moreover, yet another book that makes a moral icon out of Dalton Trumbo, the best-paid screenwriter of his time — and an ardent Stalinist — while treating anti-Communist patriots like the director Sam Wood as heavies. Why was there so much anti-Communism in postwar America? Because at the time, according to Schulman, the USSR represented “the only threat to American hegemony.” After reading this fatuous formulation, I looked up Schulman’s LinkedIn page. He received a degree in English from Yale in 2003. No comment. (READ MORE from Bruce Bawer: The World’s Best Movie Critic?)
In the 1970s came a revolution in film — Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon. Schulman, who seems to be left cold by the products of Hollywood’s Golden Age, flips over all this seedy stuff. He thinks One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest “captured something elemental” about the U.S. He celebrates Dennis Hopper. And he lingers lovingly over producer Bert Schneider, who, winning the Documentary Feature Award for Hearts and Minds (1974), gushed about Vietnam being “liberated” by the Communists. (By contrast, in his chapter on World War II, Schulman sneers about Hollywood’s participation in the war effort, and later on is snide about the “clean-cut, laconic heroes” of Apollo 11.)
In 1989, the Academy capped a decade defined by lightweight entertainments (Porky’s, Police Academy) with an effort to “bring glamour back.” Unfortunately the producer chosen to helm that year’s Oscar ceremony was the supremely vulgar Allen Carr, who, crossing “the line that separates schmaltz from schlock” with an endless, ridiculous opening number featuring Rob Lowe and an unknown chanteuse dressed as Snow White, led to the worst reviews in Oscar history — not to mention an indignant letter signed by Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, and other Hollywood legends who condemned the entire telecast as “demeaning.”
On to yet another chapter in Hollywood history — the era of “superagents” who “packaged” movies, of indie studios that gave the heavyweights a run for their money, and, above all, perhaps, of Harvey Weinstein, whose New York-based Miramax slugged it out at the Oscars for years with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks. Described by PR guy Bruce Feldman as lacking any “sense of propriety or proportion,” Weinstein loved movies, loved awards, and (most of all, maybe) loved fighting for those awards. It was he who turned award-season campaigns into all-out nuclear war — a strategy that won Best Picture for Shakespeare in Love, toppling Saving Private Ryan. For months that instant World War II classic had been considered a shoo-in, but in the end it went down to defeat because Spielberg ordered his chief publicist — and these were apparently his own words to her — not to “get into the mud with Harvey Weinstein.”
Schulman’s tenth chapter, about black actors, is entitled “Tokens.” And it’s an oddly tokenish chapter, violating the book’s chronological structure to package together, in good old-fashioned Jim Crow fashion, the stories of how Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, and Halle Berry clawed their way from obscurity to the first three Oscar victories by black performers. Schulman is unsurprisingly ignorant about the novel Gone With the Wind, which he describes as a “lacy paean to the Confederacy” and accuses of “romanticiz[ing] antebellum society,” and is surprisingly snotty about McDaniel, whom he faults for “never defying her white superiors” and for being “less interested in challenging the system than in succeeding within it.” I’ve read Jill Watts’s 2007 biography of the brave and brilliant McDaniel, and Schulman’s charges — especially coming from a guy who’s made his career banging out celebrity profiles for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair and whose only previous book is about that valiant iconoclast, Meryl Streep — are disgraceful.
Neatly enough, Schulman’s chapter on the first black Oscar winners is succeeded by one on the #OscarsSoWhite movement, begun in 2015, and its aftermath. By this point in the book, it’s no surprise to see Schulman characterizing Donald Trump, who kicked off his presidential campaign that year, as an embodiment of “white grievance” and “rank misogyny” whose election victory, “fueled by racist backlash toward Obama,” sent “an ugly fissure through the American populace.” Schulman quotes former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs as saying that the triumph of this bigot wasn’t really surprising because “there’s a lot of people between the coasts.” And he recalls the January 2017 Golden Globes acceptance speech in which Meryl Streep condemned Trump for “his mockery of a disabled reporter” — a long disproven smear that Schulman inexcusably repeats.
All of which is by way of a run-up to that year’s Best Picture face-off (which, as Schulman recaps in well-nigh unprecedented detail, famously ended with Faye Dunaway announcing the wrong winner). While the race was “narrowing to La La Land vs. Moonlight,” writes Schulman, “a more fundamental question hovered: Was Hollywood really La La Land, a place where dreamers went to forget their troubles? Or was it part of the resistance?” Where exactly did this question “hover,” other than in the mind of a certain Vanity Fair scribe?
In any event, Barry Jenkins, accepting the Oscar for his Moonlight script, slammed the newly inaugurated president in an insipid passage that an admiring Schulman quotes in full: “All you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back. And for the next four years, we will not leave you alone. We will not forget you.” Trump, as Schulman should know, would go on to reduce black unemployment to historic lows, to free black convicts incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes, and to commit the federal government to permanent funding for historically black colleges, but Schulman is plainly charmed by the vacuous promises of Jenkins, this preening narcissist. But hey, that’s Hollywood. And, alas, it’s the Oscars to a T.