This time of year knives are out for Oscar and it’s no wonder. The annual prize giving of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is subject to so much backslapping, self-promotion and corporate chicanery, it seems a long way from its stated aim: to celebrate films and all the prodigiously gifted artists and technicians who make them.
A short trip through Oscar’s embarrassments and controversies across its 86 years of existence can be instructive. Watching how its small universe intersected with the real world says a lot about who Oscar really is.
Buzzing from the beginning
(The inaugural Academy Awards, 1929)
In 1926 Prohibition was six years old and cash-rich Hollywood was under threat from social reformers. Church-groups and ‘ladies clubs’ hated its drugs, decadence and high-rotation divorces, and the stars’ astronomical salaries didn’t help. Louis B. Mayer of MGM was worried, too. What Hollywood’s power brokers needed, Mayer reasoned, was a united front to establish standards and practices, to fend off both the Union movement and critics. The studio boss found cohorts amongst a cross-section of Hollywood heavies who agreed that an Academy was the next best thing to self-regulation and thusit came to be. Mayer set a tone for the first Oscars – though they hadn’t yet earned that nickname – that would prevail to this day, when he told a committee of judges for the first Academy Awards in 1929 that it was best to give the Artistic Quality of Production award to FW Murnau’s Sunrise (1926) because the director’s renown could only ‘bring honour to the Academy’. The Oscars were always about the spin. William Wellman’s Wings (1927) won Best Picture.
Taking a stand by staying seated
The 71st Academy Awards, 1999
The point of Oscar is tradition and one of its great rituals is the standing ovation, especially when intended to pay homage to an ageing Hollywood great. But the night Oscar bestowed Elia Kazan its Lifetime Achievement prize in 1999 and the 80-year-old director stepped onto the stage of L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium to accept it, half of the 6,000 plus audience stayed in their seats and sat on their hands.
Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro were there to give support to the filmmaker who, arguably, gave American cinema a belief in emotional authenticity in pictures like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). But what most of Hollywood seemed to remember in that moment was Kazan’s role as informer in the Communist witch-hunts of the ‘50s led by the maniacal Senator Joseph McCarthy. Norma Barzman and Bernard Gordon – two screenwriters who suffered under Hollywood’s ‘blacklist’ of suspected or actual Reds – took out ads against the Academy’s decision to honour Kazan. Even to non-partisan observers, the Kazan Oscar seemed – unfair to the man or not – like a case of epic insensitivity. After all, it was Hollywood’s elite who enforced the blacklist; Kazan’s prize seemed as much for them and their Cold War expediency – so went the argument – as it was for a great filmmaker. But then studio bosses have never been known for their political courage.
Ambulance chasing and public protests
The 50th Academy Awards, 1978
Since movies are never just movies, each Oscar season brings with it a culture of protest. Over the decades Oscar seems helpless in the face of the urgent matters of the moment… or the burning passions of some award-winners; think of Marlon Brando’s 1972 Godfather Best Actor Oscar accepted by Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American woman; Michael Moore’s anti-Bush protest in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq or just about any appearance of Jane Fonda, who was booed when her name was announced as Best Actress for Klute (1971). It seemed that some of the crowd disliked her anti-Vietnam and pro-feminist activism and Fonda, no dummy, violated the throng’s comfort zone by telling them: “There’s so much to say tonight (pause) but I’m not going to say it.”
In March 1978 Vanessa Redgrave created turmoil just by turning up to the Oscars (things were so hot for her that she had to arrive hidden in an ambulance.) The controversy had started months earlier when Redgrave had help finance a TV documentary called The Palestinian (1977). The Jewish Defence League, offended by the film’s pro-Palestinian Liberation Organisation stance, asked Fox to condemn Redgrave or they would picket Julia (1977), in which she co-starred with Jane Fonda and, incidentally, played an anti-Nazi. When Fox refused, the JDL took the drastic step of releasing white mice into theatres showing the movie. The fate of the mice is unknown but Julia was a success and scored Redgrave a best supporting actress Oscar. Accepting the award Redgrave’s condemnation of ‘Zionist hoodlums’ drew gasps from the crowd – one heard around the world. Outside the ceremony the JDL burnt an effigy of Redgrave.
Terrible timing and epic insensitivity
The 40th Academy Awards, 1968
Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis on 4 April 1968. The funeral was scheduled for 9 April, the day after the Oscars. At first the Academy, says author Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution), didn’t think to postpone the awards at all. It was only when Oscar’s keepers realised, he says, that the show would play to an empty house that they thought twice. The Oscars were postponed two days.
Statesman Gregory Peck opened the show with a dignified tribute to the slain civil rights leader, which was all-but forgotten once host Bob Hope took the stage and wisecracked about the delay. “It didn’t affect me,” Hope said, “but it’s been tough on the nominees”. As Harris reflects in his book, the 1968 Oscars presented Hollywood, new and veteran, left and right, with a choice: contribute to civil rights meaningfully or continue to uphold out-dated attitudes that cruelly supported the status quo. Hollywood’s track record with African-Americans was woeful; a fact the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has never failed to remind the Academy each Oscar show. When King was killed there were portents of change. In that moment, Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win Best Actor, was the biggest box office draw in the US. He starred in two Oscar Best Picture nominees in 1968; Stanley Kramer’s anodyne comedy about miscegenation Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), and the ultimate winner, In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewson, 1967), where he played a heroic city cop who solves a murder and cleans up a racist Southern town in the process. Still, a decade later Blacks in Media Broadcasting Organisation were a regular at the Oscars – protesting - and their acronym said it all: B.I.M.B.O.
Foreign relations go from bad to worse
Most Academy Awards ceremonies
Harvey Weinstein has got a bad rap for his rabid Oscar campaigning; recall the bitchfest between Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love and Dreamworks/Paramount Saving Private Ryan in 1998. But, as Academy history suggests, such sledging is as much a tradition of Oscar as refusing to turn up to the show. This is especially ironic since many such protests have been about taking exception to the inclusion of certain films. When A Clockwork Orange (1971) got nominated for Best Picture, older members stayed away and refused to partake in voting, convinced that Kubrick’s violent fantasia would bring the Academy into disrepute. But then nothing has driven a stake through the heart of Oscar’s cred in honouring the ‘best’ more than its conduct of two categories that actually mean a great deal to nominees in terms of exposure, recognition and box-office: Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language film. In both categories it’s a tale of complex pre-selection by committee procedures where bias and vested interests influence the direction of the vote. (E.g. Did you know that documentary distributors serving on the Academy vote their own pictures in?) Foreign pics can get dumped over their pedigree. Oscar turned away Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski twice: his Three Colors: Blue (1993) was rejected for not being sufficiently Polish because it was set in France, and Three Colors: Red (1994), set in Geneva and submitted as a Swiss entry, was refused too, even though it was in French, because Kieślowski and some of his team weren’t Swiss… though most of his crew were! Sometimes though, the embarrassment isn’t entirely Oscar’s. Europa Europa (1990), a major art house success in the States, was knocked out by a German pre-selection committee for not being ‘sufficiently German’ since director Agnieszka Holland was Dutch. This surprised Holland since her Angry Harvest was selected by West Germany at the Oscars in 1985.
Of course, for some, like Luis Bunuel, director of 1970 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Tristana, an Oscar is an insult, not a credit: “Nothing would disgust me more morally than receiving an Oscar. I wouldn’t have one in my home.” Still, Federico Fellini was happily philosophical about Hollywood’s annual circus of congratulation: “In the mythology of the cinema,” he told the press in 1975 after winning his fourth Academy Award for Amacord (1973), “the Oscar is the supreme prize.”