A new book surveys the gossip and discrimination behind the Oscars


As the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman writes in his new book, “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears,” the Academy Awards can be described as a “game,” a “fashion show,” a “horse race” and even “an orgy of self-congratulation by rich and famous people who think too highly of themselves.” But, Schulman contends, the real key to understanding the awards comes down to power: “who has it, who’s straining to keep it, who’s invading the golden citadel to snatch it.” More than a mere journey through Academy Awards history, his book is a trip through Hollywood’s power struggles.

Sometimes those conflicts have less to do with studio executives and gilded stars than with the interface between Hollywood and the wider world. While the legend of how “Citizen Kane” came to be has long been subject to debate, Schulman focuses on what happened when William Randolph Hearst got a whiff of the title character’s similarities to himself. His newspapers ignored the film. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Hearst and his cronies pressured Hollywood and threatened the industry with negative press. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer got together a group of peers to offer RKO $800,000 to buy every print of “Citizen Kane” to set ablaze. While the plan didn’t succeed, the broader message was received, and the 1942 Oscars, Schulman writes, saw a “near total defeat for ‘Citizen Kane.’”

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Other Oscar races were competitions between powerful stars and filmmakers. In 1950, two important films, “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve,” put former silent-film star Gloria Swanson and seasoned pro Bette Davis in a refreshing spotlight. For women in Hollywood, Schulman writes, being a star was to have “power in a vise” that lasted only until you aged out of youthful beauty. Nevertheless, the Swanson-Davis showdown proved that “actresses north of forty didn’t have to pass gently into oblivion.” The timing was perfect, as “Hollywood’s first generation of stars had now reached middle age, holed up in mansions like fossils no one had bothered to excavate, their films disintegrating in studio vaults.”

When it turns to the blacklist era, “Oscar Wars” chronicles the impact of the decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make sure anyone suspected of being a communist or dodging federal subpoenas was ineligible for an award. As it goes on, the book takes readers through the strange New Hollywood years when Dennis Hopper was a dealmaker, “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) won praise with an X-rating, and the unlikely team of young Candice Bergen and veteran Gregory Peck worked together to “break down resistance to new ideas” in the academy by bringing in new members.

Schulman also addresses Harvey Weinstein, writing that people liked to characterize him as a “bullying mogul who treated art house cinema like a mob boss” even before he was widely recognized as a “sexual predator covering his tracks.” The executive was notorious for nasty awards-season campaigning, and Schulman rightly observes that Weinstein brought Oscar season in line with presidential election cycles — where the best candidate may be defeated by a better campaign. Not everyone got on board with his tactics, though: When Weinstein waged a warlike offensive pushing “Shakespeare in Love” against Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg refused to “get in the mud with Harvey.”

Schulman reminds us that the academy has often been less progressive than its members would like us to believe, often showing up late for political and cultural change before playing a desperate game of catch-up. These issues were highlighted most prominently, or at least most recently, by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, but Schulman’s chapter on tokenism reminds us that the struggle is not new. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, for example, is still awaiting adequate representation of Hollywood’s Jewish founding fathers. However, amid such stories of ignorance and failure, and of posturing and power, Schulman offers a real history of real people whose actions had consequences, for better and worse.

Chris Yogerst is an author, film historian and professor. His next book, “The Warner Brothers,” will be released in September.

A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears

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