What the Oscars Represent: Meritocracy Without Merit

What the Oscars Represent: Meritocracy Without Merit

What the Oscars Represent: Meritocracy Without Merit

In Michael Schulman’s extensive history of the awards, Oscar Wars, he documents how the institution’s reactionary origins still leak into today’s film culture.


Teachers are honored annually by the Milken Educator Awards, commonly described as “the Oscars of teaching.” Public servants are recognized by the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, “the Oscars of government service” (also known as “the Sammies”). Vintners have the Golden Vines Awards, “the Oscars of fine wine.” And on and on, from the National Magazine Awards to the World Cheese Awards—yes, “the Oscars of cheese.”

What does it mean, though, to be “the Oscars” of something? If everything can have its Oscars, do the awards stand for anything? Among most award-giving institutions and award-getting people, an honor bestowed in the image of the Oscars is invariably conceived as a rarefied ideal, a symbol of high achievement in a specialized field. In fact, the original name for the Oscar as it was first conferred by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on February 15, 1929, was the Academy Award of Merit, and that is still its official name. How it got the nickname “Oscar”—inevitably turned into a trademark—is open to dispute, like a great deal in Hollywood arcana, as Michael Schulman shows with acuity and fitting brio in his new history of the awards and their world, Oscar Wars. Along with merit, Schulman points out, the Academy Awards have long represented an array of not-so-meritorious behaviors and attitudes: credit-hogging, internecine politicking, self-celebration, power lust, empire-building, prejudice and oppression, every variety of ridiculousness, and both pretension and pandering in unstable equilibrium.

Oscar Wars is, among other things, a study of American moviemaking from the rise of the studio system in the silent era to the 21st-century disruptions of streaming, #MeToo, and #OscarsSoWhite. Schulman, a writer for The New Yorker and a longtime observer of the Oscars, tells this lengthy, unwieldy story as a series of conflicts—disputes between Hollywood producers and Washington politicians, among rival producers, between producers and actors, and between producers and everyone else responsible for the making of movies. The book is a combat narrative, laced with tales of valor and defeat, conquest and submission. “The Oscars are a battlefield where cultural forces collide and where the victors aren’t always as clear as the names drawn from the envelopes,” Schulman writes. “The red carpet runs through contested turf, but it can take years to see what the real battle lines were.” And every battle over the movies has been about power and its hold on the human ego.

Before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became synonymous with an awards ceremony, a group of intensely rivalrous producers plotted to organize under the tasseled flag of an academy to promote “harmony” across the ranks of the motion picture industry and to counteract the threat of organized revolt by the 42,000 workers involved in moviemaking in the late-1920s: actors, costumers, carpenters, and others. (Though in the era of silent films, those involved in sound design and recording were not yet included in this union, they would later join the group.) The nascent craft guilds of the Hollywood enterprise were in fierce talks with the studios over a new contract, and studio heads feared actors, writers, and directors might start to question their own working conditions. The academy was supposed to ease the tensions between labor and management by uniting them under the same banner. In this role, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was a fancy-sounding body of preemptive strike busters. Louis B. Mayer, who hatched the plan (and reveled in saying so), “knew what unrestricted labor could get him: a sparkling new beach house in six weeks,” Schulman notes.

At the same time, the tenuously organized powers in the academy were able to put on a show of high-minded unity to prevent government censorship and tamp down fears that the ostensible moral laxity of their films’ content could corrupt the minds and souls of moviegoers and incite havoc in the streets. “The world is more influenced by the little group in this room tonight than by any other power in the world,” announced director-producer Cecil B. DeMille at the inaugural Academy banquet. “Our ideals have got to be high. There was a little group like this that gathered in another little room, and the result was the United States of America.”

The Awards of Merit came to stand for Hollywood’s dedication to artistic excellence, if not its moral purity, and over time became the Academy’s primary focus. The first awards ceremony was held in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles on May 16, 1929. After a decade of the Academy’s ham-handed attempts to arbitrate disputes between movie-industry labor and studio bosses (many of whom were in the Academy), the latter party threw up their hands in 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act protecting the right of labor to organize. The academy abandoned its fantasy of being “Hollywood’s League of Nations,” as Schulman puts it, and became “little more than the body that gave out statuettes.” More significantly, perhaps, it effectively relinquished control over the selection of the winners, handing off the balloting process to the Screen Actors Guild, whose membership was 15 times that of the Academy. If the latter was to be no more than a body that gave out statuettes, then the giving-out could be done more democratically.

Or not. As Oscar Wars details in chapter after chapter, the elusive and ever-shifting complex of factors that culminate with a name being read from a card in an envelope at the Academy Awards involves some things other than aesthetic principles and established measures of value. Producers, since nearly the ceremony’s inception, have organized elaborate campaigns for their own candidates: Leading up to the 1950 ceremony, Paramount sent Gloria Swanson on a grueling promotional tour in the hopes of her winning Best Actress for Sunset Boulevard. But campaigns can also backfire when the voters feel manipulated or the studio power brokers lose touch with the times, as they did in 1970, when Midnight Cowboy—a radical assault on Old Hollywood, and with an X rating to boot—won over Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello, Dolly!, and Z for the Best Picture award. As well, major talents beloved by academy voters can cancel each other out, and the winners can result from intra-industry dynamics so complicated that no one not employed by Variety could ever parse them.

A paradigmatic example of the fantasy-baseball quality of the process comes from screenwriter and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who explained the calculus behind the 1951 awards for Best Actress and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, won by Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday and Josephine Hull for Harvey, respectively, over the women nominated in the same categories for All About Eve: “Bette [Davis] lost because Annie [Baxter] was nominated. Annie lost because Bette Davis ditto. Celeste Holm lost because Thelma Ritter was nominated, and she lost because Celeste ditto.”

As a pop-culture historian, Schulman doesn’t look down on his subject; nor does he falsely inflate its importance. He takes obvious pleasure in a granular dissection of the catastrophic 1989 Oscar broadcast produced by Allan Carr—the one with Rob Lowe singing a Hollywood-themed version of “Proud Mary” and Pee-wee Herman descending by wire from the sky, calling for Robocop—and his dishy snickering at Carr’s campy disaster has a memetic quality of camp itself. Elsewhere, however, Schulman does full justice to serious subjects, such as the Hollywood blacklist in the McCarthy era and the painfully overdue awakening to the abuses of sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, as well as the historical oppression and subordination of gifted people of color.

A skillful miniaturist, Schulman renders smart, often piercing short profiles of figures like Gregory Peck, Judy Holliday, Dalton Trumbo, Candice Bergen, and Halle Berry. In a carefully layered section on Peck’s tenure as president of the academy, Schulman concludes, “By putting the golden age out to pasture, Peck was hastening the demise of the Hollywood that had created him, the only one in which he made sense.”

The New Hollywood that Peck helped make way for has long since disappeared, replaced by No Hollywood or a Hollywood in concept: a decentered industry of creative artists, finance types, and combinations thereof, making work of rapidly altering character for people to take in however they wish, whenever they want, with devices and earbuds. The art has changed, and so has the politics behind it, as a newfound consciousness of the long-standing inequities of power begins to take hold and movies from a widening variety of power centers reach viewers. In a meaningful sense, DeMille was right: The moguls that led the industry in the early days of Hollywood really were like the founding fathers—too male and white.

There’s no knowing how well a tradition-bound institution like the Academy Awards will be able to adjust to a time very little like the silent-movie era that created it. I can’t help but wonder if Will Smith would be willing to help and give the academy a good slap in the face.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy