… It’s the Oscars that Got Small

Are the Oscars history?

What else to conclude from the recent publication of two erudite if waggish books about this somewhat deflated annual pageant: Michael Schulman’s OSCAR WARS: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears (Harper, 589 pp., $40) and Bruce Davis’s THE ACADEMY AND THE AWARD (Brandeis University, 485 pp., $40)? Pile these on the even fatter “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson (Harper, 748 pages), and you’ll have jury-rigged something like a Norton Anthology of American Moviedom.

There have been plenty of Academy annals before, of course: detailed compendiums, official and not; glossy adornments for the coffee table; and at least one prose investigation of its increasingly byzantine fashion system. But these often felt like sideshows, guidebooks: boosterish accessories to a main event that is now struggling to regain and maintain its centrality in international culture.

With fewer than 10 million people in 2021 watching a telecast that once commanded five times that (a few more did tune in last year; viewership spiking after The Slap), and the box office for art films hardly afire, the new books land more like crisis management briefings.

Things in the film industry have been bad before, they remind, and might yet get better again.

There was, for example, 1934. In the middle of the Depression, reports Davis (a former Academy executive director who retired in 2011 and promptly plunged into its archives), the organization was forced to take up a collection from members, as if passing the plate in a church pew, so that the ceremony could go on.

The Run-Up to the 2023 Oscars

The 95th Academy Awards will be presented on March 12 in Los Angeles.

Or 1989, widely and unfairly remembered as the Worst Oscars Ever, which Schulman, a staff writer for The New Yorker, dissects like a forensic pathologist hovering over an overdressed corpse.

The ceremony had become “a big, embarrassing yawn,” and Allan Carr, the caftan-wearing producer of “Grease” known as “Glittermeister, ” was hired to zhuzh it up, which he did with a caroming live-action Snow White — uncleared with Disney — singing “Proud Mary” with her Prince Charming, played by Rob Lowe, then a leader of the Brat Pack. The gaudy opening number, with stars ducking for cover as Snow roamed the aisles, ruined Carr’s career and possibly his life. The unfortunate actress, Eileen Bowman, was coerced into signing a nondisclosure agreement that forbade her to talk about the Oscars for 13 years.

“Never trust a man in a caftan,” Lowe had, in fairness, warned her.

Davis, whose book is subtitled “The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” focuses on the organization’s formative years, “an early life that deserves a bildungsroman.”

But he is less Thomas Mann than diligent mythbuster, calling, for example, Susan Orlean’s assertion in her biography of Rin-Tin-Tin that the dog got more votes than any other male actor at the first Awards (repeated in this newspaper) “nonsense of a high order, now inserted into the historical record utterly without evidence.” In the ballot box Davis uncovered at the Margaret Herrick Library, there were no votes for the pooch.

Davis also dispels the belief that the statuette was originally nicknamed by Bette Davis — no relation — because its backside resembled that of her then-husband Harman Oscar Nelson. He makes the case rather to credit a secretary of Norwegian descent, Eleanore Lilleberg, who was tired of referring to the “gold knights in her care” as “doodads, thingamajigs, hoozits and gadgets” and mentally conjured a military veteran with dignified bearing she’d known as a girl.

This version of events, if true, is apt, for in Schulman’s framing, the Oscars have long been no mere contest but brutal hand-to-hand combat. He chronicles the 1951 best actress race between Davis (for “All About Eve”) and Gloria Swanson (for “Sunset Boulevard”); they lost to Judy Holliday (“Born Yesterday”) but the first two performances both proved more enduring, show business loving no subject better than itself.

He retraces the long exile of the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, perhaps the most prominent of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted and driven behind pseudonyms for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee; credited and awarded for “Roman Holiday” only posthumously (his widow’s cat, satisfyingly, scratched up the thingamajig’s head).

And no book called “Oscar Wars” could neglect how Harvey Weinstein, currently facing life in prison for his sex crimes, made the campaign nuclear in 1999 with “Shakespeare in Love.” The reign of this titan (and his eventual topple) was for the nation-state of Hollywood as consequential as Nixon’s for the U.S. government.

He “made the Oscars dirty,” Schulman writes, using tricks like buying ads suggesting Miramax’s “The Piano” had won best picture at the preliminary critics’ awards (with “runner-up” in tiny print); relentlessly wooing senior citizens; parties, swag, ballot-commandeering and bad-mouthing his opponents. He even brought Daniel Day-Lewis to Washington to help get the American With Disabilities Act passed as a boost for “My Left Foot.”

Along with the envelope, some context, please: Scandal has always beset Hollywood. Indeed, both authors note that the Academy was founded to raise the tone after a series of them, most notoriously the arrest of the Paramount actor Fatty Arbuckle after a starlet died in his hotel room following an orgy. Both in their own way document the race and gender inequity endemic to the institution, and its often ham-handed attempts to course-correct.

And both conjure how exciting and special this event used to feel, with all its warts and overlength, like Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one.

Now, as Oscar totters toward his 95th birthday, in a ceremony to be aired Sunday, March 12, going to a theater to see something screened feels fun but increasingly antique, like hopping on a wooden roller coaster (when I suggest it as a recreational activity to my teenagers, they look at me like I’m the MGM lion).

It’s not just the pictures that have gotten small, as Swanson playing Norma Desmond declared — they’ve gotten really small, as we’re all Ernst Lubitsches now with cameras and flattering filters in our back pockets. The ceremony to commemorate them has shrunk as well.

“I’m not sure I see a way to re-establish the Academy Awards as an experience for a wide swath of the country’s, or the world’s, population,” Davis writes. “It isn’t hard to see the Oscars on a track to becoming something like the National Book Awards” — heaven forfend! — “with way more glamorous presenters.”

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