About the Book by Michael Schulman Titled “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Marc Weingarten of the book by Michael Schulman titled “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears”:

Instead of opting for a year-by-year survey of the industry and the awards, Mr.Schulman, a staff writer at the New Yorker, deep-dives into key moments that take the reader from the earliest days of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to the present day. More crucially, Mr. Schulman’s book chronicles how the Academy stumbled through the 20th century’s rapid cultural changes with little grace or fellow feeling.

From the start, the Academy was designed to consolidate the movie moguls’ financial stranglehold on the salaries of everyone who worked for them, as a sort of alternative to labor unions. Mr. Schulman traces the emerging power of the Screen Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and other groups, along with the subsequent attenuation of the Academy’s collective bargaining power, until the group had become “little more than the body that gave out statuettes.”

The author takes great delight in pointing out that, in terms of the quality of the films recognized, the Oscars have gotten it all wrong more often than not. “Twenty-four centuries after Euripedes came in third place at the Athenian dramatic festival,” he writes of the March 2006 awards ceremony, “Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to Crash.” In 1953, at the apex of Hollywood’s Red Scare, the Academy snubbed blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman’s “High Noon,” an allegory about Hollywood cowardice, for Cecil B. DeMille’s anodyne “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “one of the worst Best Picture winners in Oscar history.”

Perhaps the most egregious example of this wrong-headedness is the saga of 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’s takedown of Wiliam Randolph Hearst. Mr. Schulman points out that, even in its day, “Citizen Kane” was recognized as a visionary piece of filmmaking: narratively daring and visually experimental yet still exciting to watch. Hearst, working in tandem with his foot-soldier columnist Hedda Hopper, conducted a scorched-earth campaign against “Kane” which so cowed Hollywood that Welles’s film became anathema to Academy voters. The night of the awards ceremony, Mr. Schulman recounts, saw catcalls and hissing erupt whenever the name “Citizen Kane” was mentioned—a heckling campaign led by Hopper. The film won a single award, for screenwriting, then vanished into obscurity until the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague rediscovered it.

This risk-averse attitude of censure reached its apex during the blacklist, when some of Hollywood’s best screenwriters, including Foreman and Dalton Trumbo, were unemployed and broke. In 1947 Trumbo had refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee about his political beliefs. In 1956, toiling for the low-budget producers King Brothers for a fraction of his usual fee, he wrote a silly melodrama called “The Brave One” under the pseudonym “Robert Rich.” When the Oscar for best screenplay was announced by Deborah Kerr the following March, Robert Rich had won. It would be a few more years until he could be credited by his given name—as the screenwriter for Kirk Douglas’s 1960 film “Spartacus.” That film won four Oscars, though none for Trumbo.

The last third of “Oscar Wars” treads over more recent territory, including Harvey Weinstein’s bruising take-no-prisoners campaign that resulted in a Best Picture win in 1999 for Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” over Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” He also discusses 2015’s “#OscarsSoWhite” debacle, when a lack of diverse representation among nominees sparked the most significant changes to the voting process in decades.

Some of these episodes are familiar. But Mr. Schulman has seemingly interviewed everyone, and even these oft-told tales are decked out with fascinating details, like the time Weinstein tried to freeze Ed Zwick, initially attached to direct “Shakespeare in Love,” out of his own project. Mr. Zwick went on the offensive, and Weinstein scrambled to mend fences: “Weinstein called Zwick and his agent to the Peninsula, where he wept crocodile tears and said, ‘I can’t help it. I do bad things.’ ” Shortly thereafter, he reneged on every promise he made to Mr. Zwick that day.

There’s a lot to love in “Oscar Wars,” a black valentine written with a reporter’s rigor and a breezy prose style. Along with Sam Wasson’s “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood,” this is one of the best recent books about the film business. It is surely the best book about Hollywood’s biggest night.

Marc Weingarten is the author of “Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water, and the Real Chinatown.”

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