An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Oscar Wars' spotlights bias, blind spots and backstage battles in the Academy

The 95th annual<a href=""> </a>Academy Awards will be held on March 12.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
The 95th annualAcademy Awards will be held on March 12.

For 94 years, the Academy Awards have ostensibly celebrated the best of cinema, but the Oscars have frequently been mired in controversy. In 2017, the wrong film was announced as the year's best picture, and in 2022, Will Smith infamously slapped presenter Chris Rock — before going on to accept the award for best actor. The 2023 Oscars won't be held until March 12, but there's already been a controversy regarding one of the nominees.

"This year, the big Oscar controversy so far has been the surprise nomination of Andrea Riseborough for best actress," New Yorker writer Michael Schulman says.

Riseborough is the star of To Leslie, a small film about a single mother who wins the lottery. Her nomination followed a social media campaign by high-profile A-list actors like Edward Norton and Jennifer Aniston. Meanwhile, two Black actresses who had been thought to be Oscar contenders — Viola Davis in The Woman Kingand Danielle Deadwyler in Till were not nominated. (Following a public outcry, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would conduct a "review of the campaign procedures around this year's nominees.")

"It's not really a one-person-replaces-another situation," Schulman says of Riseborough's nomination. "But of course, it brought up all these issues of equity and representation at the Oscars, and opened up this question of does a Black actress like Danielle Deadwyler have the network of support within the industry that Andrea Riseborough [does]?"

In his new book, Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat and Tears, Schulman writes about the behind-the-scenes battles viewers don't see on Oscar night. In the early decades of its existence, the Academy of Motion Pictures was roiled by anti-communist hysteria and blacklists. More recently, the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements have challenged the Academy to confront its own institutional biases and blind spots.

Schulman notes that it's a mistake to see the awards as a "pure barometer of artistic merit or worth." Instead, he says, "There are a million other factors that go into who gets nominated and who wins."

Schulman says the effort to garner an Oscar nomination is similar to a political campaign: "You have campaign strategists and publicists and people who spend the entire year working on campaigns, strategizing, placing ads, entering films in film festivals and sort of positioning movies and appealing to particular Academy members."

/ Harper Collins
Harper Collins

The campaigns culminate on Oscars night, in a glitzy ceremony held in Hollywood's Dolby Theater, and televised around the globe. It's a long way from the first Academy Awards, which were handed out during a brief, 15-minute ceremony, following a dinner in a banquet room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles on May 16, 1929.

"What fascinates me about the very first Oscars is even at the beginning ... Hollywood was on such shaky ground," Schulman says. "For instance, The Jazz Singer, the groundbreaking talkie that basically killed off the silent movies had just come out and it was given an honorary award because the Academy felt it couldn't even compete with all the other nominees, which were silent films. And by the next year, the second Academy Awards, all of the nominees had sound."

Interview Highlights

On seeing the culture change through the Academy Awards

What I tried to do in the book is take certain years of the Oscars and put them on the couch and psychoanalyze them. And these moments of transition and these moments of instability are always so fascinating. ... When Moonlight won a few years ago, over La La Land, in that crazy envelope mix up and you could sense that: OK, so this means something. It's just one movie. It's just one win, but it means the culture. You can sense the culture kind of changing in this tectonic way.

Michael Schulman has written for <em>The New Yorker</em> since 2006. He also co-created an annual live series called "You Like Me: An Evening of Classic Acceptance Speeches," an event at which he has actors read classic Oscar acceptance speeches.
Ethan James Green / Harper Collins
Harper Collins
Michael Schulman has written for The New Yorker since 2006. He also co-created an annual live series called "You Like Me: An Evening of Classic Acceptance Speeches," an event at which he has actors read classic Oscar acceptance speeches.

On how #OscarsSoWhite changed the Academy

In 2016, for the second year in a row, all of the 20 acting nominees were white. And an activist named April Reign had started a hashtag the year before, which was, "#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair," and that got some pick-up in 2015. And in 2016, it went absolutely viral. And there was a lot of attention paid to the incredible whiteness and maleness of the people who are in the Academy and who do the voting.

So the Academy board of directors had an emergency meeting, and the president of the Academy at the time was Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who was the first Black president. And basically what they did was fast tracked a plan they had been discussing to actively try to diversify the membership. So they invited an unprecedented number of new people in, and it was more people of color, more women, younger people, and also more international people. At the same time, they had this policy where if you hadn't been active in the industry for many years, you would be demoted to an "emeritus status," this amazing kind of euphemism, which meant that basically you could not vote anymore. And this just set off a complete panic in Hollywood. Of course, there are a lot of people who praised what the Academy was doing, but then there was a very loud subsection of people who were just totally freaked out and felt that they were being blamed, that they were being scapegoated as racist. And it became a real conflict.

It has made a difference. I mean, one of the underappreciated things about these reforms was that the Academy became much more international. And I think you start to see that reflected in a win like Parasitea few years ago. The Academy's assessment of movies has become much less hemmed in by Hollywood as a physical place. But of course, the controversy has not died down. And we see that this year with the best actress category. This is a great year for Asian nominees: Michelle Yeoh and Hong Chau, all the people from Everything Everywhere All at Once. And yet there is still no Black actress nominated. There has not been a best actress winner who is a person of color since Halle Berrywon the first and only one in 2002, and there are no female directors nominated this year. So I think this is not a problem that's been solved. Like the larger issue in American life over inclusion and representation, it's kind of an ongoing battle.

On how Harvey Weinstein changed how Oscars campaigns were run

Before Harvey Weinstein really had his rise in the '90s at Miramax, Oscar campaigning would be placing ads in the trade magazines, "for your consideration," ads in Variety or whatever. And people having maybe some private screenings at their homes in Beverly Hills. What Weinstein did was basically leave no stone unturned. He would not just blanket the airwaves and the papers with advertisements, but he would, for instance, find out where particular Academy members lived. And if there were three people in the Academy who happened to live in Santa Fe, he'd have people call them and set up a screening there and make sure they went. And he would find little pockets of Academy members. And there were just nonstop events, parties, hoopla.

He also had a real gift for sort of creating stunts that would get publicity. For instance, when the English Patient was out, he staged an entire evening at a town hall in New York City with people reading from the book. ... But then he would also find ways to sort of create humanitarian campaigns out of his movies. Famously, My Left Foot with Daniel Day-Lewis, he brought the movie and Daniel Day-Lewis to Washington and screened the movie for senators.

On Harvey Weinstein's infamous Oscars campaign for Shakespeare in Love to beat Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1999

Saving Private Ryan ... was Spielberg's big World War II movie that was a tribute to his own father's generation. And his father had fought in the war. And it came out in the summer of 1998. It was a gigantic success, a critical darling, and it was presumed to be the frontrunner for best picture for many months. And then in December, along came Shakespeare in Love, from Harvey Weinstein's Miramax. And it was really such a different kind of movie. It was frothy and fun and clever and romantic, and it was about art, not war and love, not death. And as we've seen many, many years, the Oscar ... frontrunner fatigue sets in. And so people were suddenly interested in this new dynamic. And then what Weinstein did with Miramax was push every conceivable angle he could with this movie. Like there were tons of ads. He was throwing parties.

The thing that really made this campaign so ugly was that DreamWorks got word through the grapevine that Weinstein was negative, campaigning against Saving Private Ryan, that he was saying to journalists that they should write that essentially Saving Private Ryan was only good for the first 25 minutes, the famous D-Day sequence, and after that was basically a run of the mill World War II movie. And so this got to DreamWorks.

DreamWorks was absolutely furious. They started complaining to the press about everything Miramax was doing. Harvey Weinstein denied, denied, denied. And the people who worked for him didn't necessarily know what he was doing all the time. And so they felt that they were just being smeared by DreamWorks. And by the time everyone got to Oscar night, there was so much resentment and enmity between these two studios, and people still thought that Saving Private Ryan would win. And then Spielberg won best director ... but Shakespeare in Love won [best picture]. And it was just this explosion of shock and recrimination.

On why the Academy was created

The Academy was founded in early 1927, and it was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. And the founders were basically 36 people who were a cross-section of the powerful people in silent era Hollywood. And their original rhetoric was extremely utopian. They saw themselves as a League of Nations for Hollywood. And much of what they were saying is that they wanted to create harmony and resolve disputes. And that's sort of the sunny side of what they were doing. The subtext of that is that Hollywood was not unionized at the time except for the technical craftspeople. And so the Academy, in a way, was created to preempt Equity or some other organizing body from organizing the creative professions. ...

What I tried to do in the book is take certain years of the Oscars and put them on the couch and psychoanalyze them. And these moments of transition and these moments of instability are always so fascinating.

For instance, if the writers were negotiating a contract with the studios, ... the Academy would sort of oversee the contract rather than a labor union doing it. So in its first 10 years, the Academy was really seen as the enemy by the kind of rank and file in Hollywood who felt, very much rightly so, that they were preempting unionization. And in the '30s, these guilds, like the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild, started to emerge as part of the labor movement of the '30s of the Depression and they went to war with the Academy. They would tell their members to resign from the Academy en masse. They would boycott the ceremony. And there was a real question — that of whether this very young Academy would survive.

It got to the point where the president of the Academy at the time, the director, Frank Capra, realized how toxic this all was. And he loved the Academy Awards. And he basically said, OK, the Academy is no longer going to do any of that stuff, any of that negotiating conflict resolution, anything having to do with economics or contracts, we're just not going to do it anymore. And so they really shed a lot of their original purpose. And what they preserved was the Oscars, which was the only thing that the Academy did that pretty much everyone in Hollywood liked.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram.

Audio interview adapted to by: Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.