The Oscar Farce

The Academy Awards ceremony has seen its share of strangeness

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Emil Jannings, the first man to win an Oscar, would go on to become a Nazi. In 1929, the newly convened Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences informed Jannings that he would be honored as the year’s Best Actor for his roles as a Russian officer in “The Last Command” and as a Milwaukee bank clerk in “The Way of All Flesh.” Jannings accepted the honor, but didn’t attend the ceremony, preferring to go back to Europe — he had a German mother and had been born in Switzerland — and in a few years, he joined the movie industry of the Third Reich.

By turning down an invitation to the first Academy Awards ceremony, Jannings spared himself from becoming embroiled in an event that was somehow even duller and less funny than the preposterous ceremonies the movie industry has inflicted on itself for the subsequent 81 years. That first ceremony wasn’t recorded or broadcast, and only 300 people showed up. In the years that followed, ceremonies were dominated by orotund speechifying by such thrilling figures as Charles Curtis, the prohibitionist Kansan and U.S. vice president. If the speeches in the current ceremonies seem too long (they are limited to 45 seconds), bear in mind that in the early years they didn’t even get around to passing out the first award until after midnight.

While much has changed since those days, the famous Oscar statue was there in roughly its current form from the very start.  Screenwriter Frances Marion wrote that it was “a perfect symbol of the picture business: a powerful athletic body clutching a gleaming sword with half of his head, that part which held his brains, completely sliced off.”

Today we associate the Academy Awards with glitz and glamour — a night when the gods and goddesses of the screen sit in judgment of each other and confer a verdict of excellence that will be remembered. Its is a show that everyone watches and loves. But the ceremony started out not for ordinary viewers, but as an exclusive event for the big studios. The awards were fundamentally an industry power play, particularly for MGM czar Louis B. Mayer. By the late 1920s, Hollywood had grown so fast that studio employees had begun unionizing and escaping the control of the bosses. When that started happening, the studio heads banded together to create their own professional society with influence and cachet that would help them stay in control.

In the first couple of years, a committee of five chose the winners, whom Mayer, after juicing the results to his liking, then approved. In year three, the academy underwent a democratic revolution, and all four hundred of its members won the right to vote. But the show was still more or less staged. Until 1940, reporters were handed the results before the ceremony. Nominees sometimes found out they had lost by overhearing the banter of the ink-stained wretches in the press room.

What’s really remarkable about the Academy Awards show is how what started as — and in some ways continues to be — a humdrum industry trade show became one of the most popular spectacles in entertainment. The transformation happened when the academy reluctantly allowed the ceremony to be broadcast live on NBC in 1953. It was the most-watched event in the history of the young medium. Live television wasn’t a novelty, but Hollywood aristocrats had become used to doing their business in private, and only reluctantly agreed to the live broadcast. In “The Big Show,” his book about the awards, Hollywood writer Steve Pond writes that memos went out to the big stars warning them that the live cameras would not give them a second chance to look good, and they would be well-advised to avoid colors that made them wan or ugly. Many just refused to attend.

In the next decade, the Oscars matured into their modern form, in which the hoopla and spectacle are expected and the show has a life and revenue stream of its own. Bob Hope became the iconic host of the event, emceeing 18 times before he retired in 1977, and personifying the middlebrow, ultra-safe comedy that has been the award show’s hallmark. As easily bore-able home viewers, rather than Hollywood producers, became the target audience, the acceptable speech length diminished, so the orchestra would rise to truncate horror shows like Greer Garson’s seven-minute display of gasbaggery accepting the award for “Mrs. Miniver” in 1943.

But the most attractive change in the awards has been an informal commandment we might call the Emil Jannings rule: An Oscar nomination has, since the 1950s, been the one Hollywood invitation you cannot easily refuse. Very rarely do big-name best actor winners not show up — although in 1971 George C. Scott declined to take part in a “meat parade” and stayed home to watch hockey, and in 1973 Marlon Brando sent a faux American Indian in his place. The nomination is the Hollywood subpoena, able to compel all but the most powerful and reclusive to show up and be subjected to bright lights — and each other’s company. The change has made the ceremony more political, since the audience is captive to its shrillest members. They have no choice but to listen as Richard Gere excoriates China, Michael Moore bloviates about the Bush administration, or Vanessa Redgrave erupts in an anti-Israel tirade.

Since the early days, the most memorable moments have almost all been outbursts and unstaged moments when the stars’ true craziness or charm shines through. They may be perfect on the big screen, but in the live action of the awards, they can flub their lines (Robert De Niro mumbling an introduction for Elia Kazan), make fools of themselves (Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White), or perhaps show a glint of genuine wit. When a man streaked the Academy Awards in 1974, a giggly David Niven recovered his composure at the podium and elicited a roar by saying that “the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.” The line seemed unscripted, and maybe it was. In an industry built on fantasy, a little reality is a wonderful thing.


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