Hating the Oscars. Hardly an original pursuit—the act itself has a storied history—though certainly an irresistible one. No less a figure than George C. Scott, Academy Award winner for the title role in Patton (1970), memorably dubbed it “the two-hour meat parade.”
At that special time each year, having reliably tuned out that months-long drone of speculation from the movie pundits, again one must ask: can I summon up the wherewithal to engage with the scandals du jour, the snubs, the demographic shifts, the sneering wit of the hosts, or, even worse, to ignore it all completely?
Raymond Chandler, as true a cynic as did ever put pen to paper, hated them well and hated them early in his report from the 1948 ceremony:
“If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, "In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived "; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn't good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong, because this sort of vulgarity is part of its inevitable price.”
Such has been the hushed mantra of a great many movie lovers who, with the annual onset of Oscars season, feel a certain queasy conflict of purpose. It is clear that the Oscars in all their garishness symbolize both the allure of a brief relevance—the time of year when even relatives engage us in conversation about movies—coupled with a defensive retreat into a cynicism that is as inevitable as the resentment engendered by it.
The sensible thing to do, of course, would be to opt out of the whole thing and instead fill those hours with a more stimulating activity, like making pea soup, shopping for seasonal footwear, or re-reading the collected works of Anna Akhmatova. Then again, pointedly not tuning into the Oscars as a professed cinephile is also kind of like boasting that, as a millennial, you do not own a smartphone.
In 1948, Raymond Chandler ably pinpointed the futility and accompanying despair of anti-Oscars resistance; that no matter how alienated we feel from such a display, as cinephiles there is surely an inevitable reckoning with the event on our part that we are obliged to participate in as long as we believe that popular cinema is something worth engaging with publicly. Right? Oh, the Oscars are of course drab and consistently, impossibly out-of-touch yet carry with them, or once carried with them, the promise of a momentary cinephilic relevance and sense of self-worth, illusory or not.
At least, it may have seemed that way in the late 1940s, when even the sorry spectacle of the 21st Academy Awards, reeling from the shock of an industry-wide blacklist and with a sickening feeling of paranoia hanging in the air, boasted a roster of nominees that included masterpieces like The Red Shoes and Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, as well as pleasures both major—Moonrise, Red River, The Naked City, The Quiet One—and minor—I Remember Mama, The Search, even Johnny Belinda.
On January 11th, 1927, Louis B. Mayer held a banquet for the elite of Hollywood and, to the 36 guests in attendance, offered membership in an organization he dubbed the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the “International” was later dropped, with the official acronym then becoming AMPAS). Mayer, alarmed by the droves of projectionists and technicians who had started to join unions in the mid-1920s, feared that once his star directors and actors got wind of such efforts, his tight grip on production would be loosened, his vulnerabilities exposed. The other studio heads, most at least as tyrannical and as unrelenting in their anti-union fervor as Mayer, were similarly anxious.
In 1927, the major studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were vertically integrated—they owned both the production houses in which movies were created and the first-run theaters at which they were shown. Unions threatened these corporate structures, as organized strikes could theoretically paralyze the whole highly monopolized industry with a single call for strike action.
The Academy was conceived in opposition to this threat as a kind of pseudo-union, a self-styled “labor organization” that would be watched over by the studio heads. It was devised by men like Louis B. Mayer as a manageable way to arbitrate disputes internally. Meanwhile, the awards side was concocted as a way of placating artists hungry for recognition (or perhaps simply the reliable contracts that come with it). Mayer himself spelled it out thusly:
“I found that the best way to handle [these writers and directors] was to hang medals all over them. […] If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”
However, in October 1929, before the results of this devious experiment could really be reaped, the stock market crashed. Then, in 1932, after more than three years of the most severe economic downturn in the history of industrial civilization, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a reform-minded Democrat, was elected President. Unionizing and guild-forming were practically in the air and so, in June 1933, the year FDR was inaugurated, the Screen Actors Guild was formed. Eddie Cantor, representing the guild as president, spent Thanksgiving that year with the new Commander-in-Chief at the White House in an effort to persuade him to drop certain restrictive provisions in the National Recovery Administration’s new “Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry.”1 In the midst of all this, AMPAS was reduced, in its public face, to playing annual host to its increasingly extravagant awards show.
Thereafter, the Oscars inched further and further from its origins as a closed-door private event and became, first in broadcasting through radio and then later, in 1953, through television, the ceremony basically familiar to audiences today. In 2019, the Academy’s sources for nominees are increasingly stratified along diverse production and national lines, or at least appear to be. Yet for a brief moment in the late 1940s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feted works more politically and culturally diverse than history, which implies a progression away from the retrograde visions of the past, would have us believe.
Indeed, at the ceremony attended by Raymond Chandler, the nominees were startlingly diverse, both culturally—Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine (1946) got a Best Screenplay nod—as well as politically. That year, the line-up included movies by bleeding-heart liberals (Elia Kazan), old school left-wing populists (Charles Chaplin) and, in the case of such films as Crossfire (1947), Body and Soul (1947), and Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947), movies produced by actual teams of card-carrying Communists. Kazan’s Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), the liberal treatise on anti-Semitism that took home the Best Picture trophy that year, both embodied this brief recognition of liberal themes and socially-conscious filmmaking as well as symbolized its downfall. As Dave Kehr put it, “Within a few years many writers and directors of these films would find themselves receiving not Oscar nominations but summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities committee.”2
Raymond Chandler attended the 20th annual ceremony in March 1948; the previous October had seen fresh hearings of the reformed House Committee on Un-American Activities (widely known as HUAC or referred to as House Un-American Activities Committee). That winter, congressional subpoenas had been dispatched to Hollywood and drew in such distinguished anti-Communists as Adolph Menjou, Walt Disney, Robert Montgomery, and Ronald Reagan (former and current Presidents of SAG). Reagan, who by all accounts emerged from the hearing with his dignity intact and his liberal bona fides untarnished, closed his testimony by noting “I hope we never are prompted by either fear or resentment of Communism into compromising any of our democratic principles in order to fight it.” Just over a month later, he was visited at home by FBI men. Inside the organization, Reagan was dubbed “Confidential Informant T-10.”
This second Reagan, shielded from public view and reversing the position he stated before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, informed the federal agents of his “firm conviction” that the Communist Party should be outlawed by the U.S. Congress as “not a legal party, but [a] foreign-inspired conspiracy,” and also its “fronts” and “groups” designated as such, establishing a legal basis for discrimination.
Unfriendly witnesses who were subpoenaed for the October 1947 hearings quite literally included the cast and crew of a great many of the movies that would be awarded by the Academy only a few months later. At that time in 1948, Hollywood, nervous at the gauntlet thrown down by HUAC, had quietly withdrawn from producing these kinds of socially-conscious pictures more or less altogether and indeed a pall had settled over the industry.
Comparing the 21st Oscars ceremony, which took place on March 24th, 1949 and which honored 1948 films, with the one attended by Raymond Chandler the previous spring makes the point better than could any historian. By 1949, only a single Communist-produced film remained in the Oscars line-up: The Naked City (1948), nominated for the Best Motion Picture Story award. Albert Maltz, who wrote it, had been blacklisted in November 1947 as one of the Hollywood Ten. Jules Dassin, its director, was compelled to leave the U.S. during production of his next film, Night and the City (1950), reportedly following the advice of his friend Darryl Zanuck who knew that he would soon be targeted by HUAC. Dassin was formally blacklisted in 1951.
In the face of all this, the studios were reticent to produce the kind of work that only a few months before had brought them great success at the Academy Awards. Around the time that RKO’s Crossfire3 proved to be a surprise critical and commercial hit, the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, Jack Dales, colluded with the FBI in supplying the identities of fifty-four guild members “whose names,” according to the historian Rick Perlstein, “it had obtained in an illegal break-in of a Communist Party office.”4 This was done “almost certainly” with the cooperation of guild president Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, the executives of the major studios publicly denounced the so-called Hollywood Ten and confirmed that they would no longer hire them on any of their pictures.
Yet as Doug Dibbern notes in his excellent book Hollywood Riots: Violent Crowds and Progressive Politics in American Film, the studio executives initially made no further move to disenfranchise other leftist artists and technicians from the industry.5 This bombastic denouncement of Communist infiltration was, though sinister and wide-ranging in its effects, at first only a targeted attack and not the industry-wide witch-hunt many feared. At the time, many Hollywood liberals thought that the villainy of these 'Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry' and their obvious congressional overreach would prove to be a flash in the pan. Indeed, it seemed briefly possible that the Hollywood Ten's appeal cases would be heard and eventually won. This was the furtive yet mildly hopeful atmosphere in which the 21st Academy Awards, held 70 years ago this March, were cloaked.
As Dibbern notes, the surprise re-election of Harry S. Truman only the previous winter had buoyed hopes that this new Red Scare would prove to be a mere blot on the history of the motion picture industry.6 And yet, associations between the Academy and those that had been tainted by their appearances before the committee as “friendly witnesses” were out in the open for all to see, though of course they were little noted.
In 1949, the ceremony was hosted by Robert Montgomery, who at that point had already supplied names to the committee. Two of the five nominees for Best Motion Picture—The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Johnny Belinda (1948)—were produced by or for Warner Bros. around the time that Jack Warner submitted to the committee that:
“Ideological termites have burrowed into many American industries, organizations, and societies. Wherever they may be, I say let us dig them out and get rid of them. My brothers and I will be happy to subscribe generously to a pest-removal fund. We are willing to establish such a fund to ship to Russia the people who don’t like our American system of government and prefer the communistic system to ours.”
Academy President Jean Hersholt began the ceremony by defending the institution's integrity not from charges of collusion with HUAC, not from the studios' abdication of their social backbone, but from those suspicious voices who, in his words, “always say the same thing: ‘We don’t want Academy standards foisted upon us. We want to make commercial pictures, unhampered by considerations of artistic excellence.’”
Paying no mind to the attack on filmmakers honored by the Academy only the previous year, Hersholt then speculated without irony whether, “the motion picture industry of the world would be producing pictures with the variety, the distinction, and the courage which you will find in the list of nominations for which we shall give awards tonight.”
John Huston, a key liberal voice in Hollywood and co-founder of the anti-HUAC Committee for the First Amendment (CFA), won Best Director and Best Screenplay, but only for relatively apolitical The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Best Picture award went to Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet, notable only in that it was the first time a foreign film—albeit in the English language—had been so honored.
“I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut once. I think I’ll do it again,”—Jane Wyman's Best Actress acceptance speech, making jokey reference to her being the first performer since the silent era to win without speaking a line of dialogue, remains the shortest in history not comprised of some variation on “Thank you very much.” The film for which she won it, Johnny Belinda, though an unqualified professional triumph, had led to the dissolution of her marriage; her bitter husband had quipped, “Maybe I should name Johnny Belinda as co-respondent.”
His name, of course, was Ronald Reagan.