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Daily Digest: Oscar vs. Organized Labor - the Forgotten History
"This boom of prestige TV recalls the boom in talkies in the thirties," says author Michael Schulman
Today’s Strikegeist lead comes from writer Vincent Boucher, who spoke with author Michael Schulman about his new book, Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears (HarperCollins), which deals with the Academy’s forgotten roots as the studios’ bulwark against the industry’s first wave of union organizing.
While the picket lines march into Week Eight with no clear path to resolution in sight, its interesting to recall how one institution, now seen as purely ceremonial and above the fray of these battles, played an unlikely role in early Hollywood labor disputes, and that the Academy Awards’ very existence sprang out of studio attempts to derail strike talk.
“When I set out to write a book about the Academy Awards, I did not expect it to include so much labor history,” author and New Yorker writer Michael Schulman tells me when I call to talk about his recently published (and terrific) saga, Oscar Wars. Reading the book, I was surprised to learn how the little gold man birthed by the Motion Picture Academy was inexorably tied to the difficult start of Hollywood unions, with parallels that echo in the writers strike today.
“The Academy’s original purpose was incredibly different than today and one of the major reasons it was created was out of concern by the Louis B. Mayers of the world that the creative professions in Hollywood were on the verge of unionizing,” Schulman says. “The West Coast was not really a union kind of place but there were signs that that might change because Actors Equity, the union for stage actors back East, was making inroads and trying to drum up interest in forming a branch.”
When MGM chief Mayer first suggested in 1927 that Hollywood form an organization that would become the Academy, his aim was twofold. One was to counteract a series of scandals that had beset the movie colony — a series of untimely deaths that culminated in the “Fatty” Arbuckle trial following the demise of a young starlet after a purported orgy.
The second was to promote “harmony” — a buzzword that meant heading off efforts by the creative professionals in Hollywood from organizing on their own after the craftsmen won their effort to unionize in 1926). As Schulman relates: “How long until the talent — actors, directors, even those persnickety writers — banded together?”
Before they landed on the concept of handing out awards, the studio bosses saw the Academy as a vehicle for mediating relations with the industry’s employees. Adolph Zukor and the other studio heads wanted to level a pay cut of 10 to 25 percent for anyone making more than $50 a week, a decision passed to the workers by the Academy. Amid a ferocious uproar, the Academy backtracked immediately, pleading organizational growing pains. Schulman writes:
The Film Spectator claimed that the real reason the producers had retreated from the pay cut was that a group of actors, led by Conrad Nagel, had demanded that Mayer open MGM’s books for inspection. Under the headline “Academy Becomes Tool of Producers,” which was fast becoming the common wisdom, the magazine ripped the new organization for its utopian talk of “harmony”: “It is the kind of harmony that the cat felt while it was digesting the canary.”
Yet, incredibly, Schulman tells me, the Academy’s plan actually worked, and it was able to resist early efforts that forestalled the unionization of the creatives for five years, despite the controversy.
Schulman: During the thirties, the Academy was Public Enemy Number One among the rank and file in Hollywood because they were seen as a replacement for legitimate labor unions. They had actual mediators, so if some writer felt like they were unfairly fired or not given the pay they deserved, it would be brought before the Academy, and they would judge. But as the thirties went on, this just enraged people because they thought the Academy was a tool of the producers and that the bosses were pulling all the strings.
And that was almost the end of the Academy?
Schulman: The Academy could have ended in year six (the fourth year Oscars were given out). There was just an ongoing melodrama that completely swept up the Academy throughout the Depression when the three major creative guilds formed by the actors, writers and directors would boycott the Oscars or they would have their members resign their membership and the Academy was constantly trying to make deals with them or wrestle back control. And it was really Frank Capra, who was the president of the Academy for several years in the thirties, who essentially created a truce by saying, “If everyone in Hollywood hates the role that the Academy plays in labor, then we're just not gonna do that anymore.”
One of the things that struck me was that the studios wouldn't open their books back then when they wanted to make cuts and they were obviously making a lot of money, which echoes what’s happening with the streaming networks today.
Schulman: Yes, because sharing that knowledge is an opening for other people to amass power. And another one of the parallels is that when the talkies started in the late twenties, early thirties, suddenly all this new talent flocked from the East to the West. They needed writers to write the words that people would say, they needed stage actors to say the words, they needed stage directors to direct dialogue. It’s an interesting parallel that this boom of prestige TV recalls the boom in talkies in the thirties. And that they both would sort of happen around the same time as labor uprisings. And I don't think that's a coincidence, because it’s a new flock of people coming in and the talent population has shifted in a way.
Labor relations in Hollywood are always a little different than anywhere else.
Exactly. You're dealing with creative people and there's a tendency for the public not to think of screenwriting and acting as quote, unquote, real work, but it obviously is. And there are so many hopefuls who come to Hollywood with stars in their eyes and they are very easily exploited. There's always this supply of new people who will just do whatever to get a foot in the door of show business. I think that writers have always been really on the forefront because, if you think about it, writers are often just independent-minded people who know how to express themselves and you see that now, when writers are the ones leading the charge.
Pictured at top: At the inaugural Oscars in 1929, AMPAS President William C. deMille (second from the left) presents the Oscar for Best Actress to Mary Pickford and Best Actor to Warner Baxter (right). That same year, Hans Kraly (left) received the award for Best Screenplay. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Today in Strike News
As a result of the strike, Disney postponed the release dates of many of its upcoming tentpoles, including three Star Wars films, the Avatar sequels and the new Avengers movies. (Deadline)
Today at the Banff World Media Festival Summit Series, CBS chief George Cheeks commented on the strike, saying, “I still remain very hopeful that we will all find compromises. It’s existential for all of us. It’s just for the studios, for the creative partners, like we have to figure this out.” (The Hollywood Reporter)
Though their status as independent contractors prevents them from unionizing, songwriters have increasingly been questioning the difficulties they face in creating stable careers, with the WGA strike being seen as an “inspiration.” (Rolling Stone)
In Australia, the country’s writers guild is advising its members not to partake in projects within the jurisdiction of the WGA, as they risk being banned from ever joining the WGA in the future. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation News)
While production on upcoming Blake Lively film It Ends with Us was shut down in New Jersey as a result of the strike, it turns out that reports of Mission: Impossible 8’s filming shutdown were untrue, as the film will return to shooting once press for the franchise’s seventh entry is complete. (Deadline)
Picket Sign of the Day
Can you please spell “strike”? Spotted outside Paramount by Dane Yoshida.
Additional reporting by Matthew Frank