Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Shulman #NewBooks #AcademyAwards

America does not have royalty. It has the Academy Awards. For nine decades, perfectly coiffed starlets, debonair leading men, and producers with gold in their eyes have chased the elusive Oscar. What began as an industry banquet in 1929 has now exploded into a hallowed ceremony, complete with red carpets, envelopes, and little gold men. But don’t be fooled by the pomp: the Oscars, more than anything, are a battlefield, where the history of Hollywood–and of America itself–unfolds in dramas large and small. The road to the Oscars may be golden, but it’s paved in blood, sweat, and broken hearts.

In Oscar Wars, Michael Schulman chronicles the remarkable, sprawling history of the Academy Awards and the personal dramas–some iconic, others never-before-revealed–that have played out on the stage and off camera. Unlike other books on the subject, each chapter takes a deep dive into a particular year, conflict, or even category that tells a larger story of cultural change, from Louis B. Mayer to Moonlight. Schulman examines how the red carpet runs through contested turf, and the victors aren’t always as clear as the names drawn from envelopes. Caught in the crossfire are people: their thwarted ambitions, their artistic epiphanies, their messy collaborations, their dreams fulfilled or dashed.

Oscar Wars (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (Audible.com) (AbeBooks) is a book that appeals to the old me. The one that, before children, would watch endless hours of cable television shows recapping previous years’ Academy Awards ceremonies and what everyone was wearing. The book also appeals to the current me, who likes to read about old Hollywood and all the stories coming from the studios. It was a golden age, but now that image is tarnished with the revelations of what studio heads were really like.

Told in a chronological yet thematic way, Oscar Wars looks at the history of the Academy Award with fresh eyes, from it’s inception to the 2022 Oscars, when Will Smith made news for slapping comedian Chris Roth while on stage. There’s plenty of juicy gossip in-between, too.

I really liked the later chapters, when the focus pitted Sunset Boulevard against All About Eve, and later, when Jaws proved to be too commercial of a success to earn best director for Stephen Spielberg. The Academy has always been somewhat snooty about popular films, although that has changed somewhat in recent years. But the best chapter I found was the one on race and the Oscars. The fact that you can count on your fingers the number of minorities that have won acting awards is telling, despite how Hollywood always telling us that they’re more progressive than the majority of society.

I knew from reading Candice Bergen’s autobiography that she helped change the makeup of the Academy when Gregory Peck was president in 1970 and society was changing faster than the old-school Academy liked. It was top-heavy with older members who weren’t involved in the business anymore, yet they still got to vote during awards season. Bergen proposed some changes to Peck, and some were implemented. New members were let in, about 200 a year, and older members were given emeritus status.

Even though it’s been years since I watched the Academy Awards in full (motherhood will do that to you), I thoroughly enjoyed this look back at some memorable moments in Academy history.

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