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We’d Like to Thank the Academy ... for What?

Posted on Feb 21, 2012
AP / Damian Dovargane

A worker carries an Oscar statue outside the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles at the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.

By Carrie Rickey

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, formed by the producers of silent films just as silent films became obsolete, is poised to give its top prize to a silent film, “The Artist.” As the organization comes full circle in a week when the Los Angeles Times reported that its membership looks like the faculty of an Ivy League university circa 1964 (94 percent white, 77 percent male and 54 percent over 60), is it cynical to ask whether the Academy Awards have outlived their relevance?

The story goes that in 1926 Louis B. Mayer, mahoff of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, contemplated a seaside retreat in Santa Monica at what today is 625 Pacific Coast Highway. He calculated that studio carpenters could build his tiled-roof villa in six weeks but balked at paying scale to the newly unionized workers. Within weeks of the completion of his paradise on the Pacific, Mayer strategized with studio acolytes over dinner. Should they create a group to “mediate” labor disputes—a euphemism for the prevention of further unionization—plaguing the industry?

In the beginning it was called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and/or Sciences. While its ostensible purpose was management-approved mediation, its implicit goal was to pre-empt actors, writers and directors from organizing, as carpenters, musicians and electricians had done in 1926. Statuettes were an afterthought.

There is no record of the moment when Mayer or his minions hatched the idea that awards for “the talent” might help keep union organizers at bay. No sooner than the academy became the “studio-approved alternative” to a real union, as film historian Richard Koszarski put it, its by-invitation-only membership gave rise to “immediate grumbling, especially among the actors and writers.” To the extent that the Screen Actors Guild and Screen Writers Guild weren’t established until 1933 (with the blessing of the pro-labor President Franklin D. Roosevelt), Mayer’s brainchild forestalled the inevitable for six years.

Like most organizations built by committee, the academy had multiple objectives. Improving public relations as well as labor relations were the initial goals. As its first president, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (coincidentally, the model for “The Artist”), reminded the audience at the formative academy banquet in 1927, movie people labored under a cloud of public contempt. He called for constructive action to legitimize the industry. By the way, he added, there would be “awards of merit for distinctive achievement.”

There was no Oscar at the first awards ceremony in 1929 (recognizing cinematic achievements in 1927-28) for “best picture.” Recognizing the distinction between popular entertainment and artistic ambition, members cited “Wings,” the World War I aerial drama, as “most outstanding picture,” and “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” the lyrical and elemental account of husband, wife and temptress, as the “most unique, artistic, worthy and original” production.

The following year, the two awards categories were collapsed into one “best picture.” The statuette got its nickname when the academy librarian exclaimed that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. It was the prize’s unofficial name until Walt Disney referred to “the Oscar” in his 1934 acceptance speech. After that, the sobriquet stuck.

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Migs's avatar

By Migs, February 23, 2012 at 3:32 pm Link to this comment

@poodfreemon: I’m with you on Taxi Driver. It’s my favourite movie too and Martin Scorsese is my favourite director. I watched The Departed again about a month ago for the first time since its cinema run and was mesmerized by it. It’s very political. Since then I’ve been searching everywhere to find an in-depth scene by scene analysis of it but haven’t been able to find one. If anyone can direct me to one I’d appreciate it. However, in my search I’ve come across a lot of other great stuff including a website dedicated to the work of Stanley Kubrick called The Kubrick Corner. On it there’s brilliant in-depth analysis of Full Metal Jacket which I highly recommend to all Truthdiggers.
Here’s the link:

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, February 23, 2012 at 2:47 pm Link to this comment


You need to expand your film horizons.

I cannot even imagine a top 100 list of all-gringo films.

The only one in my top 10 list is The Searchers (one racist film in my top ten is all I can stomach)—even though Monument Valley doesn’t look anything like west Texas….

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By poodfreemon, February 22, 2012 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I prefer to watch the Academy Awards alone. The worst of the evening’s experience are those winners who blabber on with two dozen thank-yous. The best of it is the fact that for 55 years I have been more than happy to escape into a good or great movie. How many movies have you seen in your lifetime? 

My favorite movie: “Taxi Driver.”

In second place are my 100 all-time greats that are even better upon the second and third viewing, like “sex, lies and videotape,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “American Beauty,” and “Winter’s Bone.”

The Academy Awards show is a spectacle that allows me to dwell for three hours in the swirl of the memories of my entire history as an avid moviegoer. Thankfully, excellent films continue to be made, no matter what and who the crusty Academy decides to honor.

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By Barry Popik, February 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Academy librarian Margaret Herrick never had an “uncle Oscar.” I’ve been trying to get the true story published somewhere, anywhere. The Academy refuses to acknowledge the truth and goes with the myth.
Hollywood reporter Sidney Skolsky coined “Oscar” in 1934. It’s the first time “Oscar” has been cited in print, and Time magazine and others credited Skolsky in the 1930s.
Skolsky said that he was thinking of the vaudeville line “Have a cigar, Oscar!” That takes us directly to the identity of Oscar—cigar manufacturer and opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein. His songwriting grandson, also named Oscar, would win two Oscars on some enchanted evenings.

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By felicity, February 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm Link to this comment

When the Academy awarded that awful movie ‘Titanic’ 12
Oscars I knew it was a sham outfit.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, February 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

We call films from gringolandia “churros” here in Mexico.

Churros are long skinny ridged sugar coated deepfried versions of donuts….

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By ClscFlm, February 22, 2012 at 10:53 am Link to this comment

What so many fail to realize is that
Academy Awards voting isn’t about
audience popularity.  It is people who
work in particular fields voting for
the best work done in those fields for
that year. Best Picture is certainly
more fraught with politics and “the
business.” But one (of several) bright
lights provided by it all are the Foreign Language
Film Nominees.  Without a nomination,
many would never pick up distributors
in the US at all. Same goes with
animated features, shorts and
documentaries. The connection with
Oscar is a much needed boost for some
genuinely challenging, artistic and
entertaining films.  As a way of
genuinely honoring creative work, and
for bringing little known films to the
fore, the Academy Awards still works
very well.

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By mrfreeze, February 22, 2012 at 8:14 am Link to this comment

The Academy is nothing more than a microcosm of American society. It’s High School all over again, every year and if you’re not part of “the club,” well then…........

I happen to be a fan of foreign film, especially Italian film and the Italians are producing excellent, contemporary movies, but one would hardly know this based on the way the American film industry (and especially the Academy) operates.

Fortunately, I make NONE of my decisions to watch a movie based on the number of Academy Awards it receives.

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Migs's avatar

By Migs, February 22, 2012 at 3:30 am Link to this comment

“For despite its country-club demographics and the cynicism behind its creation, the fact is that without the Academy, what incentive would Hollywood have to make anything other than “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers”?”

I don’t about that. Now that every other film gets a Best Picture nomination it seems the quality of the films getting acknowledged by the Academy is already being diluted. Also, a lot of so-called independent type movies are actually being financed by big studios. So it won’t be long before the social commentary in those films is further diluted too.

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By balkas, February 22, 2012 at 3:05 am Link to this comment

for a long time i have rejected hollywood and much what it produces. it
does seem that hollywood at one time was not an agent of american
imperialism, injustices, racial hatred, etc.
but that era era of being to a degree enlightening/uplifting ended long
today it is just about completely of and for the One Percent.

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