Behind the curtain of the Oscars's history of exclusion
In what’s becoming an annual occurrence, we’re in the midst of a highly publicised debate over the lack of diversity among the Oscar-nominated performers and filmmakers. Outside groups, including the NAACP, are up in arms. Several celebrities – some of them Academy members – have announced their intention to boycott the big night.
It’s not the first time that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been taken to task for what seems to be ethnic or racial bias.
There was outcry in 1986 when Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple was shut out, failing to take home a trophy in any of the 11 categories in which it was nominated. In 1989, Spike Lee’s iconic Do The Right Thing – which earned two nominations – was trumped by the relatively tame Driving Miss Daisy, which won best picture.
And last year, despite a best picture nod, Selma director Ava DuVernay and lead David Oyelowo were conspicuously absent from the line-up of nominees in their respective categories.
The current wave of criticism does seem to have hit a nerve with industry bigwigs. The venerable Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which selects nominees, is talking reform.
But it would be naïve to expect any substantive changes anytime soon. Few bodies operate under such arcane rules, or are as widely misunderstood, as the Academy.
Born in 1927, the Academy was the result of organisational efforts by the vertically integrated “majors”: firms that owned the studio complexes that made films, in addition to the chains of first-run theaters where they’d be shown.
In the early 1920s, these firms – which included Paramount Pictures and MGM – had already banded together under a single regulatory “Production Code” in response the threat of government censorship.
Self-regulation became the movie industry’s modus operandi. The ostensible competitors also needed to cope with the impending – and, ultimately, hugely expensive – shift from silent films to sound. To avert meddling by the state or chaos in the marketplace, studio heads came to the table to strategise an orderly transition that protected their common interests.
Censorship aside, the specter of organised labour may have been most instrumental in scaring the Academy into being. By the mid-1920s, musicians, projectionists and a number of technicians were already organized, some under the umbrella of the International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees. Actors Equity, which had joined the AFL in 1919, was beginning to make inroads in the movie business.
The Academy, then, was a initially mechanism for collusion among the majors – a sort of “house union” that organised more white collar employees under the careful eye of their bosses.
The awards part of the Academy, according to lore, was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer (the Mayer in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), an old-time mogul and one of the founders of the Academy.
Mayer originally thought the awards would be a way to incentivise employees. But the entertainment business also had long since learned the financial advantages of making a spectacle of itself. Attracting attention – the right kind, at least – elevated studio brands, while burnishing the profiles of the movie stars that were arguably the majors’ most valuable assets.
Radio coverage began in 1930, with the second awards ceremony broadcast live over network radio, effectively turning the movie business’ top competitor into a platform for promotion. In 1953, the Oscars came to prime time, with the first ceremony televised on NBC. (Media convergence was a thing long before we started watching videos on our cellphones.)
Whatever else the Academy Awards may or may not be, they are indisputably a triumph of canny public relations. Today, regardless of who wins or loses, every February – in newspapers and magazines, on social media and around water-coolers – talk turns to the movies.
An insiders-only affair
Still, for all the glare and chatter around the glamorous awards ceremony, the Academy remains a fairly shadowy presence that, since its inception, has been part trade association and part secret society.
It’s very much an “insiders only” affair. The only way in is by nomination: either nomination by at least two existing members, or, later, when the Academy began handing out prizes, nomination for an award.
Regardless, a Board of Governors – three elected from each of the 17 branches within the Academy – ultimately signs off on who gets to learn the secret handshake. And once you’re in, you’re pretty much in for life.
This means that while there’s considerable diversity among more recent inductees, the membership inevitably retains large blocs of members whose careers were in full flower and whose tastes were formed decades ago.
It’s also an eclectic bunch. Originally restricted to producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and “technicians,” the ranks have swelled to include casting directors, agents, editors, PR and marketing professionals, stunt coordinators and more.
But despite this variety of occupations – and despite a woman of colour, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, serving as president – the Academy reportedly remains 76% male and 94% white.
The average age? Sixty-three.
Politics, shifting tastes and trends, and the economics of entertainment all play a part in the nomination and selection process.
In the final round, every one of the Academy’s 6 000-plus voting members theoretically has a vote in each category. Inevitably, most votes will end up being cast outside the voters’ area of direct expertise: plenty of cinematographers have a say in assessing the work of their peers, but they’re joined by all the sound editors, who also weigh in.
No one could ever hope to see the hundreds of films eligible to be nominated. For this reason, even getting on the voters’ radar is a challenge unto itself, particularly for low-budget films lacking the industry connections and backing that can build buzz.
Studios and distributors woo critics and tastemakers, lobbying for votes and hatching ingenious movie release strategies. In the 1990s, the resourceful Weinsteins’ Miramax raised the Oscar campaign to an art form, repeatedly garnering Academy accolades for pictures whose quirkiness, paltry budgets and uneven box office receipts might otherwise have kept them out of the running.
Nostalgia plays a big role, too. There’s a tendency to hand out timely kudos to aging artistes before they face that last, long fade to black (and have to be cut into the following year’s tear-jerking “In Memoriam” montage).
When not racing the Reaper, the “members-for-life” sometimes play a long game: younger performers are sometimes told to “wait their turn.” In 1974, after his second go as Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II Al Pacino lost the Best Actor award to Art Carney. Voters made it up to him for Scent of a Woman in 1992.
The Academy Award nominations, then, reflect the statistical consensus of a community of professionals, who lend their support to highly promoted work created by their most well-liked colleagues.
This year’s nominees aren’t really the problem; they’re merely a product of how the film industry’s oldest and most influential organisation has evolved, and the biases that have endured within that industry.
The motion picture industry is a massive business, counting box office receipts by the billions. Wound up within a network of media conglomerates more powerful than the majors of the 1920s ever dreamed of being, today’s film industry still excels at drawing attention to itself – to its triumphs and failures and festivals.
But behind the show itself, the business is – like so many others – stodgy, clubbish and opaque, a place where a tiny number of individuals make decisions that affect vast numbers of people – and make shockingly large amounts of money.
For reasons of race, gender and class, people with the bad luck to be on the wrong side of the privilege equation face odds as daunting as – if not more so than – those faced in most parts of American public and corporate life.
Among the top 500 firms in the United States, there are only five black chief executives. More than 80% of execs at the biggest investment banks are white, while and 362 of the 438 members of the Unites States House of Representatives are men (361 of them are white). By comparison, the demographics of AMPAS look positively progressive.
Show business, so willing to celebrate itself as the opposite, works depressingly just like all the other businesses we know.
Fixing the inequities of the Oscars – without addressing the inequities of the industry – is just more smoke and mirror, sound and fury.