Sunday marks the 90th Academy Awards. Hours before the ceremony, millions will soak up red carpet coverage, argue about which film will take best picture and make predictions over whether host Jimmy Kimmel will bring up the #MeToo movement that arose from Hollywood.
That’s a far cry from the Academy’s first ceremony, held May 16, 1929.
Those awards, hosted by actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr., weren’t broadcast on radio. The only people who saw them were the 270 industry insiders who paid $5 for tickets and ate broiled chicken on toast during the brief ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, according to Bronwyn Cosgrave’s book “Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards.”
A mere 15 statues were handed out, compared with 24 today. And there was no buildup or debate over which pictures would earn awards, because they had been announced three months earlier in the Academy’s newsletter, and then the Los Angeles Times. Everyone already knew that the 1927 silent film “Wings” was taking home best picture.
On its face, according to “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects,” the awards ceremony was created to promote the film industry, which was still attempting to overtake vaudeville as the country’s preferred entertainment.
And, indeed, the awards honored the best in silent film from 1927 and 1928. (Talking pictures, or “talkies,” were still new — and the Academy thought they had an unfair advantage, so they were not eligible for nomination.)
But the awards — and the academy that created them — had little to do with excellence in film. Instead, they represented an attempt to control the entire industry.
Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), felt that the major studios were suffering at the hand of the various guilds and unions of actors, writers and crew members.
So in January 1927, as Scott Eyman wrote in “Lion of Hollywood,” Mayer gathered 36 of the industry’s leaders, bought them dinner at the Los Angeles Biltmore and suggested an idea: the formation of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which would unite leaders in the industry’s five branches — actors, directors, writers, technicians and producers.
The Academy took on several roles, including standardizing technologies such as sound format throughout the industry. But Mayer’s true aim in creating it was to have an arbiter for contract negotiations between studios and the various guilds — an arbiter that would be controlled by the studios.
In essence, the Academy worked as a union buster. As Eyman noted, it “delayed serious labor negotiations in the movie industry for years.”
After two years, Mayer added the annual awards ceremony at the suggestion of Mary Pickford, the only woman in the Academy’s original leadership. Pickford pointed out that such a ceremony could act as “a publicity stunt and thereby boost the already spectacular profits of the Big Five” studios, Cosgrave wrote.
Mayer agreed, but he also thought that it would help him exert greater control over producers, actors and directors, a fact he didn’t keep secret.
“I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them,” Mayer said. “If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”
The next year, the ceremony was broadcast on the radio. It no longer simply belonged to the Hollywood elite, but Mayer and the rest of the Academy still reportedly fixed the voting to their own selfish ends.
“As a creation of the studios, the voting for awards by the Academy was capable of being swayed by the wishes of the most powerful of those studios, which led to such out-and-out absurdities as MGM’s ‘The Great Ziegfeld’ being named Best Picture of 1936, beating out ‘Dodsworth’ and ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,’ ” Eyman wrote.
The Academy’s voting body has grown substantially in the decades since those awards, now topping out at about 8,500. In the past two years alone, more than 1,400 people were invited to join the voting body in an effort to increase diversity and ensure that not only Hollywood insiders get a say, as CNN reported.
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