Review: The film academy story favors fact over melodrama


“The Academy and the Prize: Oscar Maturity and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” by Bruce Davis (Brandeis University Press)

Film historians and others seeking a deeper vein of Oscar knowledge than mere anecdotes will find many nuggets in “The Academy and the Prize,” which focuses on the first three decades of Oscar’s life. company of the statuette brandishing the sword.

Bruce Davis’ insightful story of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization he served as executive director for 20 years, explains how the academy survived more than one near-death experience, usually tied to funding, and created a cultural icon with its award. (Turning its annual awards show into a TV show in the 1950s, which wasn’t an obvious solution at the time, eventually solved the money problem.)

The big story is already known. Amid sex scandals and censorship efforts in the 1920s, the film community looked for a way to emphasize the art of cinema. Industry artists and businessmen founded the academy in 1927, then created an award to give a symbol to their argument for the creative independence of cinema.

The backstory, however, has at times been unknown or misinterpreted, in part because the academy kept minutes of its directors’ meetings and other records. This archive was opened for Davis. The inclusion of mundane details in this story is understandable, if tedious at times, as it could well go on for decades until the academy lifts the veil again.

Along the way, Davis provides an origin story for the Oscar statuette that’s as colorful as a superhero’s and debunks the legend of how the award got its name (it’s complicated). It also rolls out Byzantine decisions such as which create, kill, or tinker with various categories of rewards. Most of the reveals in the book are of the boardroom variety and can be rather dry compared to the stormy, sexy and risky act of filmmaking.

The book stops short of the tumultuous 1960s, leaving one to wonder what lurks in the academy’s archives about the organization’s internal debates, if any, impact on its awards and TV show about civil rights, drug culture, Vietnam and even shootings (the show was postponed in 1968 following the murder of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and again in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan was beaten down).

What about Oscar scandals, like George C. Scott’s refusal of awards in 1971 and Marlon Brando in 1973, a streaker’s presence at the 1974 awards, the Best Picture mess? in 2017 and, of course, this the slap of the year seen ‘around the world?

Oscar would be lucky to have such a keen and unbiased historian as Davis to explore his next era.

Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).


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