Michael Schulman on the Icons Who Shaped the Oscars (for Better and for Worse)
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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From the episode:
MS: The birth of the new Hollywood is a big phase in the book. That area in the late 60s through the mid 70s when you had the rise of Scorsese and Coppola and Robert Altman and all these people, these very rambunctious art house directors who came around in a moment when the studios didn’t know how to talk to young people.
The generation gap of the late 60s was a very wide gap, and so these filmmakers had a lot of control. They had a lot of power because the studios were a bit at a loss, and it was this famous moment of revolution in film. And you get amazing movies out of that, like Midnight Cowboy and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But then it’s so interesting to see the wheel turn, and now we’re in the #OscarsSoWhite era. That generation is now older and established and feeling very aggrieved by the idea of diversifying the Academy membership. Not all of them obviously, but it was a generational war once again, and they were on the other side of it.
MK: I was fascinated to learn about the role that Candice Bergen played in recruiting some of the youngsters in the 60s.
MS: Oh my gosh, I love Candice Bergen. I grew up with her on Murphy Brown and only learned a little bit later in life that she had been this starlet and it-girl in the late 60s, early 70s. And of course she did all these great movies like Carnal Knowledge. At some point I found this correspondence in Gregory Peck’s files at the Academy Library.
Basically the 22- or 23-year-old Candice Bergen in 1969 was writing to Gregory Peck, who was the president of the Academy, telling him that the Academy is basically full of antiquities who are gumming up the works and you need to reach out to some hip young people, like my friends. And her friends were like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, like the guys who made Easy Rider. She was perfectly positioned to be this bridge because she was a nepo baby, as we’d say. She was a child of Hollywood. Her father was the famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
But she was young and she had this this inroad with the counterculture people. And she realized that none of those people cared about the Academy Awards and they weren’t reflected and they weren’t in the academy. So she wrote to Gregory Peck and said, can I go and recruit some of my friends? And he said, yeah, please do it. They didn’t really know each other very well. They sort of knew each other as acquaintances. But you see in these letters, just like that, these two opposite sides of this cultural divide and generational divide collaborating together on how to make the academy less out of touch.
MK: You mentioned Gregory Peck’s files. Tell me a little bit about the research required in putting this book together, because I imagine it’s some original reporting, it’s a lot of looking in archives, it’s a lot of books that you’ve had to read.
MS: Yeah, it took me four years [to write it]. I was a little over a year late with it, in part because I have my day job at the New Yorker, which keeps me very busy. So it was a long process. The concept of the book was to have these episodic chapters where it wasn’t every year of the Oscars, but I chose a dozen or so and went deep into them. But I quickly realized that, in order to tell those stories, I had to feed my brain with everything I could about each era. So, in terms of research, it was so different from one era to the next, because of course, if you’re doing 1929 or 1942, everyone’s dead.
And that involved a lot of reading books and biographies and going to the Academy Library and the Library of Performing Arts in New York and trying to go through archives. That was really fun. I loved doing that. And then as the chronology got later, more people were alive. At first maybe it was someone’s offspring—I interviewed Judy Holliday’s son, Dalton Trumbo’s daughter, Gregory Peck’s son. And then by the end of the book, it’s about 2017, and everyone’s around and everyone’s still working in Hollywood, so it’s like reporting a magazine piece that is about the industry today.
I actually wrote the chapters out of order, just to keep myself on my toes. I didn’t write chronologically. I would skip around and do a more modern chapter and then go back to an older era and then go back to more modern one, and then put them all in order for the book.
MK: I love that. And it gives me license then to skip to 1989 because I wanna hear you talk about Alan Carr, who I knew very little about exactly what he did for the Oscars, which seems kind of legendary.
MS: This was probably the most fun chapter to work on. It’s about the 1989 ceremony, which is notorious, usually referred to as the worst Oscars ever, mostly because it opened with this gigantic, 11-minute, splashy production number that notoriously included Rob Lowe singing “Proud Mary” with a woman dressed as Snow White in a replica of the Coconut Grove with dancing cocktail tables. It’s just completely campy and over the top and insane, and I think it’s really fun.
But at the time it was just derided. And the man behind all of this was Alan Carr, who was known at the time for a few things. One is being the producer of Grease. Another is he produced La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. But he’d also had some misfires, like Can’t Stop the Music, the movie of the Village People. And he was also known for being very flamboyant, which is what how they—wink, wink—said that people were gay at the time.
He was flamboyantly gay, wore incredible caftans and threw these wild parties. But he wanted his whole life to produce the Oscars, and when he finally got the chance, he put his name absolutely everywhere. Everyone knew these were the Alan Carr Oscars, and he was making these big promises. It’s gonna be bigger, glitzier, better, more glamorous. And then when it was so schlocky, everyone knew where to point the finger.
And so it really became this story of this guy who flew too close to the Oscar sun, and it wound up ruining his career and his life. It was a devastating blow to him. In the end, I found this story to be kind of a tragedy, as campy and crazy as it is in the details. There was something at its heart really sad about it because it was about someone who wanted something so badly and then just became ostracized when it didn’t go well.
MK: And yet it seems like he has allowed for many careers to flourish doing the E! red carpet reports.
MS: Oh yeah. I mean one of the things that he did contribute was beefing up the red carpet and the fashion for the show. The red carpet had not been such a thing. Usually in old Academy Awards, you see like five minutes of footage at the beginning of people arriving. But Carr realized that it could be more of a show, and then you had Joan Rivers doing her coverage for E! and it just got bigger and bigger, and now it’s basically its own show that is as long and as big as the Oscars itself.
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Michael Schulman is a writer living in New York City. His first book, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, about the actress’s artistic coming-of-age in the 1970s, was a New York Times bestseller. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book is called Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears.