Book review: “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears” by Michael Schulman

Cover of ”Oscar Wars” by Michael Schulman

You’ve often wondered what ended up on the cutting room floor.

What Easter eggs or tiny secrets never made it into your favorite movie? Which budding star’s debut role will you miss because someone decided it wasn’t worthy? What will never be seen on-screen? So much celluloid, so many scripts slashed, plots mashed, dreams dashed, as in “Oscar Wars” by Michael Schulman, careers trashed.

Nearly a year ago, you almost couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about The Slap. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about both action and Academy.

As for the latter, says Schulman, the Academy Awards are “a vaunted tradition celebrating a great modern art form. They’re an industry party… the closet thing America has to royalty… a marketing ploy… the Gay Super Bowl.” And “they’re something else, too.”

The Oscars, in a way, are a battlefield where “it can take years to see what the real battle lines were.” There’s conflict in the Awards, cultural upheaval, and politics. The movies hold up a mirror to us and our society, but what happens behind-the-scenes with the Awards is rarely known by the public. 

The first Awards were held quietly, because that’s how the Academy began: members at the first meeting were carefully-chosen VIPs, bona fide stars, directors, and powerful studio owners. It’s possible, Schulman suggests, that the first Academy Awards process was “rigged.”

Through the years, there were many times when the Academy was almost disbanded and the Awards show deleted. And yet, it always rallied because who didn’t want that statue gracing their mantle or bathroom shelf? Frank Capra did everything imaginable to get one. So did Bette Davis, even going so far as to have an abortion. Judy Holliday narrowly missed getting the role that gained her an Oscar. Dennis Hopper didn’t care if he had one or not, though, and Dalton Trumbo got his very, very late.

In the near-century of the Oscars, there were comebacks and come-from-behinds, a Red Scare and Snow White. Indeed, the ceremony has thrived despite a ratings system, racism, rock & roll, 1969… and a Slap heard ’round the world.

As addictive as a large popcorn, extra butter, and more fun than a trailer for that next big flick, “Oscar Wars” is a star-powered fan’s book, all the way – but it also has something for not-particularly-avid sometimes-watchers, too.

With a heavy tip toward Hollywood, author Michael Schulman adds history and pop culture to his stories, showing how world events affected the movies and vice versa. The Academy hasn’t always follow along, though, leaving fans screaming “WHAAAT??” at their televisions once a year on a Sunday; on this, Schulman subtly explains the unexplainable, in a way that anyone can appreciate. His anecdotes put the shiny, sparkly “tinsel” in these Tinsel Town tales.

This is a hefty tome but don’t let that be daunting; “Oscar Wars” is so much fun to read that you’ll barely notice its size. If you’re truly mad for movies, Hollywood, the Red Carpet, or cultural history, this book makes the cut. 

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It’s a natural question that everybody asks about the movies, and in “But Have you Read the Book?” by Kristen Lopez, you’ll learn about the stories that inspired the movies. What ones have been true to the original? How much has changed? This is a great companion to the Schulman book, and it’ll enhance your streaming and at-home watching, too.

c.2023, Harper


608 pages