The Oscars And Unions: The Awards Were Invented To Stop Labor Organization In Hollywood
Presented every year to shine a light on the filmmakers who have created something truly special, the Academy Awards have morphed into a cultural barometer. However, that wasn't always the case. In 1927, MGM executive Louis B. Mayer was just trying to find a way to keep actors from unionizing. When he tried using film industry labor to build a new house for his family in Santa Monica, he found that the crew members were already unionized, and he feared that if actors did the same, they'd be able to get a cut of the film profits that he dearly loved.
Smart (and slick) cookie that Mayer was, he created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the purpose of mediating labor disputes between Hollywood workers without a union. Just to make sure his actors felt especially special, he put together the first Academy Awards ceremony to give creatives the illusion of recognition without paying them more, giving them health care, or doing anything actually, you know, helpful.
No longer a ceremony of placation, the Academy Awards are still going strong, and they're definitely still full of the kind of endearing quirks that you can only find in Hollywood.
The "Academy" was made up to sound academic
Everyone loves to hear how smart they are. If you ever want to win major brownie points with someone, just take a page from Louis B. Mayer's book and tell your friends that they're geniuses. If you feel like going the extra mile, build an entire "academy" in their honor. In 1927, Mayer was growing worried about labor disputes between actors and film studios, so he decided to form an organization that could handle thing internally while acting as a PR machine for La La Land.
Working with a few other film company big-wigs, Mayer decided that their organization didn't just need to sound official, it needed to have an air of class and distinction to it. The last thing Mayer wanted was his fly-by-night operation to sound like was a fly-by-night operation, so the group passed on their first idea (the University of Phoenix Online) and went with something more prestigious: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The name is perfect. It makes film sound like it's really important, like cancer research or figuring out why platypuses look like that.
The origin of the name "Oscar" is disputed
The same year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was created, Louis B. Mayer decided to host a banquet and hand out some awards so it didn't just look like the cream of the crop was getting together to smoke cigars and talk shop. Mayer and the rest of the Academy decided to offer prizes for best picture, best actor, and the like so it was clear that the group was all about quality and not the bottom line.
The first few ceremonies actually didn't have a gold statue, but when the Academy decided that they should send the winners home with something so the whole thing felt like an actual award ceremony and not a trade show, they came up with a sketch of a man holding a sword to his feet, pinning down reels of film. Supposedly, Margaret Herrick, librarian to the Academy, said "It looks like my Uncle Oscar," but the anecdote has been attributed to a number of different actresses and other Hollywood figures over the years. Like many legends from the early days of cinema, the real story will likely never come to light.
Early Oscar ceremonies were tame compared to what they are now
Today, the Academy Awards effectively shuts down Los Angeles for an entire day. Traffic on the west side is a mess, and parking is out of the question. The stars attending the ceremony spend all morning getting ready and then all night at the ceremony and after-parties. Even outside of Tinseltown, the results are front-page news for the rest of the week. That's not the way things were in the fist couple of decades of the ceremony.
Early on, the winners were announced three months before the big get-together so stars didn't have to show up if they didn't feel like it, and the initial winners were given an honorary scroll. After the Academy stopped announcing the winners ahead of time, they started tabulating the results of the votes at the show. Was this tedious? Absolutely. But it made the Academy Awards a must-attend event.
The Oscars didn't stop actors from unionizing
As elaborate as it was, Louis B. Mayer's evil scheme failed. No amount of acclaim is ever going to trump money, especially when actors are one of the primary assets of a multibillion-dollar industry. By the 1930s, the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, and the film industry was feeling it hard. People kept making movies, but actors realized that the Academy wasn't going to do anything to help them in the long run, so they huddled together in their guilds to ensure health care plans, pensions, and residuals. Still, they kept attending the Academy Awards to get those sweet gold trophies, because everyone likes a pat on the back every once in a while.
There are a lot of weird rules to the Academy Awards
The Oscars are more or less at the center of Hollywood culture. It makes sense that the rules and ideas behind the ceremony would change drastically with the times. As previously mentioned, the voting process was always in flux, but in 1935, things became even more chaotic when write-in votes were allowed. In 1942, any kind of fancy outfit was banned as America entered World War II. This trend continued until 1946, when stars were once again allowed to look fabulous.
Getting into the awards show has always been a hassle. At first, you had to be invited by Mayer or one of his cronies, but as the guest list expanded to all nominees and filmmaking folk, theaters holding the event sold tickets that could only be bought by film distributors, producers, etc. In 1946, tickets cost a whopping $37.50. Today? Those same tickets go for anywhere up to $750 for the best seats in the house.
Let's say you win an Academy Award. Congratulations! You must feel so proud of the work you've done. If you fall on hard times or just find yourself suddenly committed to the simple life, however, you can't just throw it away or pawn it. Before you're allowed to do anything with the award aside from keeping it in your bathroom to intimidate guests with the weirdest power move, you've got to contact the Academy and offer to sell it back to them for $1. At that rate, you might as well just hold onto it. It'll really liven up your cardboard box.
Only a few people have been removed from the Academy
Getting into the Academy is a milestone achievement for filmmakers, but it's not the kind of thing where once you're in, you can't be removed. That wasn't always true; the first member of the Academy was expelled in 2004, but they've become quite fond of the chopping block in the interim.
According to the Academy, only four members have been officially expelled. The first was actor Carmine Caridi, who was expelled for sharing his Oscar screeners with non-members, who uploaded the films to the Internet. The other three were Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Roman Polanski, each of whom has been outed as a sexual predator since their induction. Tough break for ol' Carmine: You share one movie night with friends, and now, you share the same historical space with convicted felons.
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