The Academy and the Award
The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Distributed for Brandeis University Press
The Academy and the Award
The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
For all the near-fanatic attention brought each year to the Academy Awards, the organization that dispenses those awards—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—has yet to be understood. To date, no one has ever produced a thorough account of the Academy’s birth and its awkward adolescence, and the few reports on those periods from outside have always had a glancing, cursory quality. Yet the story of the Academy’s creation and development is a critical piece of Hollywood’s history.
Now that story is finally being told. Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy for over twenty years, was given unprecedented access to its archives, and the result is a revealing and compelling story of the men and women, famous and infamous, who shaped one of the best-known organizations in the world. Davis writes about the Academy with as intimate a view of its workings, its awards, and its world-famous membership. Thorough and long overdue, The Academy and the Award fills a crucial gap in Hollywood history.
"A fond look at the genesis and growing pains of the world’s foremost film organization."
"The story of the first 50 years (1927–77) of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts is fascinating, and the Academy’s former executive director Davis (who worked there for 30 years) is the ideal person to write it… A book of wide appeal, starting but not ending with film buffs."
“In this engrossing behind-the-scenes look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the work it does during all five seasons—ahem, including awards—by a former Academy executive director, the real nights and bolts of how the Hollywood machine works is explained in insightful, and sometimes deliciously dishy detail.”
Town and Country
"Film historians and others digging for a deeper vein of Oscar knowledge than mere trivia will turn up many nuggets in The Academy and the Award, which focuses on the initial three decades in the corporate life of the sword-wielding statuette. Oscar would be lucky to have as keen and even-handed a historian as Davis to explore its next era."
US News & World Report
"That this Hollywood institution survived its first tumultuous decade is a tale which Davis recounts with wit and discernment. His erudition is icing on the cake: what could have been dry and academic is instead a highly readable book that can lay claim to being definitive."
Leonard Maltin's blog
"A tremendously in-depth history"
The Hollywood Reporter
"After serving as executive director of the Academy for over 20 years, Bruce Davis has penned the definitive history of the Academy Awards, from their awkward inception to the present. Davis was granted unprecedented access to the Academy archives for this compelling read about the way the Oscars work."
"If you happen to care about the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (at least in its first fifty years), you’ll have no shortage of reasons to read Bruce Davis’ forthcoming book, The Academy and the Award."
“With a discerning eye and a wealth of experience, Bruce Davis transforms what could have been dry and academic into an erudite and witty saga. He buries a number of myths and rumors surrounding the Oscars, and reveals how the organization survived its chaotic early years. The Academy and the Award is a major contribution to Hollywood history—and a great read.”
Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian
“Wide ranging in his objective perspective, but always humanly intimate, Davis examines the in-house records of the Board of Governors, memos of its Presidents, and letters from the Academy’s more activist members, with much added flavoring and gossip. Davis’s seminal history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reads with all the honed stagecraft and drama of an Oscar nominated screenplay.”
John Bailey, cinematographer; Academy President 2017-2019
“In this entertaining, well-researched history, Bruce Davis traces how a marginal organization that teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for years became a major cultural institution that awards a coveted prize.”
Charles Solomon, author of The Man Who Leapt Through Film
“There are few people who know (and can explain) the inner machinations of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but if anyone can do it, Bruce Davis is that man. I am thrilled that there is finally a serious history of the organization and the people behind it, with names that you'll recognize and those you won't. This is the definitive history of the Academy: it deserves a place on one's shelf, or inside one's Kindle. Mr. Davis’s magnum opus is essential reading for any serious cinephile.”
Robert Harris, Motion Picture Archivist
“With the skill and wit of a great story teller, Bruce Davis transports us into the secret boardrooms filled with powerful moguls and charismatic stars, the screenwriters and directors, the cinematographers and visionary scientists who frame-by-frame crafted the movies into the art form we cherish today. Here is the fascinating tale of how the coveted golden statuette of Oscar almost wasn’t and came to be. How I wish I had known this history when I joined the Academy. Pure magic!”
Kathy Bates, Oscar recipient, past Academy Governor
“I recommend this book to everyone who loves the movies and the Oscars!”
Walter Mirisch, Academy President 1973-1977
“This wonderful book is often funny, sometimes shocking, and always incredibly informative as we get the inside story at the Academy, from its humble beginnings at the Biltmore, to its eventual phenomenal industry success.”
Ed Begley, Jr., Actor, and three-term Academy Actors branch governor
"The real issue for the Oscar telecast, according to the Academy’s 22-year executive director Bruce Davis, author of the just-published—and dead-on accurate—The Academy and the Award: The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the disparity between the top box-office movies and the movies that are winning Oscars.”
“This account by a former executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an interesting and detailed one. . . . How did the Oscar get its name? What exactly are the Jean Hersholt and Irving Thalberg awards? Almost as intriguing are the sections about the extremely short presidential term of Bette Davis (she had a cup of coffee in the role, leading only one board meeting) and an explanation of how the Oscar statuette was designed.”
Seattle Book Review
"An author with a deep affinity for and knowledge of movies and how they’re honored tells us all about Oscar. Davis keeps things both informative and entertaining with plenty of interesting factoids."
The Arts Fuse
“Bruce Davis' new book, The Academy and the Award, provides movie fans, film historians, and all those interested in American arts and culture with the first-ever comprehensive account of the history and evolution of the academy. . . . Davis is not only a supremely confident guide to the Oscars’ history but an engaging and entertaining narrator as well. His prose is consistently colorful and often novelistic in its vivid scene-setting and descriptive detail.”
“An erudite and witty look at the Academy’s history, The Academy and the Award is a vital chronicle of film history that will be sought after by American history aficionados and film fanatics alike. Davis has combined meticulous research with a dynamic narrative to reveal the compelling personalities of the actors, writers, directors, and filmmakers who comprised the Academy during its formative era.”
Public Libraries Online
“The text often put me in the moment . . . . Fleshing the early history is difficult from just organization records, but Davis presents an amazingly full picture of each era of the Academy.”
Table of Contents
1. The Beginning: Unions, Censors and Scandals
2. Academies. And Awards?
3. A Little Figure for Cedric Gibbons
4. A System Evolves
5. The Hays Incursion
6. . . . And Sciences
7. Academy Washed Up
8. Better than Precious Ointment
9. Frank Capra’s New Deal
10. Honorary Awards
11. Bette Davis and the War
12. Post-War and Cold War
13. Straining at the Leash
14. Into the Modern Era
15. Oscar Full-Blown
But anyone looking for information about the history and objectives of the Academy, particularly in its crucial formative years, may have been surprised to find how hard that is to unearth. The organization itself has never produced a thorough account of its birth and its touch-and-go adolescence, and the few reports on those periods from outside have always had a glancing, cursory quality, as though no one had seen much value in taking a close look at how one of the best-known organizations in the world had grown to be that.
The emergence of the Academy in the late 1920s, and its struggle with the sequence of difficulties that prevented it from thriving— even after its awards had become world famous—is an intriguing story in itself. And the narrative gains weight from the fact that the men and women shaping the organization’s early choices are among the motion picture’s most significant figures to that point. The story of the Academy’s birth and maturation is a critical piece of Hollywood’s history. (…)
Since the focus here is primarily on the first three decades of Academy history, it doesn’t seem indiscreet at this point to release a few organizational cats from their bags. I retired from the Academy in 2011, after thirty years on its staff. I had been the organization’s executive director for a shade more than twenty of those years, and I left persuaded that it was time that someone provided the Academy (and anyone else interested) with some of those lost details of its formative years.
I was aware, from my conversations over the decades with members, that almost no one in the organization claimed more than a blurry set of impressions about why the organization came into being and what sort of concerns had shaped it. This project taught me that I had no reason to feel superior. Large, embarrassing quantities of the information in this book were completely new to me when—with the slightly wary, but much-appreciated blessing of the Academy officers—I began wading into the formerly off-limits material. I had known enough to be skeptical of some of the received mythology— that Oscar had been conceived on a restaurant tablecloth, for example, or named after a shadowy uncle—but there had been other fable-filled stories, such as the accounts of Bette Davis’s allegedly cantankerous presidency, that I had never squinted at quite as carefully as I should have.
The collections that had been out of view were of two primary kinds: decades’ worth of Academy records that had been boxed and transferred to the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in the 1990s, and the full run of Academy Board minutes.
The largely unprocessed collection of Bankers boxes, I learned as the Herrick’s amiably efficient staff began arraying them around me, might hold almost anything. One of the first ones I tugged the lid off of revealed the signed, marked ballots from the first Academy Awards. (Price, Waterhouse, wouldn’t become the stewards, and the final repository, of the voting materials until a few years later.) Another box yielded long-lost late-1920s photographs of the Academy’s Club Lounge headquarters at the just-opened Roosevelt Hotel—shots that even the hotel’s archive didn’t have. One sequence of boxes was heavy with transcripts of meetings of the committees that had met when the Academy served as a mediator of industry disagreements. Small groups of distinguished filmmakers would come together to referee grievances filed by actors against producers, cinematographers against directors, and nearly every other kind of film worker who might, in the course of a shoot, decide that he or she had been unfairly used by some other party. The disputes were often amusingly gossipy, but they invariably provided sharp-focused views of the day to-day details of early-sound-era moviemaking.
But the most crucial source made available to me were the minutes of the Academy Board of Governors. Bound in black pebbled leather, and beginning with meetings even prior to the organization’s founding, these volumes—so shrouded that they had never been entrusted even to the Academy Library—were indispensable to this project. It is true that they were occasionally more discreet than I might have hoped for (and at two points were entirely silent about the rationales for puzzling decisions), but they regularly brought characters and issues to vivid life. Intentionally or not, the board minutes transformed decades’ worth of governors from a gray, crochety, largely indistinguishable herd into a lively group of industry figures (e.g., from just the 1939 /40 roster: Frank Capra, Ronald Colman, C. B. DeMille, Clark Gable, Mervyn LeRoy, David O. Selznick, James Stewart, and Darryl F. Zanuck) who generally got along but sometimes scuffled energetically.
The Academy, in the era that I was examining, was never the serene, opulent, Olympian assemblage that movie lovers might have imagined. There was never a shortage of troublesome issues for the organization. Almost immediately, the young Oscar had to repel an attempt at a takeover by a jealous and hostile rival. In the New Deal era, he found himself in a conflict with the emerging talent guilds, a conflict bitter enough that on two separate occasions his organization nearly expired. Hampered by a steady, frustrating, surprising shortage of ready money—the gilded broadsword notwithstanding—Oscar soldiered on and managed to found an arts academy worthy of standing alongside its venerable predecessors. His organization established the best-known award in the arts, and, perhaps more remarkably, early on solidified the perception that the once disregarded motion picture was one of the arts.
Oscar’s is an early life that deserves a bildungsroman. And, some might argue, a second volume. Oscar Agonistes, possibly. We can talk about that later.