© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Oscar Wars' spotlights bias, blind spots and backstage battles in the Academy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With the Oscars coming up next month, we're going to hear stories about earlier behind-the-scenes battles we don't see on the night Hollywood celebrates itself. In my guest Michael Schulman's book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears," he says, quote, "the Oscars have become a conflict zone for issues of race, gender and representation, high-profile signifiers of whose stories get told and whose don't. In previous decades, Oscar wars were waged over different issues, but they were no less fraught," unquote.

The very existence of the Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which administers them, were created in an attempt to resolve a conflict in young Hollywood back in the late 1920s. The conflicts Schulman writes about involve labor battles, World War II, anti-communist hysteria and blacklists, old Hollywood versus new Hollywood, the #MeToo movement, #OscarsSoWhite, the zillions of dollars spent on campaigning for Oscars and, of course, greed and ego. Schulman has written for The New Yorker since 2006. Among the people he's written about are Pedro Almodovar, Emma Thompson, Elisabeth Moss, Adam Driver and Jeremy Strong. He's also the author of a book about Meryl Streep. His book "Oscar Wars" comes out in paperback this week. We recorded our interview shortly before last year's Oscars when the book was first published.


GROSS: Michael Schulman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL SCHULMAN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Yes. I learned a lot of interesting stuff from your book. So there's different chapters of history that I want to cover with you, but let's start with the #OscarsSoWhite movement. So let's talk about the Academy's reaction to #OscarsSoWhite. It kind of changed the voting rules a bit. What were the changes?

SCHULMAN: The real thing that changed was the makeup of the membership. So in 2016, for the second year in a row, all of the 20 acting nominees were white. And an activist named April Reign had started a hashtag the year before, which was #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. And, you know, that got some pickup in 2015. In 2016, it went absolutely viral, and there was a lot of attention paid to the incredible whiteness and maleness of the people who are in the Academy and who do the voting.

So the Academy board of directors had an emergency meeting, and the president of the Academy at the time was Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who was the first Black president. And basically, what they did was fast-tracked a plan they had been discussing to actively try to diversify the membership. So they invited an unprecedented number of new people in, and it was more people of color, more women, younger people and also more international people.

At the same time, they had this policy where if you hadn't been active in the industry for many years, you would be demoted to emeritus status, this amazing kind of euphemism which meant that basically you could not vote anymore. And this just set off a complete panic in Hollywood. Of course, there are a lot of people who praised what the Academy was doing, but then there was a very loud subsection of people who were just totally freaked out and felt that they were being blamed, that they were being scapegoated as racist. And, you know, it became a real conflict.

GROSS: Well, let's go back to 1970, when there was a different battle over inclusion. And this was a conflict that you frame as the conflict between old Hollywood and new Hollywood. So what were the films that were in conflict in 1970, the year that you write about, when there was a real clash between the old school and the new Hollywood?

SCHULMAN: That's right. I mean, so there was this incredible year. In the year before, 1969, the best picture winner was "Oliver!," which was the only G-rated movie to win the top prize. The whole rating system was new at that time, so it was the first and only G-rated winner. And then, one year later, "Midnight Cowboy" became the first and only X-rated winner to win best picture. And at the same time, some of the nominees were, like, "Easy Rider," which really became an emblem of, you know, the sort of rising counterculture of the '60s and '70s.

And so you had this ceremony where people like Bob Hope and John Wayne were up there talking about how, you know, everyone in the movies is naked or on drugs now, and they were kind of scandalized. And then people like Dennis Hopper, who rolled into the Academy Awards wearing a Stetson, and - you know, it was a real meeting of worlds.

Now, at the time, Gregory Peck was the president of the academy. And like the academy leadership in 2016, he realized that there was a real gap, that movies were not speaking to, you know, the youthquake (ph) of the '60s, to the counterculture, and the Academy was particularly behind the times. So what he did was put in this initiative, much like, you know, the more recent one, to update the membership. And he did a lot of outreach to, you know, people like Dustin Hoffman and, you know, Dennis Hopper or Peter Fonda, people who were, like, the up-and-coming countercultural figures of the time and then, as now, created a policy where, if you hadn't been active for seven years, you would be demoted to a nonvoting membership. And exactly the same way, he got angry letters. You know, I went through his files at the Academy Museum, and he preserved every outraged letter from, you know, old-timers who thought that they were being pushed aside, you know, people who had worked on Abbott and Costello movies in the '30s.

GROSS: You know, one of the things I found really interesting in this chapter was that the actress Candice Bergen wrote a letter to Gregory Peck in 1970 suggesting challenging the rules for membership in the Academy because, she wrote, many or most members are anachronisms clogging the works of an incredibly facile mechanism called motion pictures. So she called some of the older members anachronisms.


GROSS: And...

SCHULMAN: Isn't it great, that letter?

GROSS: Yeah. You know what's interesting? Like, I'm all for new Hollywood, and there were so many movies that were just so out of touch. Like, the year we're talking about, 1970, one of the movies that was nominated was "Hello, Dolly!" So you have, like, "Hello, Dolly!" in the same year as "Easy Rider." It really is a clash. But, you know, you can't just reject everybody who's old as being anachronism. I mean, classic Hollywood is just fabulous. Like, who wants to dump on that? Like, I'm rooting for both at the same time, old Hollywood and New Hollywood, but not some of the new films of 1970.

SCHULMAN: Right, right. I mean, this is sort of what the Oscars always brings up - is generational conflict. You know, I think the Oscars are a wonderful snapshot of Hollywood's past, present and future all colliding on one night. And, you know, what I'm interested in is the conflict that bubbles up through that. And, you know, Candice Bergen at the time was this very chic young starlet and fashion model who was just getting into, you know, activism and causes. You know, she was very much of the moment.

And she was perfectly placed as the sort of bridge between old Hollywood and new because her father was Edgar Bergen, the famous ventriloquist. And yet her friends, her milieu, were, you know, the Dennis Hoppers and, you know, Jack Nicholsons. So she kind of understood both sides of the coin. And she knew Gregory Peck sort of from, you know, growing up in Hollywood - not very well, but she knew him. And she was positioned to write him this kind of letter and tell him, you know, the Academy is falling behind the times. You need to bring new people in.

GROSS: Another interesting thing - like, you write in this chapter about Bob Hope's comments during the ceremony 'cause he was hosting. He hosted for years. And at the beginning or toward the beginning of the ceremony, he said, this will go down in history as the cinema season which proved that crime doesn't pay, but there's a fortune in adultery, incest and homosexuality. This is not Academy Awards, it's a freak out. And he ended the ceremony after "Midnight Cowboy" won as Best Film by saying, never again will Hollywood be accused of showing a lollipop world. Perhaps by showing the nitty-gritty, by giving the world a glimpse of the elements of violence and its destructive effect, it will help cool it. More and more, films have explored the broad spectrum of human experience. They have fearlessly and, for the most part, with excellent taste examined behavior long considered taboo.

How did he go from totally mocking films that dealt with open marriages, incest, homosexuality, to, like, praising those films for their fearlessness?

SCHULMAN: Yeah, isn't it fascinating? I think you can see him kind of reckoning with this sea change in Hollywood and in popular culture. You know, and at the end, he kind of justifies it by saying, well, maybe if we see these characters, you know, do these depraved things on the screen, it will inspire us, you know, not to do them in real life. You know, he was sort of searching for kind of the moral, you know, justification for a movie like "Midnight Cowboy" existing. But, I mean, I find that so fascinating. And in a way, what I tried to do in the book is take certain years of the Oscars and, like, put them on the couch and, you know, psychoanalyze them.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah (laughter).

SCHULMAN: And these moments of transition and these moments of instability are always so fascinating. I mean, just that year, you know, seeing a Bob Hope reckon with the fact that this X-rated movie about a hustler win, you know, we felt that when "Moonlight" won a few years ago over "La La Land" in that crazy envelope mix-up. And, you know, you could sense that, OK, this means something, you know? It's just one movie, it's just one win, but it means the culture - you know, you can sense the culture kind of changing in this tectonic way.

GROSS: So "Midnight Cowboy" was going to receive an R or an X rating. The head of the studio that made the film wanted the X rating. Why would he want an X rating? Because that would mean it couldn't be advertised in newspapers. A lot of people would be afraid to go. They'd be afraid they'd be exposed to smut. So why did he want an X?

SCHULMAN: (Laughter) Well, all of - the whole rating system was extremely new. It was one year old at that point. It had replaced the old production code, which had existed since the '30s. And, you know, the X, the scarlet letter X, didn't quite mean porn in the way that it does now. And there was even a kind of cachet to it, you know? You know, young people were flocking to movies like, "I Am Curious (Yellow)," you know, these really boundary pushing, risque movies. But, you know, they also worried that the movie would make people gay, essentially. So there was some moralistic interest from United Artists in, you know, making sure people knew that there was some danger to this movie. But that didn't hurt with the marketing.

GROSS: But after it won the Oscar for Best Picture, the X was changed to an R. What was the logic behind that?

SCHULMAN: Yeah, so after it won the Oscar, they went back to the ratings board and it was changed to an R without changing anything. And there was some...

GROSS: Yeah, not a frame was changed in the movie.

SCHULMAN: Yeah. But there was some discomfort, I think, in Hollywood that, you know, an X-rated movie had won Best Picture. Like, what did that mean? You know, someone who was an executive at Paramount at the time told me, you know, they actually had meetings to discuss whether they - you know, whether Paramount should go into the porn business. You know, people were still adjusting to this new system and trying to incorporate movies that really pushed the envelope into the mainstream in a way that just had not been happening under the production code.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Schulman, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Schulman. His book "Oscar Wars: The History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears" comes out in paperback this week.

Let's talk about campaigning for Oscars, because it's become - as you write, it's become a cottage industry. Give us a sense of how big the industry is lobbying for Oscars.

SCHULMAN: Right. Well, in a way, it's a bit similar to a presidential campaign. You know, you have campaign strategists and publicists and people who spend the entire year working on campaign strategizing, placing ads, entering films in film festivals, and sort of positioning movies and appealing to particular academy members. You see presidential candidates, you know, going to different primary states like, you know, New Hampshire, South Carolina. The movie version of that is, you know, all of these precursor awards like the Golden Globes, the SAGs, you know, the BAFTAs, this kind of run up.

There are also, like, events throughout the year where, you know, a presidential candidate might, you know, go to the - you know, a state fair in New Hampshire and, you know, eat some corn on the cob. The movie star version of that is, you know, going to the Santa Barbara Film Festival to be honored or going to a cocktail party. And of course, the academy has all sorts of rules and guidelines surrounding what people can and can't do. And they basically make up these rules to catch up with whatever, you know, the campaign strategists invent.

GROSS: And that leads us to Harvey Weinstein, because he - as you put it, he turned campaigning for Oscars into a blood sport. What are some of the things that he did that no one had done before?

SCHULMAN: Well before Harvey Weinstein really had his rise in the '90s at Miramax, you know, Oscar campaigning would be placing ads in the trade magazines, you know, for-your-consideration ads in Variety or whatever - and, you know, people having, you know, maybe some private screenings at their homes in Beverly Hills. What Weinstein did was basically leave no stone unturned. He would not just blanket, you know, the airwaves and the papers with advertisements, but he would, for instance, find out where particular academy members lived. And if there were, you know, three people in the academy who happened to live in Santa Fe, he'd have people call them and set up a screening there and make sure they went. And, you know, he would find little pockets of Academy members. And there were just nonstop, you know, events, parties, hoopla. He also had a real gift for sort of creating stunts that would get publicity. You know, for instance, he had a - when "The English Patient" was out, and he staged an entire evening at Town Hall in New York City with, you know, people reading from the book and music and - but then he would also find ways to sort of create humanitarian campaigns out of his movies, you know, famously, you know, "My Left Foot" with Daniel Day-Lewis - he brought the movie and Daniel Day-Lewis to Washington and, you know, screened the movie for senators.

The campaigns, though, didn't always really quite fit the movie. You know, more recently - "Silver Linings Playbook" was one of his movies, and he sort of spun this campaign that it was, you know, a really serious movie about mental health, which it kind of isn't.

GROSS: Talk a little bit about the campaigns between "Saving Private Ryan," the Spielberg World War II film, and "Shakespeare In Love," the comedy about Shakespeare that was produced by Weinstein's company, Miramax. What are some of the things that Weinstein did in that campaign that were unprecedented?

SCHULMAN: Well, so this was 1999, and this has just gone down in history as the ugliest best-picture fight of all time. An important part of that story is DreamWorks, which is Steven Spielberg's studio. DreamWorks was founded in 1994 by Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. So it was really these three bigwigs. And they were on the cover of Time magazine. Everyone was so excited. This was the first major Hollywood studio in, you know, decades and decades.

And it took them a few years to actually put out a movie that was a huge success. The - you know, "Saving Private Ryan" - it was Spielberg's big World War II movie that was a tribute to his own father's generation, and his father had fought in the war. And it came out in the summer of 1998. It was a gigantic success, a critical darling, and it was presumed to be the front-runner for best picture for many months.

Then, in December, along came "Shakespeare In Love" from Harvey Weinstein's Miramax, and it was really such a different kind of movie. It was frothy and fun and clever and romantic. And it was about art, not war, and love, not, you know, death. And as we've seen many, many years at the Oscars, the - a sort of front-runner fatigue sets in, and so people were suddenly interested in this new dynamic. And then what Weinstein did with Miramax was push every conceivable angle he could with this movie. Like, there were tons of ads. He was throwing parties.

The thing that really made this campaign so ugly was that DreamWorks got word through the grapevine that Weinstein was negative campaigning against "Saving Private Ryan," that he was saying to journalists that they should write that, essentially, "Saving Private Ryan" was only good for the first 25 minutes, you know, the famous D-Day sequence, and after that was basically a run-of-the-mill World War II movie. And so this got to DreamWorks.

DreamWorks was absolutely furious. They started complaining to the press about everything Miramax was doing. Harvey Weinstein denied, denied, denied. This sounds familiar. And the people who worked for him didn't necessarily know what he was doing all the time, and so they felt that they were just being smeared by DreamWorks.

And by the time everyone got to Oscar night, there was so much resentment and enmity between these two studios. And people still thought that "Saving Private Ryan" would win. And then Spielberg won best director. Harrison Ford came out to present best picture. So the DreamWorks people thought, oh, my gosh, it's Indiana Jones. Of course it'll be "Saving Private Ryan." But "Shakespeare In Love" won. And it was just this explosion of shock and recrimination. And the head of marketing at DreamWorks, Terry Press, says that she was in the mezzanine watching, and that she felt like her face was on fire.

Then, the next day in The New York Times, there was an article about executives in Hollywood complaining that Weinstein had turned Oscar campaigning into, you know, something that had - just has to do with money and politicking and that he had sort of cheapened the whole process. As it turns out, in the end, someone tallied up the ads and found out that "Saving Private Ryan" had actually placed more ads in the trades than "Shakespeare In Love." But that sort of didn't matter at that point because everybody was so resentful of how Weinstein had changed the paradigm.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Schulman, author of the book "Oscar Wars," which comes out this week in paperback. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) Everybody's talking at me. I don't hear a word they're saying, only the echoes of my mind. People stopping, staring. I can't see their faces, only the shadows of their eyes. I'm going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain, going where the weather suits my clothes...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Schulman, author of the book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." It's about the behind-the-scenes Oscar battles dating back to the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, battles over who gets to vote and who gets to win. The book comes out in paperback this week. Our interview was recorded last February, shortly before last year's Oscars and before the 2023 Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes.

So we were talking about how Harvey Weinstein changed how people campaign for Oscars, making it a much more aggressive, much more expensive campaign. Talking about Harvey Weinstein leads us directly into the #MeToo movement and its impact on the Oscars. And one of those impacts is that Harvey Weinstein was expelled from the academy because of his sexual harassment and sexual assaults. But that led to some interesting problems for the academy about, what about other people who were accused of sexual harassment or assault, or who were found to have actually committed those acts? Talk about that a little bit.

SCHULMAN: Well, yeah, I mean, people said at the time, you know, what about a Roman Polanski or so-and-so. What's interesting about the last couple of years is that Hollywood and movie fans - you know, us, the public - have really started to reckon more and more with, you know, these questions of, do you separate the artist from the art? And, you know, how much do you reward - you know, if someone is nominated for an Oscar or in contention and they've done something that you know, is morally objectionable or questionable, how much do you factor that into, you know, the voting? And, you know, it almost seems like the academy needs its own resident rabbi to sort of answer ethical questions, you know, these quandaries that come up. You know, if someone is - made an off-color joke at some point, should you set that aside and just focus on their performance? And these are really not easy questions because they happen along a spectrum of seriousness. And, you know, someone like Harvey Weinstein should not be in the academy. Of course, he's in jail now.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHULMAN: So being in the academy is kind of the least of his problems.

GROSS: You know, because, like, the history of Hollywood is so much involved with, like, the, quote, "casting couch." The casting couch has been so intertwined with the history of Hollywood and the powerful men who ran the studios and the directors, too. So I just wonder, like, if you were to look at Hollywood's past, would, like, half of the powerful men or more than half be guilty? Like, what would that look like? Yeah.

SCHULMAN: Yeah, I mean, Hollywood history is inextricable from sexual coercion and assault. I mean, you know, the Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn was absolutely notorious for harassing actresses. You know, Louis B. Mayer, who essentially invented the academy, he was the very powerful head of MGM. You know, one of the stories about him is that he sort of came on to the actress Anita Page and sort of threatened her, in so many words. And when she refused him and then, you know, she went and asked for a raise, and they basically got rid of her. And her career quickly ebbed. So, you know, this is a tale as old as Hollywood.

GROSS: All right. Let's talk about the very beginning of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which administers the Oscars. And only members of the academy are allowed to vote. That was founded in controversy involving a labor conflict because the studios were terrified of labor organizing. Tell us about that conflict.

SCHULMAN: Right. So the academy was founded in early 1927. It was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. And the founders were basically 36 people who were a cross-section of the powerful people in silent-era Hollywood. And their original rhetoric was extremely utopian. They saw themselves as a League of Nations for Hollywood. And much of what they were saying is that they wanted to, you know, create harmony and resolve disputes. And that's sort of the sunny side of what they were doing. The subtext of that is that Hollywood was not unionized at the time, except for the technical craftspeople. And so the academy, in a way, was created to preempt, you know, equity or some other organizing body from organizing the creative professions.

GROSS: How would the academy prevent that?

SCHULMAN: Well, basically, by creating a platform for resolving labor disputes that was, you know, ultimately controlled by the powerful, you know? Like, for instance, if the writers were negotiating a contract with the studios, like, the academy would sort of oversee the contract rather than, you know, a labor union doing it. So in its first 10 years, the academy was really seen as the enemy by the kind of rank and file in Hollywood, who felt, you know, very much rightly so that they were preempting unionization. And in the '30s, these guilds, like the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild, started to emerge as part of the labor movement of the '30s, of the Depression. And they went to war with the academy.

You know, they would tell their members to resign from the academy en masse. They would boycott the ceremony. And there was a real question of whether this very young academy would survive. It got to the point where the president of the academy at the time, the director Frank Capra, realized how toxic this all was. And he loved the Academy Awards. And he basically said, OK, the academy is no longer going to do any of that stuff, any of that negotiating, conflict resolution. Anything having to do with, you know, economics or contracts we're just not going to do it anymore. And so they really sed a lot of their original purpose. And what they preserved was the Oscars, which was the only thing that the academy did that pretty much everyone in Hollywood liked.

GROSS: But the very first ceremony sounds very underwhelming.

SCHULMAN: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, well, it was very different. It was a banquet at the Blossom room of the Roosevelt Hotel. And there was dinner. There were a bunch of speeches. There was academy business. And then at the end, there was a, basically, 15-minute ceremony where they handed out all the awards.

GROSS: Done (laughter).

SCHULMAN: And even then, I mean, what fascinates me about the very first Oscars is even at the beginning, Year 1, Hollywood was on such shaky grounds, you know? For instance, "The Jazz Singer," the groundbreaking talkie that basically killed off the silent movies, had just come out. And it was given an honorary award because the Academy felt it couldn't even compete with all the other nominees, which were silent films. And by the next year, the second Academy Awards, all of the nominees had sound.

GROSS: Is it the first year of the Oscars that there was actually an Oscar for best title cards? And those are, like, the captions that you see in silent films.

SCHULMAN: Yes. Joseph Farnham was the - has the distinction of being the first and only winner of best title writing.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman, author of the book "Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat And Tears." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Schulman about his book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat And Tears." It's about the behind-the-scenes conflicts and infighting over the Oscars ever since the awards started in 1929.

Let's talk about the anti-communist hysteria of the late '40s and the '50s. In 1947, HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, started targeting Hollywood because it was afraid that, you know, communists were dominating American broadcasting and telecasting and movies and that one tactic was to enlist glamorous personalities to appear at communist front meetings and rallies. So it was an understanding that Hollywood had a lot of sway over public opinion. And, you know, maybe Hollywood can turn America communist. Where the Oscars come in is that some Oscar nominees and some Oscar winners had written their screenplays under pseudonyms because they were blacklisted. So you have this situation where people who were fronts for the actual screenwriters, because the actual screenwriters are blacklisted, are getting up and getting the awards. And, you know, the people who are voting don't even necessarily know who the real writer is. So what are some of the crazy outcomes of that?

SCHULMAN: OK, so this is a Oscar scandal that was a bit lost to history that I absolutely loved. But in 1957, the actress Deborah Kerr came out and presented the award for best motion picture story - this category does not exist anymore - to someone named Robert Rich for a movie called "The Brave One," which was about a Mexican boy and his pet bull. Robert Rich was not there to receive the award. And after the ceremony, nobody could find him because he was a phantom. He didn't exist.

And this became a kind of a scandal, a kind of press scandal where everyone in Hollywood was scratching their heads, thinking, who is this guy who won this award? And the producers of this movie said, oh, Robert Rich - he was an ex-GI we met in Munich a couple of years ago. And we bought the story from him, and we don't know where he is. He might be in Europe. He might be in Australia. Who knows? You know, amazingly, Life magazine actually ran an illustration of what Robert Rich might look like based on the producers' memories of him, you know, like, aquiline nose and parted hair and yea high.

Of course, Robert Rich turned out to be a front for Dalton Trumbo, who was really the most famous writer on the blacklist. He had been in the Hollywood Ten, the 10 blacklisted people who actually went to prison for defying HUAC. And so he had exiled himself to Mexico for several years, went to a bullfight, had this idea, sold it to the producers of this movie. And then, to his shock - 'cause he didn't think it was even that great a movie - he won this Oscar. Or, rather, the imaginary Robert Rich won the Oscar.

GROSS: So what was Dalton Trumbo's reaction when this, like, fictitious name won the Oscar? And, of course, nobody was there to accept it because there was no such person.

SCHULMAN: He was very amused because, first of all, he didn't think very highly of his own movie. You know, he said, if this is what passes for originality, it tells you - you know, it goes to show you what the Academy's idea of originality is. But he realized that it was a golden opportunity to sort of play the press and turn the tables. And so he started, like, giving interviews where he'd say, well, I might be Robert Rich. Or maybe it's my friend Michael Wilson, who was another blacklisted screenwriter. And basically he used his wit, and he used his words and his cleverness to sort of fanned the flames of this scandal. And eventually he managed to manipulate the academy leaders into rescinding their rule against blacklisted people being nominated for Oscars. The rule only lasted two years because the Academy realized it was basically unenforceable.

GROSS: Was the academy punished by HUAC after rescinding that rule?

SCHULMAN: Well, this was the kind of late '50s at this point, and HUAC was losing steam. You know, there was no way to officially end the blacklist. It had to just sort of die off. And, you know, Hollywood is a place where optics and PR mean - and perception mean everything. And so basically, what Trumbo realized is that in order to end the blacklist, he had to make it more embarrassing for the studios to maintain it than to defy it. And this basically worked. In 1960, Trumbo famously broke the blacklist by getting his own name on the credits for two movies, "Exodus" and "Spartacus."

GROSS: And they were both such big films.

SCHULMAN: Yeah, and they were huge hits. So - and, like, President Kennedy went to see "Spartacus" and seemed to enjoy it. So suddenly it was a political non-event for Trumbo to get a screen credit.

GROSS: Let's look at where we are today. You were in the balcony at the Oscars the night that Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, and you couldn't tell exactly what was going on. You're so deep into the Oscars. You've been deep into them ever since you were a kid. Was it exciting for you in its own peculiar way to be there for such a kind of dramatic moment that everyone will be talking about for years.

SCHULMAN: Oh, absolutely. So what was interesting about it was that - OK, I was in the balcony. I am very nearsighted. That is important for this story. So I couldn't really see what was happening when the slap happened. But I could hear - I could hear perfectly when Will Smith, screamed, get my wife's name out your - (mumbling) - mouth. And I remember thinking, I don't think you can say that word on network TV. I think this is real.

But at home, people who were watching could see but not hear because it was all bleeped out. So I immediately got 20 text messages from people I knew asking, what just happened? What just happened? And we were just as confused in the room because some people thought, oh, that must have been staged. Some people thought, oh no, it definitely wasn't. And it took a couple hours to figure out what had actually happened. And at the time, there was so much debate over whether they should have, you know, basically escorted him out. Instead, he stayed. And then he won best actor, incredibly, and got up and gave this teary, very raw, very emotional speech, which of course made great television. But it sort of left you to wonder, like, should this be happening?

And then the way I ended the night was I went to the Vanity Fair party, and around 12:30 a.m., I decided to just take one last look at the dance floor and then go home and write my story for The New Yorker about the whole night. And I was on the dance floor, and I turned around because I felt something behind me that was getting attention. I turn around and there was Will Smith, three feet away from me, holding his new Oscar, dancing, smiling. His wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, was right next to him raising the roof. The DJ started playing "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," which was, of course, Will Smith's big hit from the '90s. He started dancing along to himself and rapping along to his younger self. Fifty phones came out and started recording. And just watch him, like, with this big grin, you know, this man who had been through this emotional paroxysm, you know, in front of everyone live on stage, it was such an unsettling and surreal image. And fortunately for me, I was kind of looking for a new ending to the book, and it pretty much wrote itself.

GROSS: Yeah. Right. Right. Well, thank you for doing this.

SCHULMAN: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Schulman's book, "Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, and Tears" comes out in paperback this week. Our interview was recorded just before last year's Oscars. This year's Oscars are Sunday, March 10. One of this year's nominees will be our guest tomorrow, Jeffrey Wright, who's nominated for best actor. He stars in "American Fiction," which is nominated for best picture. Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a bestselling Japanese mystery series that's just been published in English. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.