Friday, March 10, 2023

Books: On Hollywood In Honor Of Oscars Weekend

THE OSCARS IS SUNDAY NIGHT, and in anticipation of the awards, there are two books we will look at in this review that celebrate the glamour of Hollywood: Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears, by Michael Schulman; and Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon, by Kate Anderson Brower.

Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears

By Michael Schulman

Harper, hardcover, 608 pages; $40.00

Michael Schulman is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he has contributed since 2006, and the author of Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. His work has also appeared in the New York Times and Vanity Fair.

Schulman's new book, Oscar Wars, is a lively history of the Academy Awards, with a focus on the brutal battles, starry rivalries, and all the behind-the-scenes drama. He chronicles the remarkable, sprawling history of the Academy Awards and the personal dramas, some of which are iconic, others that have not been revealed before.

The Academy Awards is America's equivalent of royalty, as people are intrigued by the perfectly coiffed starlets, debonair leading men, and producers with gold in their eyes who have been in search of the elusive Oscar.

The Oscars began merely as an industry banquet in 1929, an afterthought of the idea for an "Awards of Merit" that was buried in the newborn Academy's list of brainstorms in 1927.

Nearly a century later, itt has now exploded into a hallowed ceremony complete with red carpets, envelopes, and, of course, little gold men. Despite the pomp and circumstance, the Oscars become a battlefield, where Hollywood's history, and really America's itself, unfolds in dramas large and small. Each chapter of Oscar Wars takes a deep dive into a particular year, conflict, or even category to tell a larger story of cultural change, from legendary film producer Louis B. Mayer to 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight.

Schulman looks at how the red carpet runs through contested turf, and the victims aren't as apparent as the names drawn from envelopes. Plenty of people are caught in the crossfire, as their ambitions are thwarted, and they see their artistic epiphanies, their messy collaborations, and their dreams fulfilled or dashed. Each story here makes up a collection that represents a turning point for the Academy, for the movies, and for culture at large.

In this excerpt, Schulman writes of how he has viewed the Oscars: "I started watching the Academy Awards in the early nineties, when Billy Crystal was the regular host and began each ceremony with a zingy comic melody. 'And not an ounce of smut,/It ain't called Howards Butt!/ They call it Howards End.' he crooned in 1993, to the tune of 'Hooray for Hollywood.' I hadn't seen any of the Best Picture nominees, but to my adolescent brain, it was the height of comedy, the Olympus of schmaltz. As an adult, I organized office Oscar pools and memorized acceptance speeches. In 2016, as a writer at The New Yorker, I covered the Academy's tumultuous year in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite. Led by its first Black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and its CEO, Dawn Hudson, the Academy was under fire for an initiative to recruit new, diverse members and demote others who had been inactive in the industry to 'emeritus' status - a plan that had old-timers looking at their IMDb pages and panicking. The issue had cracked open Hollywood's fault lines of age and ideology, but, as I soon learned, it had all happened before. In 1970, the same year Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated movie to win Best Picture, Academy president Gregory Peck had launched a similar plan to yank the membership into the present - and had also received rafts of angry letters. Now some of the hip, young talents of the New Hollywood were seasoned pros writing incensed op-eds in The Hollywood Reporter, howling against their perceived obsolescence.

In February 2017, I went to the Oscars for the first time. Sitting in the pressroom at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, where dozens of journalists from around the world sat at long tables, I watched the show on a monitor. Occasionally, the newly minted winners were shown in to answer questions. In the back of the room was a reference table where Academy librarians sat with thick binders. Toward the end of the night, the energy int he room flagged, as we lurched toward an inevitable Best Picture win for La La Land. When Faye Dunaway announced it as the winner, the reporters applauded warmly and wrapped up their stories.

Then all hell broke loose. On-screen, a La La Land producer was holding up a card that read that Moonlight had won. The pressroom let out a collective scream: something was actually happening. Journalists lined up at the reference table, which had been ignored most of the night, asking if anything like this had ever happened before. 'I cannot think of a case where this had happened,' one librarian said, frantically flipping through her binders. 'There are times when people thought it happened.'

After the show ended, I raced down the hall and took the elevator to the Governors Ball, the Academy's on-site afterparty. All anyone was talking about was the envelope mix-up. 'When they said Moonlight really won, I thought they meant on an emotional level,' one filmmaker said outside the station where winners get their statuettes engraved. 'It's humiliating for everyone involved,' his plus-one added. What's more prestigious than the Oscars? The Nobel Prize?' I found Chery Boone Isaacs staring at her phone and asked what had gone through her mind. 'Horror,' she said. 'I just thought, What? WHAT? I looked out and I saw a member of Pricewaterhouse coming on the stage, and I was like, Oh, no, what-what's happening? What what WHAT? What could possibly...? And then I just thought, Oh, my God, how does this happen? How. Does. This. Happen?' She sighed. And it was such a wonderful show.'"

Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon

By Kate Anderson Brower

Harper; hardcover, 512 pages; $32.50

Kate Anderson Brower is a CNN contributor and covered the Obama administration for Bloomberg News. She is also a former CBS News staffer and Fox News producer. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Residence and First Women, which was also a bestseller. She has written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon is the first ever authorized biography of the most famous movie star of the twentieth century. Brower uses Elizabeth's unpublished letters, diary entries, and off-the-record interview transcripts, as well as interviews with 250 of her closest friends and family to tell the full story of her remarkable career and her explosive private life that made headlines worldwide.

No celebrity rivaled Elizabeth Taylor's glamour and guts or her level of fame. She was the last major star to come out of the Hollywood studio system. She rose to massive fame when she was just twelve years old in National Velvet, and became the first to negotiate a million-dollar contract when she appeared in the film Cleopatra.

Taylor was a legend known for her beauty and her magnetic screen presence in a career that spanned most of the twentieth century and nearly sixty films. As if that wasn't enough, her private life was even more compelling. During her seventy-nine years of rapid-fire love and loss, she was married eight times to seven different men.

The word that describes Taylor above all others is survivor, as she was twice divorced and once-widowed by the time she was 26 years old. Her life was a soap opera that ended in a deeply meaningful way when she became the first major celebrity activist to lead the fight against HIV/AIDS. She was a co-founder of AmfAR, and raised more than $100 million for research and patient care. She was also a shrewd businesswoman who made a fortune as the first celebrity perfumer who always demanded to be paid what she was worth.

"Elizabeth never thought of herself as being larger than life," Brower writes. "And how could she? She could not remember a time when she was not famous. In 1944, when she was twelve years old, she played the lead in National Velvet and became a heroine to girls around the world. She was the last star created by the Hollywood studio system, and her global fame is rivaled only by a handful of other women: Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Queen Elizabeth II. Jackie (who was fascinated by Elizabeth) withdrew into a private world, Marilyn collapsed under the pressure, and the Queen was buffered by the walls of Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth, by contrast, flourished. In 1963, when Elizabeth was just thirty-one years old, The New Yorker magazine's film critic Brendan Gill noted that she was 'less an actress by now than a great natural wonder, like Niagara or the Alps.'

"She made fifty-six films and ten television movies over nearly sixty years, but her lust for life has eclipsed her professional accomplishments. She was famous, even infamous, for her eight marriages to seven different men. By the time she was twenty-six, she was twice divorced and once widowed. Her stardom was organic and so much a part of who she was. Long after she stopped acting, the drama surrounding her personal life was on display on magazine covers at every supermarket checkout counter in the world. But beneath the psychic clutter of her own mythology was a bawdy woman, quick to laughter and self-deprecation. Her life was a soap opera that ended in a deeply meaningful way.

"She was an early influencer and the original multihypenate. She was the first to do so many things: she played daring roles, like Maggie the Cat, who voiced the suspicion of homosexuality, a verboten topic in the 1950s; she was the first actor, male or female, to negotiate a million-dollar contract, when she appeared in the epic film Cleopatra; she was the first celebrity to get treatment for her addiction to alcohol and drugs at the Betty Ford Center; she was the first major star to use her fame to change the course of history through her bold and defiant HIV and AIDS activism; and she was among the first celebrities to create her own massively successful perfume line. Elizabeth was a 'lady boss,' long before the term was popular."

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