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

From relentless campaigning to snubs and speeches, the Academy Awards have often reflected a cultural conflict zone. Michael Schulman sifts through the controversies in his new book, Oscar Wars.


Other segments from the episode on February 22, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 22, 2023: Interview with Michael Shulman; Appreciation of Burt Bacharach



In his new book, "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears," Michael Schulman writes about the behind-the-scenes battles we don't see on the night Hollywood celebrates itself. 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. Schulman is so into the Oscars he co-created an annual live series called "You Like Me: An Evening Of Classic Acceptance Speeches," an event at which he has actors read classic Oscar acceptance speeches.

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. And that's echoing this year, too. Explain how.

SCHULMAN: Well, this year, the big Oscar controversy so far has been the surprise nomination of Andrea Riseborough for best actress. This was a out-of-nowhere campaign during the short nomination window in January. Suddenly, there was this social media campaign by A-list actors, like Edward Norton, Jennifer Aniston, trying to make sure academy voters remembered Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie."

Now, this was a tiny, little movie that had been released in the fall, and very few people saw it. It made about as much money as it takes to buy a new Honda Civic. So she was not in the - you know, the, quote-unquote, "conversation." And yet because this groundswell of support came from high-profile people - it was a very unusual way to campaign. The craziest thing about it is that it worked, and she was nominated for best actress for "To Leslie."

Meanwhile, two Black actresses who had been very much in the conversation, Viola Davis in "The Woman King" and Danielle Deadwyler in "Till," were not nominated. And, you know, it's not really a kind of one-person-replaces-another situation. But, of course, it's - you know, it brought up all these issues of equity and representation at the Oscars and, you know, opened up this question of, does a Black actress, like Danielle Deadwyler, have the network of support within the industry that an Andrea Riseborough is (ph)?

And, you know, this is a conversation that has gone back decades with the Academy Awards. You know, they always fail as a sort of pure barometer of, you know, artistic merit or worth. There are a million other factors that go into who gets nominated and who wins.

GROSS: 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 were 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: So do you think those changes have made a difference? And has the controversy over those changes died down?

SCHULMAN: It has made a difference. I mean, one of the underappreciated things about these reforms was that the academy became much more international. And I think you start to see that reflected in a win like "Parasite" a few years ago. The academy's assessment of movies has become much less hemmed in by Hollywood as a physical place. But, of course, the controversy has not died down, and we see that this year with the best actress category.

You know, this is a great year for Asian nominees - you know, Michelle Yeoh and Hong Chau, all the, you know, people from "Everything Everywhere All At Once." And yet there is still no Black actress nominated. There has not been a best actress winner who is a person of color since Halle Berry won the first and only one in 2002. And there are no female directors nominated this year. So I think this is not a problem that's been solved. Like, you know, the larger issue in American life over inclusion and representation, it's kind of an ongoing battle.

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, you know, 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 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, then as now, created a policy where if you hadn't been active for seven years, you would be demoted to a non-voting 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: Another interesting thing - like, you write in this chapter about Bob Hope's comments during the ceremony, because 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 freakout.

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 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.

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, when, you know, it's - 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, so this means something. You know, it's just one movie. It's just one win. But it means the - you know, you can sense the culture kind of changing in this tectonic way.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Schulman, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new 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, author of the new book "Oscar Wars: The History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." 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 campaigns, 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, the, you know, the BAFTAs, this kind of runup.

There're 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 frontrunner 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 with the Oscar, a sort of frontrunner 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 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: So talking about Harvey Weinstein leads us directly into the #MeToo movement. But first, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Schulman, and he's the author of the new book "Oscar Wars." We'll talk more after we take a short break. 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, banking off of the northeast winds, sailing on summer breeze, and skipping over the ocean like a stone. (Vocalizing). I'm going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain, going where...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael Schulman, author of the new book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." And it's about all the behind the scenes battles since the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over the Oscars and over who gets to vote, all those behind-the-scenes conflicts.

So we were talking about how Harvey Weinstein changed how people campaigned 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 Roman Polanski or so and so? What's interesting about the last couple 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 are in contention and they've done something that, you know, is morally objectionable or questionable, how much do you factor that into, you know, to 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 - you know, made an off-color joke at some point, do they still - you know, 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. So being in the academy is 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, some - 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 this 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 that - 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 shed 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: Yeah. 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 new 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 new book, "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears," and it's about all the behind-the-scenes conflicts and infighting over the Oscars ever since they 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 - 'cause 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 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 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 yay high.

Of course, Robert Rich turned out to be a front for Dalton Trumbo, who had been - 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 'cause 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, or he'd say, well, I might be Robert Rich, or maybe it's my friend Michael Wilson, who is another blacklisted screenwriter. And basically, he used his wit, and he used his words and his cleverness to sort of fan 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: 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 (laughter), 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'm 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 of your (vocalizing) 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.

GROSS: What has the Academy been trying to do to prevent anything like that from ever happening again, outside of saying we'll never give Will Smith an Oscar again?

SCHULMAN: Well, they could give him an Oscar technically.

GROSS: Oh, that's right.

SCHULMAN: He just can't come.

GROSS: They can give him an Oscar. He just can't come. That seems like not exactly a major punishment.

SCHULMAN: For 10 years.

GROSS: Like...


GROSS: ...You can win the award, but you can't come to the ceremony.

SCHULMAN: Right. Maybe he'll wait it out for 10 years and then come back. You know, I don't know. I'm really curious to watch this year how they address the notorious slap, whether the security will be different. I mean, 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 some something behind me that was getting attention. I turned 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, enjoy the Oscars.

SCHULMAN: Thank you. I will.

GROSS: And thank you for doing this.

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


New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman speaking with Terry Gross. Schulman's new book is "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." The Oscars ceremony is March 12. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation of composer Burt Bacharach. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "INTO THE FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

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