7 Tales Of Madness From Behind The Scenes At The Oscars
The Oscars are that special time of year when a bunch of old men decide which of those mainstream artsy movies we say we're going to see but never do is most deserving of a special logo on their Blu-Ray boxes. But sometimes there's more to the story of Oscar winners than Steven Spielberg saying "Eh, sure, I liked La La Land" and everyone getting wasted at Meryl Streep's after party. Why they win and how they get there can sometimes be a movie on its own -- though not one that would ever, ever get nominated for an award.
The Year Best Actress Went To A Woman In Yellowface Who Stole The Role From An Asian Actress
The Good Earth is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about life in rural China around the turn of the 20th century, and in 1937, it got a cinematic adaptation. The book, despite a few stereotypes, is considered a landmark in American literature because it portrayed Asian people as actual human beings instead of as a bunch of sinister opium addicts or downtrodden peasants with funny accents and buck teeth. So take a wild guess at how 1930s Hollywood celebrated this sensitive topic. Yep, by giving an award to a white woman pretending to be a downtrodden peasant with a funny accent.
Judging by the ellipsis, the guy writing the credits couldn't believe this bullshit either.
For one hot second, The Good Earth considered doing something so risky that even modern studios are still grappling with how to pull it off: casting a nonwhite actor in a nonwhite role. The role of O-Lan, the movie's heroine, almost went to Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star. The book's author was pushing the studio to cast only Chinese actors and even film in China, and while authors usually have about as much influence on movies as the craft services people, one of the producers really liked the idea. But then the studio ran into logistical problems with the Chinese government. Fortunately, they also remembered that it was '30s, everyone was super racist, and the average American wouldn't give a shit if they cast a bunch of white people instead. So for the sake of both simplicity and American racial purity, Wang the Farmer was portrayed by Paul Muni, a role the Chicago native was born to play.
"And the award for Most Vital Comma goes to ..."
This immediately scuttled Wong's chances, because the characters of O-Lan and Wang were married, and under the Hays Code, showing race-mixing on-screen was tantamount to jizzing on a burning American flag. So a Chinese-American woman was denied a Chinese role because she would have been pretend-married to a white man, even though he was caked in all the yellowface makeup that the World War II propaganda department could spare. You know, to protect America's moral fiber. So the role of O-Lan instead went to Luise Rainer ...
In Chinese, "Luise Rainer" means "Thieving White Girl."
... who was born in goddamn Dusseldorf. And of course she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her grounded, realistic, and sensitive portrayal. As a consolation prize, Wong was instead offered the role of Lotus, a concubine who serves as the story's sleazy villain. She declined, and responded, "[Y]ou're asking me -- with Chinese blood -- to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters." That's a very polite way of saying, "If you want me to betray my culture, get another white girl to do it."
Winning An Oscar Was The Worst Thing To Happen To Mo'Nique's Career
Winning an Oscar means you can write your own ticket in Hollywood. It means you get to star in any blockbuster, meet any artsy director, or kill any stripper within the city radius. Like Mo'Nique (real name Monica Nique), who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, along with roughly all of the non-Oscar awards in existence, in 2009 for her portrayal of the abusive mother in Precious: Based On The Song "Push" By Matchbox 20. And what did Mo'Nique do with her immense critical capital? She chose to star in Almost Christmas, a movie about how wacky the holidays can be. It hasn't received any award nominations. Neither has she.
Not even Best Costume Design.
So how do you go from a standing ovation at the Oscars to slumming through Christmas Comedy: Variant 7-A? According to Mo'Nique, she was blackballed because she refused to play "the game." Yes, Mo'Nique refused to hunt men for sport. Also, she refused to campaign for the Oscar. It was probably mostly the latter.
It's not just Mo'Nique claiming this. Lee Daniels, who directed the movie, has said the same. Details are vague, but he's claimed that Mo'Nique made "unreasonable demands," didn't thank the producers and the studio, and said that there were "demands that were made on the Precious campaign that everyone knows hurt her" -- though with "everyone," he of course means the shadowy cabal of Academy wizards, who take slights very seriously.
Especially if those doing the slighting happen to be not-white-men.
Mo'Nique, for her part, says she merely turned down a request by the studio to appear at Cannes, although she also commented that she can be difficult to work with and "tactless," a mortal sin for actresses. She also says she was offered a role in Lee Daniels' The Butler: Based On "The Butler" By Lee Daniels, only to have it snatched away and handed to Oprah because of her crimes against Hollywood. We may never know exactly what happened, but whether she didn't send out enough gift baskets full of scented soaps or didn't thank the right people, receiving widespread critical acclaim was more damaging to her career than if she had turned down the role to co-star in Whatever Marlon Wayans Was Making At The Time: Based On The Fart Noises Of Marlon Wayans.
That Time High Noon Lost Because It Was Too Un-American
In 1953, the Oscar for Best Picture was given to The Greatest Show On Earth, a movie whose title couldn't be more ironic, as it's perhaps the worst movie to ever win the big award. And it's not like '53 was a particularly bad year, either. There were plenty of other films much more deserving of Hollywood's highest accolade, but there was one problem: These were the '50s, and every Hollywood artist was suddenly a commie-loving traitor. And the Academy, having learned its lesson about patriotism courtesy of Joe McCarthy, were looking to massively overcompensate for their past un-American behavior.
By scaring the communism out of their audience.
The Greatest Show On Earth was up against High Noon, a classic western that happened to serve as an allegory about the dangers of McCarthyism. John Wayne called it the most un-American thing he'd ever seen, and he should know -- being the most American thing on screen was his thing. High Noon's screenwriter, Carl Foreman, had been blacklisted for refusing to name names while testifying in front of HUAC, but he did admit to previously being a communist before quitting in disillusionment. And in the '50s, you'd have more professional success admitting to once being a child molester but refusing to talk about the rest of your ring.
Meanwhile, The Greatest Show On Earth was directed and produced by Cecil B. DeMille, a staunch conservative who was involved in anticommunist efforts. DeMille was also kind of the Martin Scorcese of his day, in that he was a beloved Hollywood figure who had never won an Oscar, and the Academy was getting worried they were running out of chances to give him one. But it was mostly politics, which was made clear when the star of High Noon, Gary Cooper, went back on his vocal support of Foreman and got to walk away with the Oscar for Best Actor.
That, or he stared them down until they gave it to him.
So for all the talk of Hollywood being full of hippies forcing their liberal politics on the rest of the country, they once gave an award to a mediocre movie to support what's now considered a shameful moment of political censorship. At least DeMille didn't later turn out to be a Nazi. Which reminds us ...
The First Oscar Ever Given Was A Snub Against A Dog In Favor Of A Nazi
No, we didn't start an impromptu game of Mad Libs. We're going way back to the first Academy Awards in 1929, when the ceremony was a breezy 15 minutes. Which was still ten minutes longer than the Academy was comfortable with, because no one was quite sure what they were doing. Case in point: A goddamn dog was slated to win Best Actor.
To be fair, he had already swept the 1929 Good Boys.
While movies about dogs performing tricks are now largely limited to Netflix's "We Know You Want Your Kids To Shut Up For 50 Minutes" section, they used to be big business. Rin Tin Tin starred in nearly 30 movies which made so much money that the dog has been credited with turning Warner Bros. into a major studio. Rin Tin Tin was a more reliable rainmaker than '90s Tom Cruise. Whenever they were in any sort of financial difficulty, they simply cranked out another dog movie. Maybe it had something to do with the silent film era and a dog looking more natural than a person. Also, it was the '20s, so your options for entertainment were either going to the movies or sitting around wondering if you were developing polio.
So Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor, because he was popular and influential, and presumably also because people thought it would be funny to watch a dog try to pick up the statuette. But then the nascent Academy stepped in and said, "Guys, we want to be taken seriously as an institution, which will be difficult if we give an award to a fucking German Shepherd." So a second round of voting for nominees with only two legs led to Emil Jannings winning for The Last Command, which is now in the National Film Registry. So they established that they wanted the Oscars to be serious by awarding a serious actor in a critically acclaimed movie. But they forgot the greatest thing of all about dogs: They don't do politics.
Most of them, anyway.
The Academy probably regretted its decision a few years later when Jannings, who struggled to make the transition to talkies because of his thick accent, decided that Hollywood sucked and that his future lay in Nazi propaganda films. From 1934 all the way to 1945, Jannings starred in movies about how the British were monsters and blind obedience to German leadership was great. After '45, when the market for Nazi films abruptly collapsed, there wasn't much demand for his talents. But at least he was posthumously remembered in Inglorious Basterds, in which he's briefly shown before he burns to death in horrible agony. So yeah, it would have been less embarrassing if they had given the dog a trophy. Also, it would have made Inglorious Basterds a lot more fun if Tarantino had to work in Rin Tin Tin instead.
"And The Award Goes To ... The President Of The Academy's Wife!"
At least The Greatest Show On Earth had plausible deniability. If push came to shove, members of the Academy could've claimed that they really like circus movies. And Emil Jannings (like most American fascists) only became a Nazi after he failed in Hollywood. The same excuses cannot be given for Mary Pickford's 1930 Best Actress award, because a whole year after what we assume has retroactively been dubbed Tin Tingate, the Academy again found itself embroiled in a voting controversy.
Being too adorable?
Pickford was nominated for Coquette, which was 1929's equivalent of Gone Girl, in that it's about a manipulative woman who destroys all the men in her life. Pickford was trying to transition from silent films to talkies, but critics found her performance stiff and the movie was generally considered mediocre. But it picked up a nomination, and Pickford campaigned for victory by inviting the Oscar voters, all five of them, to her home for tea. They didn't need directions to her home, because that was also where their boss lived -- none other than Douglas Fairbanks, handsomest man alive and then-president of the Academy. Who was also her husband. We'll never know what exactly her pitch was, but we're pretty sure the voters were sold before their tea was even poured.
Maybe she let them touch him.
But easy come, easy go ... is something we'd never think to say about a massive golden idol. Decades later, Pickford's award became controversial again when her heirs wanted to auction it off for profit. The Academy was outraged, arguing that it should belong with them. "A tawdry auction would tarnish the significance of the bronze-and-gold Oscar," the Academy claimed while trying to stop the sale. Yeah, it would be a real blow to the credibility of an award that was handed out at teatime because the winner was boning the guy in charge of the whole process. What's next, giving the thing to a Nazi? Did we mention that a Nazi won the Academy Award already?
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The Year A Film Won Best Picture And Best Screenplay By Stealing A Poem
You're probably not familiar with 1946's The Best Years Of Our Lives, but it won seven Academy Awards, is considered one of the greatest films ever made, and is proof that Oscar shenanigans are far from new. The nonsense began when MacKinlay Kantor, journalist, novelist, World War II veteran, and great-name-haver, was asked by Sam Goldwyn (the G in MGM) to produce a detailed outline for a movie about American soldiers readjusting to civilian life. Kantor instead handed him 100 pages of poetry, which is like taking your car to the mechanic and instead of fixing your transmission, he makes you a nice chicken dinner.
Goldwyn was either politely baffled or angrily baffled, depending on whose account you believe, but Kantor kept chugging along and eventually produced both a 434-page poem and an unfinished 226-page screenplay (for comparison, the script for The Fellowship Of The Ring, a three-hour movie, is 173 pages). He also wrote eight hours' worth of musical accompaniment, presumably, and it wouldn't surprise us if he threw in a three-act interpretive dance routine for good measure.
Which no one edited out, it seems.
Kantor didn't finish his screenplay, possibly because he was a lunatic, but mostly because he "quarreled" with Goldwyn, who didn't seem to appreciate what soldiers were going through and was also probably saying things like "Hey, uh, I asked for a script, not The Iliad 2: Homeric Boogaloo." So Goldwyn handed Kantor's script to writer Robert Sherwood, who rewrote the story to make it less depressing and reduce the length to under three Russian novels stapled together.
Kantor's poem-novel was released as Glory For Me, but bombed, while the movie was a massive success. And Goldwyn got revenge against the soldier-poet who had trouble following instructions. The movie briefly announced that it was "based upon a novel by MacKinlay Kantor," but didn't even bother naming the thing. Plus, Kantor hated that the movie's name was changed to The Best Years Of Our Lives, both because he didn't think anyone would get the irony and because it was apparently intended as a giant middle finger to him. He also felt betrayed about the whole "not getting any credit the massive amount of work he had put in" thing.
You can blow up this poster up to the size of a billboard, but his name somehow remains in the one-pixel-high font.
While it's admittedly a terrible idea to turn in an epic poem when asked for a movie script, the story was Kantor's brainchild. And it's not like he was a rambling idiot -- he later won a Pulitzer Prize. So it's kinda harsh that the movie made tons of money and walked away with Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, while Kantor got nothing. We guess the lesson is that in Hollywood, it's worse to be a poet than a hack.
One Man Is Secretly Behind Every Hollywood Smear Campaign
We've talked a lot about the Academy's effect on filmmakers, but what about the other way around? There is, in fact, one man who is mighty enough that he can try to bend the unbending Academy to his will. A man with so much power that he can make or break careers, change the fate of a movie from a blockbuster to a bomb, or convince the world that we're supposed to care about a second Paddington movie.
Wait, no, we meant Harvey Weinstein.
He would have gotten Bio-Dome the acclaim it deserved.
Weinstein is a prominent producer, the co-founder of Miramax and The Weinstein Company. To give you a sense of his influence, he once made the distributor of a documentary about him change scenes behind the director's back and then only release the movie on an obscure download service with zero publicity. So he's both a bit vain and vindictive -- a lethal combination during awards season. So Weinstein goes a little further than including a nice box of chocolates with all the screener DVDs.
Weinstein pays "publicists," who all happen to be Academy members, to chat with other Academy members about how great his movies are. He screened My Left Foot at retirement homes where dying Academy members lived. He dodged the rules about throwing parties for Academy members and paid publishers to trash Saving Private Ryan because it was up against his Shakespeare In Love for multiple awards. Shakespeare won Best Picture, but only after Weinstein spent an estimated five million dollars promoting it / burning Tom Hanks to the ground.
This Tom Hanks.
Hell, Weinstein was even accused of paying $500,000 in hush money to the director and producer of Escape From Planet Earth, a terrible children's movie, because they were loudly arguing that Weinstein had destroyed their movie with his meddling right as the Weinstein-produced The King's Speech was up for an Oscar. Boy, the kid movie business is a lot more gangster than we ever thought. It's like reading the CV of the world's nerdiest supervillain.
But Weistein's most ferocious attempt to sully his opponents occurred when his In The Bedroom was up against A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture. He launched a smear campaign that was "unprecedented in the history of the Academy Awards for its viciousness," strong-arming journalists to focus on John Nash's turbulent personal life, like his alleged homosexuality and anti-Semitism. That's right: He tried to ruin the reputation of a Nobel-Prize-winning mathematician so that the movie about his life would be too divisive to win an Academy Award. We really hope his kid never gets a bad role in a school play, or we're going to be finding out some real unpleasant stuff about Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Come to think of it, that might be a step up for that role ...
It's natural to want awards for movies you helped create, and Weinstein is hardly the only big shot to campaign for victory. But he's like the dad at peewee football who's screaming at other people's kids to make tackles and run better routes while their parents are trying to plan a post-game pizza party.
It's Spring Break! You know what that means: hot coeds getting loose on the beaches of Cancun and becoming imperiled in all classic beach slasher ways: man-eating shark, school of piranhas, James Franco with dreadlocks. There are so many films about vacations gone wrong, it's a chore to wonder if there's even such a thing as a movie vacation gone right. Amity Island and Camp Crystal Lake are out. So what does that leave? The ship from Wall-E? Hawaii with the Brady Bunch? A road trip with famous curmudgeon Chevy Chase? On this month's live podcast Jack O'Brien and the Cracked staff are joined by some special guest comedians to figure out what would be the best vacation to take in a fictional universe. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
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