The Oscars' Dirty Secret: Corruption, Bribery, Mafia-style Hit Jobs and Labor Struggles
“Big ‘stupido’…running up to get an Oscar dying with excitement only to crawl back dying with shame (because a different director wins). Those crummy Academy voters; to hell with their lousy awards. If ever they did vote me one, I would never, never, NEVER show up to accept it.”
-- Frank Capra who later changed his mind to accept all three of his Best Director Oscars.
Like a billion other people around the world on Sunday we’ll gather around a TV set to watch the Oscars otherwise known as the Awards Ceremony of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s our town’s Superbowl. Rah rah. The fun is hardly ever in the deeply dumb show but us fans grouching over who cheated our favorites. And – for shallow minds like mine – cattily bitching about the women’s fashions, when I channel my inner Joan Rivers, meow.
As everyone knows except for the people watching, the Motion Picture Academy was founded as a union-busting front for a company union. It was the brain child of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a devout Republican, as a way of heading off Hollywood workers’ wage and contract demands. The Academy, after the Wall Street ’29 crash, fully backed Mayer and his fellow studio bosses’ across-the-board 50 percent wage cuts for employees while still paying themselves huge bonuses.
The Academy’s history is bloody, battered and bestrewn with labor struggles, corrupt practices, bribery, extortion, Mafia-style hit jobs and failed last-ditch efforts by its executives to break the fledgling actors, writers and other guilds. (In current negotiations my own writers union, WGA, is facing $60 million in rollbacks from the producers with their institutional memory of fighting unions even when they're rolling in profits.)
From the start the Academy and studios’ deal was to buy labor peace by installing a then-wholly-crooked bunch, IATSE, the union of stagehands, motion picture technicans and allied crafts, and pay off its gangster leaders (usually $50 to 100,000 annually per studio), to intimidate, beat up and sometimes kill militants.
Joe Schenck, co-head of 20th Century Fox, actually went to prison for cooperating with this extortion plot. IATSE was run by two organized crime gunsels, Willie Bioff and George Brown, who in exchange for lesser sentences turned on their studio paymasters. You can betray your union members but not crime bosses in collusion with the studio heads: Bioff in witness protection was assasinated by a bomb.
The next boss of IATSE was Roy Brewer, no crook but responsible in large part for enforcing the anti-communist blacklist and silencing liberal activists. At the time Hollywood was ruled by a system of informers managed by Brewer, and a star-struck House UnAmerican cop named Wheeler, and a Beverly Hills lawyer collecting large fees for “clearing” soiled industry workers.
The whole blacklist thing had its roots in labor strikes led by an honest breakaway union from IATSE. Antisemitism in this heavily Jewish industry played a critical role in the blacklist. HUAC focused on actors and writers with “Jewish” backgrounds. All through the 1950s the professional guilds, including mine, cooperated with the blacklist Formerly liberal Ronald Reagan, Screen Actors Guild president, was an FBI informer against his colleagues as confidential source “T-10”.
But hey today is now. The Academy long ago cleaned up its act by restoring credits to blacklisted writers. We’re on to more serious matters like Jennifer Lawrence’s cute haircut and will a vote for Cate Blanchett in the Woody Allen movie mean a vote for pedophilia? Today’s young women actors look alike and dress drearily alike, as if being presented at a Deep South sorority cotillion. Ah, how I miss the long lost years when a streaker ran onto stage to show (in David Niven’s immortal phrase) his shortcomings, when Angelina incestuously locked lips with her older brother, when Marlon Brando sent “Sacheen Littlefeather” to collect his Oscar, and most of all Cher in anything she chooses to wear.
One day, maybe, an Oscar nominee will have the guts to stand up and scream, as Samuel Jackson almost did when he lost to Martin Landau: “Awww, shit!”