As the Academy Awards draw near and debates over the lack of diversity in the Academy rage on, I thought I would share a story on the early history of the Academy that may shed some light on current issues of diversity and Oscar snubbing.
While it is true that the Oscars have shown a lack of diversity, there have been several great actors throughout history that have been snubbed by the Academy. As it turns out, the process of selecting nominees is not as simple as board members selecting just any film they believe deserves recognition. A whole process of campaigning by the film studios is what actually gets a film selected for nomination. According to blogger Stephen Follows, Hollywood will spend over $100 million on campaigns to get their films nominated in just this year alone.1 Follows explains the process in great detail by breaking down how studios campaign for their films and provides estimates of the money spent throughout the long campaigning process. Needless to say, the nominations have basically been bought by the studios.
Interestingly enough, this has been a problem since the early days of the Academy and one that was deeply objected to by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At its formation in 1927, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was made the first president of the Academy and would remain so until 1929. According to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the Academy was originally intended to be an actual academy for studying, researching, training, and technical development in film. Annual awards were meant to recognize achievement in film that encouraged the advancement of the industry.
The vision Fairbanks, Sr., had for the Academy was that motion picture research and development would be supported by the ticket sales to the annual ceremony. It was outlined in several brochures from 1927 that the goal of the awards ceremony was to encourage the advancement of film. A pamphlet attached to the invitation to the Organization Banquet stated that, “We can encourage the improvement and advancement of the arts and sciences of our profession by the interchange of constructive ideas and by awards of merit for distinctive achievements.”2 Unfortunately, this vision did not pan out as the annual awards ceremony began to cause film companies to rival one another by lobbying and campaigning for votes. As Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., points out in The Salad Days, “This competition was not always above board or free of arm twisting and even bribing the local press.”3 Unhappy with how the Academy was functioning, Fairbanks, Sr., stepped down from his position as president even though he still remained involved.
Throughout the past ninety years, the Academy Awards has continued to function in such a way that its founders did not anticipate. Many of the screen’s greatest actors were not recognized by the Academy until later in their lives or after their deaths. The Academy’s own founder and first president, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was not even recognized until after he had passed away. Fairbanks, Jr., explains, “Other less notable figures were honored – actors, producers, writers, cameramen, and others, but not my father. Nor indeed until many years later were his superlative partners, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, or D.W. Griffith, so honored. Nor were Garbo, John Barrymore, or many others ever recognized by the Academy’s members.”4
For a man that was crucial to the formation of the Academy and was an important figure in the growth of the film industry throughout the 1920s, this is a travesty. In the years after the Academy’s creation, Fairbanks could have been recognized for The Gaucho, The Iron Mask, or The Taming of the Shrew, just to name a few. And not only was Fairbanks a great actor, but he was also innovative on screen, behind the scenes, and within the business side of film. He was one of the first to create his own company, the Douglas Fairbanks Film Company, in 1916. A few years later, he created the United Artists Corporation alongside Chaplin, Pickford, and Griffith, to become independent of the controlling studios. He is credited with being one of the first celebrities and often referred to as the King of Hollywood. Despite all of these things, Fairbanks still did not receive an Academy Award during his lifetime.
When the Academy finally decided to honor the late Fairbanks, Sr., for his achievement in film, Fairbanks, Jr., was not even invited to accept the award for his father, let alone attend the ceremony. Senior’s third wife, Sylvia Ashley, was invited instead. In a turn of events, Junior ended up receiving the Oscar on his father’s behalf due to Ashley having an illness at the time. This was not the only time that Junior would be snubbed by the Academy. He summed up his feelings about the issue by stating, “As the official recognition of my father by his colleagues did not come until after his death, it didn’t require a poke in the eye with a branding iron to persuade me that I was something less than the Academy’s favorite son.”5
Junior was invited twice more to the Academy Awards to present a technical award and the Jean Hersholt Award to a deceased former co-director of United Artists, Bob Benjamin. According to Junior, the only reason he was even invited to present the Jean Hersholt award is because it was recommended by a friend in the industry. Junior returned to the Academy Awards ceremony again in 1948 to accept his good friend Laurence Olivier’s Oscar for Best Actor in Hamlet (see video below). Despite these few instances, Fairbanks spent the majority of his active film career being largely ignored by the Academy. He was never presented an honorary or posthumous Oscar, or even a nomination, throughout his entire film career.
This piece of history on the Academy shows that the annual awards ceremony has always been highly political. Due to nominations relying heavily on campaigning by the film studios, it is no wonder so many people and films get snubbed by the Oscars. It seems that if a studio does not have the money or the ability to take all the steps necessary to get a nomination, then the film is rendered meaningless by the Academy. While nominees often do deserve the recognition they are given, there are a vast amount of films and people that get left behind. The only way to combat this issue is to not rely too heavily on the opinion of the Academy in determining the best film achievements of the year. After all, there is a great world of film out there that the Academy doesn’t even begin to touch on and you never know what you may be missing out on!
1. Stephen Follows, “How much do Hollywood campaigns for an Oscar cost?”, Stephen Follows: Film Data and Education, Jan. 12, 2016. <https://stephenfollows.com/much-hollywood-campaigns-oscar-cost/>
2.”Organization Banquet, The Reasons Why, 1927″ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, AMPAS Reference Collection. <http://digitalcollections.oscars.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15759coll4/id/5815>
3. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The Salad Days (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 356.
4. Ibid, 356.
5. Ibid, 357-58.