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The First Oscar Snubs

6 21 5
08.02.2020
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This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today.

Snub. It’s a term that is unavoidable when reading about the Oscar nominations. There are always as many lists announcing the movies and performances snubbed as there are announcing the actual contenders. However current the debate about representation or diversity in nominations may be, the history of snubbing more “deserving” filmmakers and performers goes back to the conception of the Academy itself. To understand why snubs continue to happen even today and how we can possibly overcome them, let’s take a step back in time.

In 1927, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was formed by Hollywood powerhouses Louis B. Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, Sid Grauman, Joseph Schenck, and Mary Pickford. Awarding their peers was not the first concern of the Academy, as the industry was dealing with larger issues. The first recorded union recognition in Hollywood occurred in 1926, which changed the conditions of workers in the film industry forever. The Academy extended that union agreement and formed an alliance where everyone in the industry could create cohesive standards for productions and filmmaking technology.

The true reason for the creation of the Academy Awards boils down the main concern of anything in Hollywood: money. Mayer commented on his decision to add the awards to the Academy’s slate of causes, “I found the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them…If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” Many of us believe that the Oscars are for honoring the most talented and deserving, but it really came down to being a way of making more money, mainly for the powerful people who already had it.

Another influence on the creation of the Oscars came after a string of scandals (Fatty Arbuckle’s rape and murder trial, the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, Thomas Ince’s mysterious death, and many more) during the silent era. Hollywood was tasked with reconstructing its image in order to make the public believe filmmaking was a reputable industry and not void of standards. One way to do that was to award the best and brightest in the industry. Those nominated for Academy Awards were a representation of the entire industry, so they needed to reflect how the industry wanted to be seen. Because of that, a pattern emerged in who was nominated and the kinds of films recognized.

The scandals made a mockery of Hollywood, and to combat that, studios elected the most serious and glamorous of their lot to represent them at the awards. Early winners included Janet Gaynor, Norma Shearer, and Lionel Barrymore, all known for their dramatic roles and elevated screen presence. They were what studios wanted movie stars to be: polished, elegant, and behaved. Therefore, they were a safe bet to campaign for. A lot of........

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