Prior to last week, in its century-long history, Hollywood has had two major, conspicuous talent overhauls, one in the late 1920s, and one in the late 1960s. Both historical “purges” were driven by severe, untypical economic and cultural anxieties, and the overhauls were accompanied by alterations to policies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) that served as key drivers/reflectors of the winds of change blowing through the industry. Presuming that Friday’s announced change in Academy policies pertains, it augurs the industry’s third serious overhaul, and here we take a moment to compare and contrast with the previous two, to see what’s similar, what’s different, and what we might expect in the near future.
Everyone knows about the transition from silent to sound pictures occasioned by the epoch-making success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, and how scores of actors were sidelined or fired; after all, it’s the plot of one of Hollywood’s best movies, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). This transition was “raced” (as we say in academia), meaning laden with racial undertones; for example, the film The Bronze Screen, which is about the history of Latinos in Hollywood, says that the advent of sound turned accent-heavy, leading Latino men into supporting players. This postcard version of history has been challenged, but the consensus is that at least a few hundred contracted actors were forced to change those contracts.
Less noted, at least in the Singin’ in the Rain version, is that 1927 was a heady time for the industry anyway: after years of sex scandals, drug scandals, murder scandals, and unionization (to the studio chiefs, also a scandal), the industry leaders, led by Louis B. Mayer, were looking for ways to thin the undesirables from the herd as well as confer some sort of prestige on their fledgling business. In 1927 the Hays Office issued, with studio acquiescence, its first list of “Don’t”s and “Be Careful”s, a sharp warning that the industry had better tread lightly when it came to sin and vice. This problem was also “raced” by contemporary racial definitions, when anti-Semitism was considered equivalent to racism; for context, read transcripts of the 1916 Congressional hearings when Louis Brandeis became the first Jew to ascend to the Supreme Court. The studios were run by first-generation Jews seeking assimilation and every other aspect of the American Dream; the Academy was a symbolic gesture away from “seediness” and “immorality.” In one night in May 1927, Mayer’s deputized his biggest (and WASPiest) star, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., to get 231 insiders to give $100 each in order to become most of the founding membership of the Motion Picture Academy.
Awards were an afterthought, and only by July 1928 did the Academy get around to creating the voting system for their inaugural Awards that would take place in early 1929. After The Jazz Singer (1927), the studios spent more than half of their working capital outfitting theaters, and their production stages, for sound, increasing their stakes and encouraging more industry elites to think in terms of haves and have-nots. This tendency was only exacerbated in the acrimonious Academy committee meetings of mid-1928 to decide questions like: separate categories for silent and sound? (Yes.) Comedy and drama? (Yes.) Artistic and popular? (Yes, that first time.) A special award for Chaplin, because he was to cinema what Abraham Lincoln was to rail-splitters? (Yes.)
By the 2nd Academy Awards, the stock market had crashed, pushing the nascent Academy rule-makers into even more vituperative arguments; they were desperately trying to confer a patina of quality (think All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930) even as the industry scrambled for bigger, broader, more populist films to lure people who no longer cared for movies. No doubt 1927-30 would have been transformational with or without the Academy Awards, but at the time their new presence served as both reflector and director of what the industry thought it could preserve – it was as though the studios were using the awards to say: don’t think of us as the anarchic anything-goes slapstick-comedy-ish Fatty Arbuckle-led Sodom and Gomorrah; think of us as those who make quality dramas with Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor.
Then as now, within a very short time, much of the town’s talent pool, especially its actors, felt as though it had just been unceremoniously shown the exit door – partly because of the new genres that sound occasioned, like musicals and gangster films. But then, not so much like now, it was hard for, say, Buster Keaton or Lillian Gish to complain about losing jobs on movie sets when they knew that 25% of the country was out of work, selling apples and pencils out of tin cans, and standing in bread lines that stretched for blocks.
The second and until now only other major talent overhaul occurred during the late 1960s, when the studios faced its only other true financial-cultural-existential crisis. As someone who has written a book that atomized Hollywood’s 1968-71 period, I can say that any two sentences will be a massive over-generalization, but essentially, after the twin failures of the “sword-and-sandals” cycle after Cleopatra (1963) and the big-budget musical cycle after The Sound of Music (1965), Hollywood looked bloated, out of touch with changing standards (the old ratings system went kablooie, then replaced by the one we now know), and on the wrong side of the (endlessly discussed in the media) “generation gap.” The 1960s’ youth movement was also “raced”; at its core it was white people claiming the same dissatisfaction with “the system” as blacks, whites for the first time seeking to affix “-American” to their identities (e.g. Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American) and/or, as many hippies did, nakedly appropriating Native American imagery and symbols. By late 1969, Hollywood’s only real hits of the previous three years had been films that seemed to “get” these young people, like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and The Wild Bunch.
The transition was best described by Dennis Bingham:
“A massive generational turnover, the likes of which had not been seen since the coming of sound, took place in only a few years – roughly 1967-71. It gave these ‘New Hollywood’ actors opportunities for lasting power as producers, directors, or actors as auteurs. They displaced a generational cohort that, in the youth wave and the collapse of the mass-audience blockbuster, lost the bankability many of them had owned for two decades or more. Among these were Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, William Holden, Jack Lemmon, Marlon Brando, and James Stewart.”
All white people. And it wasn’t just actors; think of the greatest classical-Hollywood directors, all white men – Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, many many more – all put out to pasture at this time. In 1967, Robert Evans, then a boyish-looking 37 and recently installed as head of production at Paramount, told the press, “The strongest period in Hollywood history was in the 30s, when most of the creative people were young. The trouble is that most of them are still around making movies.” He then boasted that 28 of 48 directors at Paramount had no directorial experience prior to 1963. Might a similar boast be coming soon today?
Ah yes, 1963: the year Gregory Peck won an Oscar for playing Atticus Finch, M.L. King led the March on Washington, John Kennedy was killed, and what we think of as “the sixties” really began. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but that 1963 date came up again in 1970, three years after Peck had been made President of AMPAS, in the industry’s effort to respond to cultural upheaval. In mid-1970 Peck said that, effective immediately, 335 members had been re-designated non-voting “associates” if they hadn’t worked in (wait for it) seven years. It was as though Peck was saying: if you missed the 60s, thanks for your service, now don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
As my book details, the emergent stars of the period would not, could not look like the Rock Hudsons and Tony Curtises of yore; they had to somehow reflect the “raced” and “-American” youth movements, and so with exceptions (like Robert Redford), they looked more like Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, and Al Pacino, a “grittier” style pioneered by the great casting director Marion Dougherty. (Hollywood was not quite ready to turn over the town to Bruce Lee and Rita Moreno and Richard Roundtree; these were its half-measures.)
Then as now, within a very short time, much of the town’s talent pool, especially its actors, felt as though it had just been unceremoniously shown the exit door – partly because of the new genres that the new standards occasioned, like alienated Euro-flavored road movies, blaxploitation and sexually explicit films. In this case, another revived genre, the disaster film, emerged as what J. Hoberman wryly called a “retirement project” for classical Hollywood, a place for the old stars to enact their endangered, fading relevance. (Look at the casts of Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake!, and the like.) The Oscars in 1970-75 were almost an extension of that disaster genre, a sort of cheesy, Vegasy sequin-fronted talent show, where the desire for authenticity was so extreme that George C. Scott and Marlon Brando could skip picking up their trophies and still be nominated the following year.
The early 30s and the early 70s were comparable not economically – in the latter period, America’s economy was robust – but culturally. In each period, a certain group that claimed to represent the “real” American Dream was vilified by half the country, celebrated by the other half – in the 30s, gangsters, in the 70s, hippies. (That does not mean that the celebrating half actually belonged to what it celebrated; these days, young people sometimes don’t realize that very few Kennedy-Johnson voters actually tried to attend Woodstock.) In each period, the movie industry, through its Academy Awards, essentially said: we have the right to make movies that understand these people, even if we are not of them, even if we are often above them. The movies claimed the unique dispensation to take the country’s genuine tension, unrest and upheaval – much of which was “raced” – as an alchemist takes lead, to transmute it into gold.
How does all this relate to today? Well, President Obama has compared our period to the 1930s every time he has said that we experienced “the worst crisis since the Great Depression.” And the current wave of political correctness has often been compared to the university-led dynamics of the 1970s, when education at every level was first forced to integrate and reckon with the standards it had established by and for white men. You could almost say that our current time is a 1930-1970s superblend.
In this context, it’s interesting that last week, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced that membership rights would – starting next year – be altered if one had not worked in ten years. I’ve written before about how the current revival of “politically correct” really began in 2006 (because of the start of Twitter, the Danish cartoon controversy, the last real immigration legislation, the arrest of Mel Gibson, Oprah seeing how she would look as other races, Limbaugh making fun of Michael J. Fox, Ice Cube executive-producing “Black/White,” and dozens of other reasons) and would have continued under a hypothetical President McCain. Not so unlike her predecessor Peck, Isaacs was saying, if you’ve missed the PC era, thanks for your service, now don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Those who defend PC, and to some extent #blacklivesmatter, may well be to us what gangsters were to Herbert Hoover’s presidency, what hippies were to Richard Nixon’s: dividing the country into celebrators and vilifiers. Then as now, Hollywood truly wants to be on both sides. Then as now, Hollywood wants the right to present such people while staying above them…as much as it can. In the current #oscarssowhite furor, it seemed as though Hollywood didn’t feel it could stay as aloof as it had. Did it go too far, farther than it had under Mayer in the 1920s and Peck in the 1960s?
Some of the Academy members interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter seem to think so. Haven’t they been fighting racism their whole lives, haven’t they been voting color-blindly? Perhaps. There’s a feeling that ageism shouldn’t be considered an acceptable response to regrettable institutional racism. For those whose membership predates 1970, it’s interesting that they didn’t speak out on the same problem when Gregory Peck announced his changes. It’s especially ironic to me that of all people, Tab Hunter called the announcement “bullshit.” He elaborated, “Obviously, it’s a thinly-veiled ploy to kick out older white contributors — the backbone of the industry — to make way for younger, ‘politically-correct’ voters. The Academy should not cave in to media hype and change the rules without talking to or getting votes from all members first.” Hunter and his Elvis-era peers were exactly what casting agent Marion Dougherty were working against in the 1960s, or as Dougherty put it then, “fewer Tabs and Troys.” So one “reading” of the current turmoil is that it only took two purges and a half-century for the Oscars to sideline Tab Hunter; another “reading” is that no matter what, we should keep listening to guys like him.
As I’ve written, last semester, my undergraduate students made spreadsheets of the top-grossing, most-Oscar-nominated films of each year of this century; the amount of minority representation is far, far under levels that compare to the share of minorities in the 2010 census. Something has to change. We always come upon this problem with institutional racism or what some call “racism without racists”; can we change without hurting anyone or provoking calls of “reverse racism” (thank you, Charlotte Rampling)? Apparently not, in 2016. But is the cultural crisis really comparable to that faced by America in the 1930s and 1970s? Apparently, it is.
The secret of Donald Trump’s appeal may well be comparable to Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority” in 1968: Trump’s front-line, refuse-to-apologize-ever offense against all that might be called “politically correct.” Hollywood, like Hillary Clinton, is stuck defending PC or at least accommodating it, as it did in the cases of the twitterverse campaigns against Star Wars and Saturday Night Live. Probably Hollywood would love to make more franchises as diverse as The Fast and the Furious, but until last week Hollywood didn’t seem to realize this wasn’t happening fastly or furiously enough. Somehow, long after Obama became President, Hollywood was still grooming and hiring a lot more Tom Hardys and Emma Stones than it was Michael B. Jordans or Gugu Mbatha-Raws.
So now, like in the 1930s and 1970s, will we see new ratings systems, new standards, even new or revived genres? I doubt it, although that would be nice; Hollywood’s blockbusters-and-a-few-prestige-films model has pertained for four decades now, and needs a shakeup, though I wonder if more minorities and women will do the trick. One would hope that every calcified procedure gets a little challenged.
The Academy Awards are only one symbol of Hollywood, a minor reflector/director of its image. Yet it’s still worth asking where that minor driver is driving us in 2016. Is this Third Purge going to make a difference? Yes, probably. Much like the Oscars in the early 1930s and early 1970s, the ceremony and attendant hullabaloo will have a tinny, forced, awkward quality for at least five years or so. And then, partly thanks to changes forced by far-seeing Academy Presidents who had both a sense of historical prestige and a willingness to throw older talent under the bus, the Oscars will – by the time of their centennial – settle into a reasonable representation of America that most of America apparently finds acceptable. It’s happened before.