Man, oh man – awards season just seems to drag on endlessly, doesn't it? It starts in late November, when the various organizations begin mailing out their ballots, and then slogs on through 10 to 15 different ceremonies before culminating in the Academy Awards at the end of February or the beginning of March. That means a full quarter of the year in the movie industry is taken up by relentless promotion and self-congratulatory spectacle. How on Earth did we get to this point, you might ask? Well, believe it or not, it's due, in part at least, to us crazy Catholics.
Maybe I should explain. You see, even though the Oscars have become a worldwide television event (the telecast had over 40 million viewers last year), that wasn't always the case. In fact, when movies first began being produced in the 1890s, there wasn't even any thought given to handing out little gold statues. It wasn't until May 16, 1929 that a whopping 270 people gathered at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles in order to to celebrate the first ever Academy Awards. Given that the winners had been announced beforehand, nobody outside of the banquet hall really noticed that the ceremonies had occurred. The following year, however, the winners were kept secret until the night of the awards, and the public started to get interested. Which, as it turns out, was just what the movie studios were hoping for.
Now the official line has always been that the purpose of the Academy Awards is to promote excellence in filmmaking by honoring extraordinary achievements in the craft. Of course, anybody who remembers the year Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture knows that's a bunch of malarkey. No, according to movie historian David Thomson, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) came into existence for two very specific reasons. The first was to address the studios' growing concern over unions cutting into their profits. The Academy provided the studios a unified front during labor disputes and helped arbitrate deals, ones that more often than not favored the studios. In exchange for accepting the shoddy financial arrangements the Academy worked out, the unions got public recognition. “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them." said movie mogul Louis Mayer, "If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted."
But as underhanded as that motive may seem, the second reason Mr. Thomson gives for the founding of AMPAS was even more sneaky. In the historian's opinion, the other impetus behind the creation of the Academy Awards was to cover up bad behavior. "Hollywood was so rife with scandals (drugs, sex, murder, money – the usual suspects)," Thomson wrote, "its leaders knew they needed better public relations and a distraction from beautiful young people behaving badly." More specifically, the studios needed a way to fight back against religious groups who were starting to make trouble for them, especially those pesky Catholics.
As Noah Gittell, editor of ReelChange.net, explains it, "Back then, Hollywood was under siege. The Catholic League and its Legion of Decency decried the burgeoning film industry for its immorality, both onscreen and off. High-profile celebrity scandals, like the manslaughter trial of comic actor Fatty Arbuckle and unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, became mascots for the notion that Hollywood’s loose morals were poisoning society." Due to the pressure from the Catholic League, the film industry would eventually be forced into adopting a set of production guidelines first drawn up by Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J. The document that would eventually become known as the Hays Code "prohibited films from glorifying criminals, gangsters, adulterers, and prostitutes… [and] banned nudity, excessive violence, white slavery, illegal drugs, miscegenation, lustful kissing, suggestive postures, and profanity from the screen." But before they acquiesced to such a restrictive code (kicking and screaming I might add), the studios tried something else: they held an awards show.
"The plan was simple," states Gittell. "The Academy’s hope was that the very concept of an awards gala would raise the stature of the medium in the eyes of the public. After all, if there could be a 'Best Picture,' then the medium couldn’t be all bad. As film historian David Thomson put it, the industry wanted the public to think, 'Look, an Academy. They must be respectable.” In short, rather than actually changing their awful behavior, Hollywood tried instead to alter the public perception of it with a big PR event. The Academy Awards were bread and circuses, plain and simple.
Of course, the original reasons for founding the Academy are no longer a big concern for Hollywood. Unions pretty much have an iron group on the major studios, as the excessive costs to produce movies readily attest to. And as for the concerns of religious groups, well, Hollywood stopped caring about that way back in 1968 when the Hays Code was abandoned in exchange for the current MPAA film rating system. If you need an example of how little Hollywood is interested in offending Christians these days, look no further than one of this year's nominations for Best Picture, Philomena. Despite whatever artistic merits the film may contain, it's so blatantly anti-Church that even the avowed atheist film critic for the New York Post, Kyle Smith, felt compelled to dismiss it as "another hateful and boring attack on Catholics."
Rather than power struggles and public perception, these days the Academy Awards are solely concerned with money. According to an article in Business Insider, the stamp of validity an Academy Award provides "increases the desire of moviegoers to see the films and the talent being honored. It also keeps the movies in theaters longer, boosting box office receipts." IbisWorld estimates that the winner of the Best Picture category will earn 21.7% of its total box-office AFTER taking home the statue. So, despite all the high-falutin’ talk about art at the ceremonies, it's really just about lining pocketbooks. Bread and circuses.
But just because Hollywood is no longer forced to make movies that uphold certain moral standards, that doesn't mean we shouldn't call them out when they fail to. In his 1936 Encyclical on motion pictures, Vigilanti Cura, Pope Pius XI noted that “the motion picture has become the most popular form of diversion, which is offered for the leisure hours not only of the rich but of all classes of society.” But since some films contain potential moral pitfalls, Pius XI ended the encyclical with a call to bishops to remain vigilant. “It will be necessary that in each country the bishops establish a permanent national reviewing office in order to be able to promote good motion pictures, classify the others, and bring this judgment to the knowledge of priests and faithful.” So if you’ve ever wondered why the USCCB got into the business of reviewing and rating movies in the first place, look no further than Pope Pius XI.
Hollywood has the right to produce and bestow honors on any kind of movie it wants to, but that doesn't mean us crazy Catholics (or anybody else for that matter) have to pay to see them. I'm not talking about organized boycotts because, oddly enough, Hollywood adores the publicity such things generate. But there's nothing wrong with sifting through the various review outlets like the USCCB (now handled by the Catholic News Service) and here at Aleteia to help keep an eye out for films you might want to consider withholding your financial support from. After all, despite all the free publicity garnered from the red carpet fashions and the ego gratification which comes with lofty acceptance speeches, those ticket sales are what the Academy Awards really hopes to reap from its three months long (it seems longer) awards season. A handful of Catholics might not be able to dictate decency anymore, but 1.2 billion potential ticket buyers is a force to be reckoned with.
In a world he didn't create, in a time he didn't choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he's not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.