Believe or not, there was a time when Hollywood cared whether Catholics approved of their work.
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.