Davis also dispels the belief that the statuette was originally nicknamed by Bette Davis — no relation — because its backside resembled that of her then-husband Harman Oscar Nelson. He makes the case rather to credit a secretary of Norwegian descent, Eleanore Lilleberg, who was tired of referring to the “gold knights in her care” as “doodads, thingamajigs, hoozits and gadgets” and mentally conjured a military veteran with dignified bearing she’d known as a girl.
This version of events, if true, is apt, for in Schulman’s framing, the Oscars have long been no mere contest but brutal hand-to-hand combat. He chronicles the 1951 best actress race between Davis (for “All About Eve”) and Gloria Swanson (for “Sunset Boulevard”); they lost to Judy Holliday (“Born Yesterday”) but the first two performances both proved more enduring, show business loving no subject better than itself.
He retraces the long exile of the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, perhaps the most prominent of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted and driven behind pseudonyms for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee; credited and awarded for “Roman Holiday” only posthumously (his widow’s cat, satisfyingly, scratched up the thingamajig’s head).
And no book called “Oscar Wars” could neglect how Harvey Weinstein, currently facing life in prison for his sex crimes, made the campaign nuclear in 1999 with “Shakespeare in Love.” The reign of this titan (and his eventual topple) was for the nation-state of Hollywood as consequential as Nixon’s for the U.S. government.
He “made the Oscars dirty,” Schulman writes, using tricks like buying ads suggesting Miramax’s “The Piano” had won best picture at the preliminary critics’ awards (with “runner-up” in tiny print); relentlessly wooing senior citizens; parties, swag, ballot-commandeering and bad-mouthing his opponents. He even brought Daniel Day-Lewis to Washington to help get the Americans With Disabilities Act passed as a boost for “My Left Foot.”
Along with the envelope, some context, please: Scandal has always beset Hollywood. Indeed, both authors note that the Academy was founded to raise the tone after a series of them, most notoriously the arrest of the Paramount actor Fatty Arbuckle after a starlet died in his hotel room following an orgy. Both in their own way document the race and gender inequity endemic to the institution, and its often ham-handed attempts to course-correct.