Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy -- Book Review

Debra Ann Pawlak treats these 36 cofounders like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, narrating the childhood and adolescence of the American film industry through their biographies.

On January 11, 1927, Louis B. Mayer invited 35 Hollywood bigshots to a banquet at the Ambassador Hotel to talk about challenges facing the industry, including bad press over a series of scandals and the approaching era of sound. His idea was to form a united front—an organization—and the guests were enthusiastic. The tall blond matinee idol Conrad Nagel proposed that the group call itself the International Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and, after excising the initial adjective, that’s the name they took.

In Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy, Debra Ann Pawlak treats these 36 cofounders like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, narrating the childhood and adolescence of the American film industry through their biographies. The idea makes sense, since they represented every facet moviemaking—studio heads (Mayer, Harry Warner), producers (Harry Rapf, Irving Thalberg), directors (Cecil B. DeMille, Raoul Walsh), stars (Mary Pickford, Richard Barthelmess), writers (Joseph Farnham, Bess Meredyth), even special-effects men (Roy Pomeroy) and lawyers (George W. Cohen). Pawlak tells us where they all came from and where they all wound up and even how they died. She’s done no original research as far as I can tell, but since most of these characters led colorful lives, it should have been fun.

The author has no clue, though, as to how to intertwine 36 stories coherently, and she’s got a bizarre idea of what the reader needs to know. She dutifully lists birthdays and the names of everybody’s relatives; at times she seems like the society editor of a smalltown newspaper. “In August 1949, the [John M.] Stahls hosted their daughter’s wedding reception at their Beverly Hills home where she married Daniel Steen Fletcher, Jr. That night, their son, Ray, announced his engagement to Texas-born actress Martha Hyer. Unfortunately, Stahl did not live long enough to attend their wedding.”

Some of what she chooses to report is bewilderingly irrelevant. As a student at Berkeley, George W. Cohen, the future “Dean of Motion Picture Lawyers,” won the Carnot Medal for debate. “Baron Pierre de Cubertin established the Carnot Medal in 1894 specifically for debating contests between students of the University of California and Stanford. His one stipulation was that the debate itself had to center on contemporary French politics ... De Coubertin is also considered the founder of the modern-day Olympics.”

Pawlak is one of those writers for whom the screen is always the silver screen and authors don’t write, they pen. Her book is a trove of over-obvious observation (the actor Milton Sills “spoke four languages—French, German, Italian and Russian, which allowed him to read the classics by masters such as Tolstoy the way they were originally written” [54]) and dubious phrasing (Douglas Fairbanks fell for Mary Pickford, and “as their affair became physical, the situation got touchy”).

You might think a book conceived around the 36 founders of the Academy would give the reader some idea of what the institution does beyond handing out its yearly awards, but beyond a mention of a few of the original committees—nada. Given that the title sells its connection to those awards, you might also expect some discussion of them, but beyond a listing of the first recipients, in 1929, and scattershot mentions here and there—zilch.

The cover shows Audrey Hepburn caressing her 1953 Oscar for Roman Holiday. She’s never mentioned in the text.

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