These were the first words Michael Schulman’s grandmother, Doris Lee, said to him upon learning he was gay. She followed it up with, “Whatever makes you happy.”
“And then the third thing she said was, ‘Do you want some of my chicken?’” recalls Schulman, with a laugh. “So it was the perfect interaction. It was the perfect coming out.”
Schulman waxes warmly when speaking of Doris, who, he says, “was a very glamorous, over-the-top kind of lady. She was absolutely great. She lived till she was 99.” A framed picture of Doris with Bette Davis, taken in the 1950s, hangs above Schulman’s dining room table.
“[Doris] was part of a Jewish organization called ORT, and I can’t remember the specifics, but Bette Davis was in a stage show,” he says. “It might have been The World of Carl Sandberg, which she toured in the fifties. And she had done something for ORT, like giving them tickets or helping them in some way. And so my grandmother’s presenting her with flowers backstage. You see the two of them, both in incredible makeup and fifties outfits — and they’re both very glamorous ladies who were fairly over the top. It’s kind of a gay man’s dream.”
The mention of Davis is fitting, seeing how the movie star factors into several instances recounted in Schulman’s extraordinary and comprehensive new book, Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat and Tears (Harper, $40).
“The Oscars are a battlefield where cultural forces collide and where the victors aren’t always as clear as the names drawn from the envelopes,” he writes in the introduction to Oscar Wars.
“The red carpet runs through contested turf, but it can take years to see what the real battle lines were…. If there’s a common thread running through the decades of Oscar wars, it’s power: who has it, who’s straining to keep it, who’s invading the golden citadel to snatch it. The Oscars are perpetually redrawing the bounds of the Hollywood establishment, pitting eminences against arrivistes, conventionalists against iconoclasts.”
A staff writer at The New Yorker, and a frequent contributor to its famed “The Talk of the Town” section, Schulman, who covers mostly celebrity culture and its impact on society, took four years to research Oscar Wars. The effort paid off. It is unlike any other Oscar history in print, rich with history, rife with insider stories, written with the kind of informal, confidential eloquence that has become a hallmark of the 41-year-old writer’s style. It is an all-enveloping look at, well… the stories behind “The Envelope.”
“‘Talk of the Town’ is what made me want to do any journalism,” says Schulman, during a recent 90-minute conversation that stayed fairly focused on the Academy Awards. “I never trained in journalism. I trained in theater. And the writers I loved in high school and college were these absurdist playwrights like Christopher Durang, Tom Stoppard, and John Guare. When I discovered ‘Talk of the Town,’ to me, they were like little one-act plays, and they were funny and absurd, but they were true stories.”
He joined the New Yorker in 2004 and “desperately wanted to write for ‘Talk of the Town,’” he recalls. “I pitched them a bunch of stories that weren’t quite right, and I didn’t quite know how to write in the tone of the section. But I learned and my editor, Susan Morrison, encouraged me to keep trying. And then I started writing for them in 2006. I think I’ve written almost 200 of them now.
“I don’t know how I find these stories,” he continues. “Sometimes they find me, but I think you have to have a certain eye for a very particular sort of irony and a particular sort of tone, and then you pursue things that might fit that tone. The stories don’t have to be connected to the news in some obvious way, but they do have to have a certain kind of worldview, almost. It’s like a benevolent irony.”
One portion of his book that was cut from the end product but which made its way earlier this year into the pages of the New Yorker recounts the story of Robert Opal, who infamously streaked the Oscar broadcast of 1974, surprising a seemingly unflappable David Niven, who was introducing Elizabeth Taylor, and getting a rise from an attentive nation. It turned out that Opal, who would go down in cultural history for his naked dash, would also become a notable cultural figure in the San Francisco gay scene of the ’70s.
“[Robert Opal] was like this gay zealot who was just in these interesting circles where he sort of brushed past the Harvey Milk campaign and exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe before he was famous,” says Schulman. “He knew John Waters and Divine, and then there was this true crime aspect at the end, of this guy’s murder, and the paranoia and conspiracy theories around his murder told you so much about the mindset of the San Francisco gay community in the late seventies, which had been through so many traumatic, crazy events…. It was a real window into that era of totally freewheeling, hedonistic, pre-HIV gay culture that is so much fun to revisit.”
For the purposes of our conversation, Schulman happily dives into all things Oscar, having covered the awards for the magazine for years, first via the televised broadcast and, since 2017, live from, he chuckles, “the cheap seats.” He was there the year Moonlight was robbed of its (initial) win by La La Land. And he was there last year for the Will Smith slap heard around the world. Somehow, though, our conversation never veers in the direction of the slap, staying more focused on the coming Oscars. So, if nothing else, Michael Schulman has a great story to one day kick off what we can only hope will be called Oscar Wars 2: More Gold, Sweat, Tears, and a Slap.
METRO WEEKLY: What’s the first movie that you remember seeing and the experience around that?
MICHAEL SCHULMAN: The Wizard of Oz. I watched The Wizard of Oz basically on repeat for the first five years of my life, according to my mother. So like every single gay kid ever since 1939, The Wizard of Oz meant a lot to me. I was just enamored with it.
MW: What was it about the film that caught you?
SCHULMAN: I don’t know. I was so little that I can’t even analyze it. Why does anyone love The Wizard of Oz? It’s absolutely transporting. It’s a brilliant fantasy and I loved the colors and the music and the story. I wound up reading all the L. Frank Baum books when I was a little older and played the Scarecrow at summer camp. It had a pre-conscious hold on my imagination, that movie. So I can’t really explain it. But I know from my mother that I just watched it over and over and over again for years.
MW: Do you remember the first movie you saw in a proper movie theater?
SCHULMAN: I have no idea what that would’ve been. I really don’t. The first movie in a theater… I have absolutely no idea. Sorry.
MW: Well, then, do you remember the first time you watched the Oscars?
SCHULMAN: Yes, that I remember very clearly. It was 1993. I was 11, and I remember that was the era of the Billy Crystal medleys. I remember watching and loving his medley about movies that I was far too young to have watched, like Unforgiven and The Crying Game. But I still thought it was brilliant and I loved musical comedy and I thought Billy Crystal was so funny.
I also loved the in-jokes. Why is the director of A Few Good Men not nominated? I mean, that reference meant nothing to me. But I just loved peeking into this world of Hollywood and celebrity. And I think that was probably one of the first times that I thought about Hollywood as a place and celebrities as people, separate from the fictional world that I saw in the movies. That these were all real people who got together and knew each other.
MW: Did you start making it annual appointment viewing?
SCHULMAN: Yeah, I would watch them every year. I used to go to Oscar parties in college and it kind of grew, because then I started covering them for the New Yorker when I was older. So I turned it into work, and then I could no longer go to Oscar parties because I had to really pay attention to what people were saying. Then starting in 2017, I started going to them in person to cover for the magazine. So now it’s an annual trip to L.A.
MW: Most of us have never been to them. I’ve covered them for work, but only from the television standpoint, never actually been. What is the experience of going to the Oscars, of actually being there?
SCHULMAN: Well, I was very wide-eyed and excited my first year, but there are a couple of strange aspects to it. For instance, the Oscars are at a mall. So you’re walking in and everything is swathed in gold curtains and covered in red carpet. And there are giant Oscars everywhere as you walk in. But then you’ll peek behind one of these curtains, to use a Wizard of Oz reference, and you’ll see a Sunglass Hut, because it’s a mall. It’s all a mall. And that was very strange.
Because I’m such a New Yorker, I think I can walk everywhere. So one year I actually tried to walk to the Oscars, which you just cannot do. I learned that the hard way because I wound up on Hollywood Boulevard trapped in a sea of people behind a chain link fence. I was the only person wearing a tuxedo. And I was standing next to this woman who had a sign that said, “Hollywood Elites Eat Babies.” And she was yelling at all the limousines coming in.
So I had to walk a mile basically around the entire crowd in order to find the entrance to the Oscars. So that’s how I learned you cannot walk to the Oscars. Once you’re inside, it’s basically like being in a giant cruise ship. It’s this multilevel theater with different lobbies on every level, and people hang around and sort of swarm at the bars outside. And you can only go in and out during the commercial break. So if you go out to use the bathroom or get a drink, you might get trapped outside and miss an entire segment. And that is why I did not see Bette Midler sing whatever best song nominee she sang a couple of years ago. I don’t remember which one. And I don’t remember because I literally could not get in to see it because I made the mistake of going to get some popcorn or something.
One thing that’s different is that when you’re at the Oscars, you’re kind of disconnected from what people are talking about on social media. So, for instance, the year that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sang “Shallow” from A Star Is Born and everyone on Twitter decided that this was a declaration of their very real love. I had no idea that that was a conclusion that people came to because I was just sitting in the balcony watching it thinking, “Oh, that was a pretty good performance.” And then you eventually realize that social media has gone off in its own weird direction.
What else? A lot of people go to the bathroom during the sound categories, I’m sorry to say to sound designers. And then afterward, everyone goes up these escalators, because remember, it’s in a mall, and then you wind up at the Governor’s ball where everyone is famous. You just look around and the people are eating chocolate Oscars and schmoozing. And you look at someone and think, “Oh, that looks like that guy.” And there’s no reason to think that it isn’t that guy, because everyone famous is there.
MW: Are you the kind of reporter who has no compunction about walking up to a famous person and just starting a conversation?
SCHULMAN: Yes, I’m very good at that. That’s one of my skills that I’ve developed through writing for the New Yorker. You can drop me anywhere and I can break the ice with people, and go up to strangers and talk to them, whether they’re famous or not. I mean, I’ve sort of had to do that, writing for the ‘Talk of the Town’ section, whether it’s going to a party or going to some event or talking to people on the street or talking to celebrities. So I’ve developed that muscle.
MW: Is there anyone you get starstruck by?
SCHULMAN: Very rarely, because I’ve been writing about celebrities for a long time, so I’ve kind of become inured to being starstruck. With notable exceptions. Meryl Streep is one. Or actually — this is going to sound very pathetic — but major governmental figures. I went to the inauguration balls for Obama in 2008, and seeing Barack Obama and Michelle Obama slow dance on the night of his inauguration, that was really overwhelming, because I think these people are part of history-history, not just popular culture history.
There are many politicians I am underwhelmed by. But occasionally seeing someone who’s a real historical figure in the making is exciting. And then, if there are people who have some deep presence from my childhood, it’s often very emotional to see them. For instance, I went to Into the Woods on Broadway a few months ago, and I was sitting directly behind Bernadette Peters. Now, I remember the exact moment that I first saw Bernadette Peters on TV on Into the Woods on PBS when I was nine or so at my grandmother’s house. And that just began a complete obsession with Sondheim, with theater, with her, with that show. It was such a formative event for me, that seeing her actually in the audience at Into the Woods was — I was completely starstruck.
MW: Did you say hello?
SCHULMAN: I did! At intermission, I told her how much I loved her in [the] role [of the Witch]. And she seemed quite pleased, but I didn’t keep her for long because I don’t usually approach celebrities as a fan.
MW: Are we too celebrity-focused as a culture? I mean, we’ve always been celebrity-focused, from what I can tell. But has it gone up exponentially, from your observations?
SCHULMAN: Well, I think now everyone considers themselves a mini-celebrity, which is very confusing. Celebrities used to be on this other plane where they were very far above us. And social media has really blurred the line between regular people and famous people. So, yes, I think it has changed. And there’s this whole echelon of semi-celebrities now who are just kind of attention-getters. I don’t want to sound like a cranky old man saying this — it’s just true. There’s influencers and reality stars, and I think anyone with an Instagram account or a Twitter account is performing as if they’re a celebrity.
So I think that line has blurred, and there’s certainly not the kind of magical stardust that surrounds these people in the same way. But I guess the part of celebrity culture I don’t like is just how social media can just spin things into fan fiction. If someone is having a whisper of a feud or an affair or something, people kind of lose their minds. I also really don’t like modern stan culture. I think stan armies have gotten really out of control, and I wish that people could take it down a notch and not go on the attack on behalf of their favorite celebrity. It’s pretty annoying.
MW: I only recently finally learned the origin of stan — it’s a blending of stalker and fan.
SCHULMAN: It also comes from an Eminem song about Eminem having a crazed fan named Stan. A stan is just a really intense fan. But a stan is also more than a fan. If you’re a fan of something, you really like it. But if you’re a stan, it becomes part of your identity. And so if someone comes for your object of idolization, you have to go on the attack and defend that person’s honor or reputation, and that can get a bit tiresome. I mean, I come across that as someone just who writes about celebrities. If you write about someone in a way that their most intense fans don’t like, then they come after you. So I find it very anti-journalistic.
MW: How do you cope with that, when people come after you?
SCHULMAN: I mostly ignore it because, as they say, don’t feed the trolls.
MW: I follow a ton of accounts on Twitter that obsess over Oscar predictions. And once the Oscars are done with, they’re almost immediately predicting what will be nominated the next year. It’s like a constantly rolling thing. Has social media changed the way we view award shows, the way we deal with the way things are awarded?
SCHULMAN: Yeah. The rise of Oscarologists is actually covered briefly in my book. You start to see it at the beginning of the 21st century, around 1999, 2000, 2001, with sites like Oscar Watch and Gold Derby. This was the rise of the blogosphere. And it also came on the heels of this very contentious Oscar race in 1999 between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, which I devote a whole chapter to in the book. The ugliness of that race really spilled over into the mainstream press. Like, Nikki Finke wrote about it in New York Magazine, for instance.
And so the kind of mechanics of awards campaigning captured the public attention in a way it hadn’t before. And at the very same time, the technology was changing and people were starting to write blogs. So you suddenly had a new class of Oscar commentators and prognosticators who covered the awards, not just the week of the Oscars, but throughout this entire season. And now it’s all year round. So the campaigns themselves became a cottage industry. But around that, the Oscar press also became a cottage industry of its own.
MW: These podcasts and websites seem to be evolving into a journalistic voice on their own, in the sense that a lot of them are now getting interviews, not with the actors and stuff, but with people like sound designers and editors. People who don’t usually get interviews in the mainstream press.
SCHULMAN: Think about it this way — the campaigns need places to campaign. So once you have every movie launching a campaign that lasts for months, they need websites to interview them and write about them and places to place ads. And so, the rise of the online media covering the Oscars coincided with bigger campaigns that needed, in a sense, receptacles to disseminate the campaign. So there is a kind of symbiosis between the campaigns and the Oscar press.
You have a certain kind of figure emerging that’s like the Oscar prognosticator or the Oscarologist. Right now, I think a lot of it is migrating to podcasts. There’s suddenly a lot of podcasts that cover award season. I listen to, for instance, Little Gold Men, the Vanity Fair podcast that every week has a very in-depth analysis of where the various awards races are headed. And there’s never a lack of stuff to talk about.
MW: All this campaigning. Was there ever a time when the Oscars were kind of — I don’t know — pure?
SCHULMAN: In a word, no. The modern campaign didn’t exist before, more or less, the ’90s when Harvey Weinstein invented it by campaigning very aggressively for Miramax movies. So Oscar campaigns weren’t always so expensive and so pervasive. But in the old studio system, there were other factors. Studios lobbied for their own movies and their employees could vote for the movies that their studio produced. So there were accusations of block voting and factionalism. That was from the very start.
I mean, you know how we talk about the unofficial lifetime Oscar — like if someone gets an Oscar for a performance that was not their best, but people feel like they’ve had a long, prestigious career and they give them an Oscar for a so-so performance. That happened in year two. Mary Pickford won the second Best Actress race for her first talkie, Coquette, which people generally thought was terrible. But Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in Hollywood and she had been very instrumental in the creation of the Academy and she won.
It was such a skewed sort of win that a rumor started that she had invited all the Academy judges to Pickfair for tea, and that’s that’s the only reason she won, which is a rumor. I think it started as a joke and then turned into a Hollywood myth. But there have always been factors besides merit.
On the other hand, what is merit? There is no actual way to rate the quality of movies like a barometer. That doesn’t exist. So there’s a fundamental sort of plot, the heart of the Academy Awards, which is that art can’t be ranked like a sports team can, and it’s always completely subjective. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of wrong decisions over the decades, but at the same time, there’s no such thing as the best movie of the year or the best performance of the year. It’s all just a bunch of people’s opinions.
MW: Do you watch other award shows with the same attentiveness that you do with the Oscars?
SCHULMAN: I usually watch the Emmys, the Golden Globes, and the Tony Awards, and I skip a lot of the others. I’m really not a pop music person, so I don’t usually watch the Grammys. This past year I actually went to the MTV VMAs because I was writing a story about photographer Kevin Mazur, who is the official guy for all these award shows and red carpets. So I was tagging along with him and shadowing him, and I went to those
But usually, I recap the Golden Globes, the Tonys and the Emmys for the New Yorker website. And I really like the Golden Globes, as troubled and crazy and unreliable and weird as they are, because everyone is drunk at them, and they have a kind of freewheeling atmosphere that’s much more informal than the Academy Awards. So usually some wacky stuff happens that’s fun to write about.
MW: The one thing I like about the Golden Globes that I wish the Academy would adopt is that they differentiate between dramas and comedy/musicals. I think that makes a tremendous amount of sense. I think it would be better served for the movies in general if they split the category, instead of doing ten best pictures. I miss the days when we had literally just five movies. I don’t even remember why they did it.
SCHULMAN: I’ll tell you, there’s a very specific reason, which has to do with Batman. In 2009, I think it was, The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture and that created a certain outcry. The Academy realized that superhero movies are very big and attract a big audience, and they wanted some of those people to be watching the Oscars, so they thought if we expand the Best Picture category to up to ten [nominees], it might allow for more big franchise-type movies to get in there.
By the way, the Best Picture category had been larger through the forties — it hadn’t always been five movies, but it had been for a very long time. So then they decided, let’s let more movies in and maybe we’ll catch a big blockbuster and that will attract more people to the show and please more people who work at the Hollywood Studios.
But it kind of backfired because mostly what happened is that more little indie films got nominated and we had a string of movies win that are tiny indie films like Nomadland. This year is actually the first year that I can remember when you had a bunch of big blockbuster movies get nominated for Best Picture like Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun Maverick, alongside tiny little indie movies like Women Talking and Triangle of Sadness.
So right now, it’s kind of working, but it has this idea that the Academy had to try to bring in more popular films. It’s always been tricky. A few years ago they tried to create a Best Popular Film category and everyone just ridiculed the idea so much that they retreated and never did it. I think the Academy, especially in this era of declining ratings, is grappling with how to include movies that the mass mainstream audience actually sees.
MW: The problem for me comes with the mismatch of directors. If you’re going to nominate ten films, nominate the ten directors. They rarely split the Oscars between director and film, so you can almost knock five films out of viable contention right there.
SCHULMAN: That’s right. It kind of creates two tiers in the Best Picture race, the ones that have a Best Director nomination and the ones that don’t. If we want to get into predictions, obviously Everything Everywhere All At Once has a really good shot. But I think if anything’s going to steal, it might be All Quiet on the Western Front, which does not have a nominated director. I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that Triangle of Sadness will win Best Picture. But Ruben Östlund is nominated, so I don’t know.
MW: I just watched Triangle of Sadness and I’m like, that was great, but how did it get a Best Picture nomination? It didn’t wow me in that way.
SCHULMAN: Oh, it was my favorite movie of the year.
MW: Banshees of Inisherin was my favorite movie of the year. So that probably tells you where my head is at.
SCHULMAN: I saw Triangle at the Toronto Film Festival with a big premier screening and I knew nothing about it. I think that was the key. I had no idea what was coming, and every turn it took completely shocked me. And I thought it was incredibly funny.
MW: So if we do a few predictions, who or what do you predict will win?
SCHULMAN: I don’t really live for predictions. My whole book is about how there are these deeper cultural meanings to the Oscars and the significance that lies beneath the horse race. But that does not mean that I’m immune to speculation. So I mean, I’ve been saying for a month that Everything Everywhere All At Once has a really good shot. And I still think the chances seem to grow by the day. So I think it’ll probably win Best Picture.
I used to think Spielberg would win Best Director, but now I think it might be The Daniels. Best actors are a really tricky one. My gut feeling is that Austin Butler will win because everyone seems to love giving Oscars to people who play self-destructive music icons. Best Actress is really the tricky one. I absolutely no idea if Kate Blanchett [from Tár] or Michelle Yeo [from EEAAO] is going to win. Ke Huy Quan from Everything Everywhere probably has Best Supporting actor sewn up. And then Best Supporting Actress is down to most likely Angela Bassett and Jamie Lee Curtis. And I’m getting the sense that Jamie Lee Curtis might ride this wave of Everything Everywhere. People seem to like her as sort of an industry veteran who gives very kooky yet emotional speeches. There’s also a small chance that Kerry Condon from Banshees might slip in there.
MW: Let’s talk about the book. What was it that made you decide that this is the book you were going to put out into the world, and how long did it take you to write? It’s such an exhaustive and unique look at the Oscars.
SCHULMAN: It was a big commitment. It took me four years, which was one year longer than I had — so I was a year late with it, but it was a ton of research. And I also have another very busy full-time job at the New Yorker. So that really slowed me down.
Coming out of my last book, which was a biography of Meryl Streep, one thing I wanted for the next one was to not write something solely focused on one person. I actively didn’t want to write another biography because it’s very strange to live your life waking up every day and thinking about the same person who you don’t know. I wanted something with a big cast — an ensemble cast, something that wasn’t so tightly focused on one person.
And so I came up with this idea of writing an Oscar book that wasn’t a lot of the Oscar books that exist. There’s a lot of books that are sort of yearbooks that tell you year-by-year who won, who lost, what jokes were told, what records were set. And I had just reported this story for the New Yorker about how the Academy was dealing with the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite I went out to Hollywood, interviewed the president of the Academy at the time, Cheryll Lu Isaacs, and sort of watched how the Academy was grappling with this racial reckoning.
And then, that year I went to the Oscars for the first time to cover them in person. I was there for the envelope mix-up with Moonlight and La La Land, which just seemed to me like this huge Hollywood twist ending on an epic tale of the culture changing. And it was all happening against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election.
So that’s where I got this idea that I wouldn’t write about every year, but I would choose about a dozen pivotal years that tell some larger story of cultural change. And it would end with this year of #OscarsSoWhite leading into the “Envelopegate.”
So I went back through nine-and-a-half decades of Oscar history, and looked for those turning points where I could take a really deep dive and hopefully make the reader feel like they were living, say, the 1942 Oscar race, in a way that was just as suspenseful and spontaneous and unpredictable and dramatic as the Oscars races that we experience every year in the present.
That was kind of the idea, and it came a lot out of my work writing long-form narrative journalism for the New Yorker. I wanted to create something like that, that was really immersive.
MW: Was it a challenge to research?
SCHULMAN: Yeah, it was a challenge. It was a challenge because I felt like in order to speak authoritatively about, for instance, the Oscars of 1942, I had to learn as much as I could about that era, whether it was how Hollywood responded to the outbreak of World War II or the making of Citizen Kane. So for every era, I really immersed myself in the history before focusing in on the microcosm story I was telling of how the Oscars reflected the times.
Going back to the very first year of the Oscars in 1929, I really fed my brain with a lot of history about silent cinema and the politics of the twenties and the beginnings of the studio system. In order to write about how Louis B. Mayer influenced the creation of the Academy, I read a 700-page biography of Louis B. Mayer to get to know who he was.
And so every chapter has a new cast of characters, and a lot of them are quite famous. I delved into biographies of these people and then tried to do original research and archives, like going to the Academy Museum in Los Angeles and looking through old letters and correspondence. Then in the later chapters, when people are alive, it involved chasing people down for interviews, and that is a cumbersome process of finding people, pitching the book to every new person, and getting them to talk to me. Just finding people is very time-consuming. So by the time I got to the most recent chapter, which is 2016, 2017, it was talking to people who were still active in the industry, and that’s a whole different skill than finding an old telegram from 1929.
MW: The book includes some notable gay content. Can you talk a bit about it?
SCHULMAN: So in the 1976 section — it’s about the 1976 Best Picture race — and one of the films is Dog Day Afternoon, which is obviously a very queer movie, it’s about this gay bank robber. I did a lot of research into the real guy, John Wojtowicz, who was a gay man who robbed this bank to try to fund his lover’s gender confirmation surgery — or what they called then a sex change — and he is a really great, interesting, wild character.
Then the eighties chapter is all about Alan Carr, who produced the infamous 1989 Academy Awards, which are remembered as the worst Oscars ever. This is the one with Rob Lowe and the woman dressed as Snow White singing “Proud Mary.” I remember it was this camp debacle, and Alan Carr is a fascinating figure. He was this very out and proud and flamboyant gay man in a very homophobic era in Hollywood, and he was known for wearing incredible caftans and throwing these bacchanals at his house in Benedict Canyon. He produced Can’t Stop the Music, which is a gay cult classic about The Village People. He produced Grease and La Cage aux Folles on Broadway, and he dreamt his whole life of producing the Academy Awards.
When he finally got the chance, he imported this San Francisco revue called Beach Blanket Babylon to put on the opening number, which was 11 minutes long and completely over the top and schlocky. And because Alan Carr had put his name everywhere and told all the papers for months — this is the Alan Carr Oscars — when it didn’t go as planned, everyone knew where to point the finger. And so his life was essentially ruined. It’s an Icarus story about this glittery, fabulous, gay man who loved the Oscars and then flew too close to the sun and just completely spiraled after that. That’s the gayest chapter in the book.
MW: For the New Yorker, you often write a lot of LGBTQ-themed profiles. With all of the attacks on our community these days, it seems even more important than ever to give voice to our community.
SCHULMAN: It’s obviously hugely important. I mean, I think it’s important to cover history and also people now. I’ve profiled a number of LGBTQ cultural figures. I write mostly celebrity journalism, but I think that you can find really important meaning in how people live their lives in public and how their audiences respond to that. For Troye Sivan, I really was interested in how he was breaking ground as a gay pop star. One thing that fascinated me with Troye Sivan was how so much of an audience was young women, and the dynamic between male pop stars and female fans was old and yet new in that instance. That was really fascinating.
I used to write for the New York Times style section a bunch and covered a lot of LGBTQ figures for that. Alan Cumming, John Waters, Justin Vivian Bond. I don’t really write about politics, although obviously the politics right now are extremely worrying and concerning — I write more about people, cultural figures, but I think that’s so important because the culture often leads the politics.
What is so worrying now, is that I remember six or seven years ago, writing about Trans people was so in demand and so embraced and important, and there’s been a really noticeable shift — even in the mainstream press in the New York Times — there’s been a backlash. And suddenly, you see all these articles questioning, what are we doing? Or should we be worried about this or that? And it’s really discouraging because that’s an agenda that has been set by the Right Wing and is almost laundered through middle-of-the-road mainstream media in the form of hand-wringing.
Should we be allowing Trans children to get medical care this or that? Should schools tell the parents when a kid comes out as Trans at school? Six or seven years ago, there was much and more of an accepting celebratory attitude. And I think, one thing that’s really helpful is to go back into history and look at how gay men were covered in the seventies and eighties and nineties, and see the parallels and to see how the hand-wringing from the supposed “middle” happened.
You realize that some of this stuff that’s going on in Florida now is further to the right than in the 1970s. And that’s very worrying. It’s worrying to see these ups and downs and realize that we’re never completely safe. There can always be a shift in the political tides. And if the Right Wing wants to use us as a lightning rod for an election season, or to some political advantage, they can and it’ll catch on, unfortunately. I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.
Five years ago, the Republicans, I think, realized that they couldn’t make any more inroads when it came to gay rights. And now they’ve seized upon panic around Trans kids and even drag queens. I mean, it’s incredible to think that Tennessee just banned public drag shows. I thought that RuPaul had made drag completely accepted and mainstream, and it’s unimaginable that drag, of all things, can be made controversial again. It happened so quickly.
And it’s very disheartening to see that essentially Trans people are the new “illegal immigrants,” in quotes. I would not use the phrase illegal immigrants, but they’re the new scapegoat of the season. What’s remarkable is how effective it can be if they just decide they want to choose a new victim.
Michael Schulman’s Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears (2023) is available wherever you purchase books, including www.amazon.com.
His book Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep (2016) is also available at www.amazon.com.
Read Michael Schulman in The New Yorker. Visit www.newyorker.com.
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