Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Film & TV

Louis B. Mayer Created The Oscars To Combat Hollywood Unions

The Academy Awards have long served as a platform for activists to voice their discontent to an audience of millions — even if the Academy’s board hasn’t always felt positively about such stunts. Ironically, however, according to a March 1 Hyperallergic article by Rooney Elmi, the awards have nefarious origins: They were apparently created by Hollywood’s creative class to combat unionization.

During the 1920s, Louis B. Mayer (as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) was the most influential man in Hollywood. Like any respectable film studio owner, he wanted a private Santa Monica beach house. To keep construction costs low, Mayer hired MGM craftsmen — only to discover that, due to the studio construction union’s new labor agreements, costs would be higher than expected.

Mayer eventually found loopholes to keep his costs downs, but, as Rooney Elmi writes, came away fearing that “a powerful labor movement in Tinseltown would cause a domino effect and lead actors, directors, and others to also form unions.” So, wary of such unionization efforts, he crafted a plan to stop his laborers from fighting for fair pay and benefits: First, form an organization that would distract creative workers from starting their own union. Then, have them duke it out for awards that would distract them from the real award at stake – more negotiating power vis a vis the studio system.

In January 1927, 36 directors, actors, writers, producers, and technicians attended an invitation-only banquet at a Los Angeles hotel for “an emerging organization titled the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS),” Elni continues. At the party, Mayer told those gathered that if they signed on as members of the Academy, they’d get better working conditions and the prestige of being associated with an elite organization.

Ostensibly, the organization served to recognize creative talent. Yet, in reality, as Louis Perry writes in “A History of the Los Angeles Labor Movement,” the invitation-only nature of the Academy “kept control … in the hands of the few, so that it took on aspects of a company union.” By creating a trade organization that represented writers, directors, and other creative workers, Mayer and his powerful friends forestalled them from following in the footsteps of Hollywood’s construction workers and unionizing.

Mayer’s plan had an even more fiendish element to it: The awards-giving body of the newly-formed academy would serve to distract creatives from attacking their bosses by forcing them to compete more ruthlessly with one another. In Mayer’s own words, quoted in the Hyperallergic piece: “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

That’s right: the Oscars were created as a diabolical conspiracy to enslave the working class. Have fun at your watch party!

Sam Bromer is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact him at [email protected]com

Engage

  • Events

    Haart to Haart

    Virtual

    Dec 7, 2022

    7 pm ET · 

    A conversation with Julia Haart and her son Shlomo, stars of Netflix's 'My Unorthodox Life,' about the new season and much more.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.