Book review: ‘Bringing Up Oscar’ by Debra Ann Pawlak

Special to The Los Angeles Times

In a season where every upright consumer of pop culture is expected to have the knowledge to make a decent showing in their Oscar pool, or at least join in the dinner-party bavardage about who has the best shot at a statuette, Debra Ann Pawlak’s book “Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy” would seem to have a natural readership.

Although she does draw the curtain back on the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to reveal a cavalcade of greedy, feuding siblings — lecherous executives, pompous thespians, persnickety technocrats and zealous adulterers and their angry spouses — those searching for a satisfying history linking today’s Academy Awards juggernaut and the apparatus that was put in place in her book’s pivotal year of 1927 are likely to come away disappointed. What she offers is an often-redundant history of early Hollywood through the prism of the fledgling academy, all the while lionizing its members both legendary and forgotten.

Pawlak states her thesis early on: “What the business really needed was one united front where competitive factions could come together to resolve disputes, discuss industry-wide challenges and promote the film community’s positive side.” By the time, however, she is done presenting it as a series of mostly disconnected anecdotes interlaced with obscure personal histories — producer Harry Rapf is described as someone “who knew a good contortionist when he saw one,” but we wander along for several paragraphs before the then-vaudeville impresario discovers one Twisto the Great — the cumulative effect is something like being present at an accident in cyberspace, the figurative shelves of Wikipedia toppling to inundate us.

“Bringing Up Oscar”: In the Jan. 22 Calendar section, a review of Debra Ann Pawlak’s book “Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy” described actress Claudette Colbert taking a bath in donkey milk in “Cleopatra.” This scene occurred in the 1932 movie “The Sign of the Cross.” —

We learn reams of facts: that Rin Tin Tin died in the arms of his neighbor Jean Harlow and that Claudette Colbert’s bath in “Cleopatra” was in donkey milk, but encounter little of the research and insight that rewards in such landmark Hollywood histories as Thomas Schatz’s “The Genius of the System” or Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own.” Pawlak clearly had a sincere fondness for the film medium and its roots, and it might be easier to wink at the shortcomings in vision if her prose didn’t suffer from that Strunk and White no-no: an affected breezy manner. Although one is sorry to see Fairbanks with his entertaining vices being ushered out of Pawlak’s account around the time talking pictures took over, calling him “our hero” is sharing a bit too much.

There’s no pleasure in being a scold toward such an obviously earnest effort, but from the time Louis B. Mayer calls the 36 founding members together in January 1927, through the series of heart attacks that give the book a relentlessly funereal air as they die off, there’s a profound lack of supporting logic. (Certainly little for the book cover photo of Audrey Hepburn, who’s never even alluded to in the text, clutching her 1953 lead actress statuette for “Roman Holiday.”) What we’re left with is a series of sometimes-amusing, random images, like that of writer Bess Meredyth, bedridden with anomie and attended by nurses and a profanity-spewing mynah bird, but also with a nagging wish that all these Hollywood goings-on had been given a more coherent shape.


Schruers is co-author of Billy Joel’s autobiography, “The Book of Joel,” forthcoming in April from HarperCollins, and is a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone.