Oscars, COVID and Pearl Harbor: Awards in Times of Uncertainty

Tim Gray
·3-min read

The central question of this awards season: Will the Oscar ceremony take place April 25 as announced? This decision will affect hundreds of people and millions of dollars. Oscar is the alpha dog and that one evening has a ripple effect on every other year-end kudos, similar to the scrambling when Oscar shifted dates in 2003 and again this year.

Gut instinct says yes, of course the ceremony will happen, but maybe in a different format. The bad news: If history
is any indication, we may not know for a long time.

Throughout the decades, no major awards show — Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Tonys, et al. — has been totally canceled. There have been three Oscar postponements, in 1938, 1968 and 1981. But in each case, it was just a matter of a few days.

For 2020 voting and awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences execs have several options — but in terms of a telecast, ABC is in the driver’s seat.

One possible template was the Golden Globes of Jan. 8, 2008. Due to the Writers Guild strike, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. held a ceremony without stars or glamour; it lasted 35 minutes. But the results were telecast on NBC and afterward, everybody simply moved on.

This year’s Emmys offered other possibilities: It was a fast-moving show, centered on interaction with quarantined nominees at home. Oscars could have a fun pre-show alternative to “Who are you wearing?” by looking at the nominees’ surroundings: “Who are you sitting on?”

Probably the closest parallel to the Oscar dilemma occurred after the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor bombing. That was a dire time and awards decisions were based on daily news developments, with uncertainty and confusion.

A brief timeline:

Dec. 8, 1941: AMPAS prez Bette Davis confirmed the 14th annual awards ceremony would be held Feb. 26, 1942.

Dec. 18: Change in plans: Variety’s banner announced “Academy Dinner Called Off.” The story said voting would proceed but Acad execs would devise “some other method” of presenting Oscars instead of the banquet because “the outstanding film achievements of the past year should not go unrewarded.”

Dec. 31: Another reversal: Variety reported the banquet appeared “a certainty.”

Jan. 5, 1942: AMPAS officials insisted the evening was indeed canceled: Variety reported, “The Academy officers were plenty burned (because) someone talked out of turn” and gave out wrong info. As a side note, board member Darryl F. Zanuck was distressed because he’d invited 1940 presidential nominee Wendell Willkie to be guest of honor and Willkie had rearranged his schedule accordingly. Awkward …! Even more awkward: other board members said they hadn’t known about Zanuck’s invitation.

Jan. 6, 1942: Zanuck told Variety that the board did approve the idea of Willkie before the invitation went out.

Feb. 2, 1942: Walter Wanger — the new Academy president after Bette Davis resigned amid all the confusion — confirmed the event would be held Feb. 26, at the Biltmore Bowl. The event was “strictly informal and without dancing,” as Variety reported. And yes, to end your suspense, Willkie did speak. And yes, Herman Mankiewicz (aka Mank) and Orson Welles won for the “Citizen Kane” screenplay, but otherwise “How Green Was My Valley” was the big winner.

The weeks following Pearl Harbor were a time of tension and confusion. Decisions were made, minds were changed, tempers rose. We are living in another time of tension and confusion, so it’s realistic to expect similar reactions. AMPAS and ABC may make decisions, and may reverse themselves — maybe more than once. They’re entitled.

Awards center on two factors, both important to Hollywood: ego and money (not necessarily in that order). So hold on, because there may be a lot of plot twists on the road to 2020 Oscars. But let’s assume they’re happening: As AMPAS said in 1941, “film achievements of the past year should not go unrewarded.”

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