Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Dean Parker: Award for best union-basher ...

Amid the frocks and fawning of the Oscars, let us acknowledge their devious history, and spare a thought for the union movement the Academy tried to crush.

When the curtain fell on silent movies and rose on the 1930s, the only unions in the movie industry were one small craft union covering musicians, and an International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees covering electricians, carpenters, engineers and lighting technicians.

The talent -the writers, actors and directors -were unorganised. And that is how the Academy Awards came about - to keep it that way.

The Academy was the creation of Louis B. Mayer, studio boss of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Mayer wanted to emphasise the non-union character of the industry by creating a collegial Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, bringing together those who did the hiring and firing and those hired and fired.

As it still does today, the Academy honoured its members with dinners and annual affairs where it presented awards for the best films, best performances, best direction and best scripts.

But its principal role was to function as a form of company union.

My union, the New Zealand Writers Guild, is allied to the American Screenwriters Guild and the birth of that guild is a telling tale.

When silent movies gave way to talkies, Hollywood producers needed writers adept at something more than writing titles on slates.

They hired playwrights, novelists and journalists from those literate cities, New York and Chicago.

These writers brought with them a union background. They were writers like Dorothy Parker, who advised: "Looking to the Academy for representation is like trying to get laid in your mother's house. Somebody is always in the parlour, watching."

The writers were hired in bulk and worked as teams.

It's no coincidence that the unionisation of scriptwriters in New Zealand occurred in the same year as the launch of our first TV soap in 1975, when writers worked on assembly-line scripts, different writers providing different elements and discussing among themselves who was being paid what.

Meanwhile, as the Hollywood writers were being mustered into the writers' blocks at MGM and Paramount, the 1930s Depression was starting to bite. Studios took the opportunity for pay cuts.

There are accounts of Louis Mayer, sleepless and unshaven, summoning his vast workforce, standing before them hands held out in supplication, crying out:" My friends, my friends" and breaking down. Metro Goldwyn Mayer had run out of cash, it was the Depression, there would have to be 50 per cent pay cuts.

As he left he was seen to whisper to an aide, "How did I go?"

While those on individual contracts, such as writers, took the cuts, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees refused any claw-backs to its union contract. And it won.

All these elements came together into a struggle for writers' union representation.

In 1936, the mild-mannered Dudley Nichols caused a major shock when he refused to accept an Oscar for Best Screenplay (The Informer) because of the Academy's attempts to stop a screenwriters' guild being formed.

The wars continued, with the writers announcing a strike and the studios setting up their own company union, having lost the ideological battle over the role of the Academy.

Finally, in June 1938, the National Labour Relations Board ruled that under new legislation screenwriters could join the organisation they wished and producers had to negotiate a contract with that organisation.

Newly emboldened writers streamed out of the studio's yellow union and into the guild.

It was all sweet victory, deserving of its own Oscars: Best Site Organiser in a Leading Role, Best Supporting Role on a Picket, Best Chorus Line of Abuse ...

* Dean Parker is a member of the New Zealand Writers Guild and the Workers Charter initiative

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