Q & A with Chris Strodder, author of The Academy Awards Book of Lists: An Unauthorized, Unofficial, and Unprecedented History of the Oscars, Part One and Part Two
1. What inspired you to write these two books?
Gratitude— I wanted to celebrate and honor an annual event that has brought me a lifetime of fun, fascination, entertainment, and memories.
2. How far back do those memories go?
I first watched the ceremony as a young kid in 1965, sitting in our suburban living room, happily munching popcorn alongside my family, and rooting for any movie I’d actually seen in a theater, especially A Hard Day’s Night. Every year since, I’ve eagerly anticipated the nominations, the awards, and all of the pre- and post-ceremony articles and photos. The people around me have grown up feeling the same way, and for almost sixty years now we have all been enthusiastically discussing the movies and the celebrities and the show. I’m proud to say I’ve never missed a televised Oscar broadcast.
3. How did you do your research?
I explain this in the Introduction, but basically I was keeping short, rudimentary lists about the Oscars even as a kid, and those lists expanded as I grew up. Attending UCLA, and working in publishing in L.A., I got to interview lots of stars, go to the studios and various events, and regularly visit the Academy’s headquarters and impressive library on Wilshire Boulevard. Naturally my interest in the Oscars only intensified, so I went from being an avid fan to a serious student. As I was working on The Academy Awards Book of Lists in recent years, I continued to read everything about the Oscars, plus I got help from the Academy’s own staff, and I interviewed actual Oscar winners and nominees. The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in L.A. is also a wonderful resource for information and inspiration.
4. How are your list books different from traditional history books about the Oscars?
A traditional history book presents a chronological exploration of the Oscars to show how the voting procedures have changed from the previous year, what unusual situations came up during that year’s ceremony, a few highlights from that year’s speeches, etc. Then the book moves on to the next year. So to fully appreciate and understand the history of all of these topics you have to read through the entire book. By contrast, my books organize 250 Oscar topics into fully developed themed lists, so you can read one comprehensive explanation of how the voting procedure has changed over the decades, you can see all of the controversial moments side by side, you can laugh at hilarious excerpts from speeches all compiled one after another, and on and on. No skipping through the decades or through hundreds of pages, because I’ve done that for you.
5. How are your list books different from other list books?
Many list books on a wide variety of topics—music, or sports, for instance—present facts in list form. A simple list of facts, however, is not wisdom. Consequently, my lists are all prefaced by paragraphs of explanatory text that add context and depth to the information that follows, so hopefully the reader comes away with understanding, not just data. The lists are used more for instructive storytelling than for basic collating. In addition, my lists aren’t my own preferred choices—that is, these aren’t lists of my ten favorite movies, or what I think are the ten best movie songs, or my choices for the ten best acting performances, etc. The lists are historical and objective, not personal and subjective.
6. While the books aren’t subjective, you identify the Greatest Movie of All Time and the Greatest Director of All time. How were you able to do that?
By applying specific Oscar criteria. These aren’t my choices for G.O.A.T., but they are the Academy’s, if you add up Oscar nominations, Oscar wins, and more. You might be able to guess the movie that ranks as the greatest of all time, Oscar-wise, but the greatest director might be unexpected.
7. Reading through the books, there’s a definite humorous tone in your writing. How did that come about?
Yes, I do introduce a lot of humor into the text. While the information is serious and factual, I always kept in mind that it’s a joyous movie award I was writing about, so I wanted to keep the tone light and celebratory. I didn’t want to be sarcastic or mean, I didn’t want to mock anybody’s well-intentioned fashions, I didn’t want to make fun of old movies that might seem outdated now. All of my nonfiction books, whether they are on movies or Disneyland or famous people, have that same amusing, affectionate tone that tries to balance playfulness with respect.
8. What will be surprising to people who consider themselves knowledgeable long-time fans of the Oscars?
I’ve been following the Oscars for six decades, and yet I was still surprised by some of the interesting bits of trivia that turned up. For instance, not everybody knows that David Crosby, the rock star, was the son of an Oscar-winning cinematographer, or that thirteen pairs of spouses won Oscars together for the same movie, or that before the very first Oscar ceremony all of the winners were announced to the public months in advance. Because the book covers every aspect of the Oscars—the long-lost venues where the show has been held, lighthearted moments that occurred during the broadcast, details about every Oscar category (including categories that are now extinct), and much, much more—there should be something on every page to surprise even the most passionate fan. Even if you already knew all this information, you can always study the vintage movie art that illustrates every Best Picture winner, those classic posters and lobby cards are pretty fun to examine.
9. What are you especially proud of in these two books?
That a dozen Oscar winners and nominees wrote their own text and lists for the two books. I reached out to these busy people and they graciously accepted my invitation to contribute their memories and opinions. It’s fascinating to see the classic movies an Oscar-winning art director admires, or the movie songs an Oscar-winning composer thinks are the best ever, or the movies that had the most influence on an Oscar-winning screenwriter. These are highly regarded experts in their fields, and so their observations take on extra significance. And all of them sure know how to tell a good story.
10. Your books came out in the late spring of 2023, yet you have the winners and events and quotes from the ceremony that was held in the early spring of 2023. How did you manage to get in everything that happened just a few months ago?
True, we scrambled to include the latest ceremony and the most recent winners (among them this year’s Best Picture, Everything Everywhere All at Once). Bear Manor Media indulged my desire to be as current as possible and so bent over backwards to coordinate the scheduling of the different departments to make sure we were up-to-the-second immediate with our information. Thus our history book really does cover a full century of Hollywood history, from the early 1920s right up to and including 2023. Fans of movies and the Oscars should be pleased.