The Lure of Oscar: A Look at the Mightiest of All Award Shows, the Academy Awards

By Barry Monush

As much fun as people get speculating on and watching the latest Academy Awards ceremony, another aspect that keeps the Oscars both fascinating and frustrating is the whole wild and weird history of the awards. Here we look back on their humble origins as a brief party for a handful of Hollywood insiders, their blossoming into a public event by way of radio and their transition on television into one of the most widely seen of all worldwide celebrations. 

 

The Greatest Show on Earth

Even for those who don't spend their lives living, breathing and consuming motion pictures, it's hard to imagine the world without the Academy Awards. When it comes to the countless accolades given out annually, the Oscars, as they are more casually and affectionately known, still reign supreme as the one that captures the public fancy more than any other. It's all very nice if you've picked up a Picturegoer Gold Medal, a SAG honor, or a People's Choice Award, but the Oscar trumps any and all of these, making anything else you've won seem like a poor second cousin. 

For 81 years the Academy Award ceremony has been available for public consumption to some degree or another (the first Oscar ceremony was not broadcast at all!), first being heard on a local Los Angeles radio station (KNX) in 1930 (covering the second ceremony for an hour-long broadcast starting at 10:30pm, Pacific Standard Time), on national radio beginning in 1933 (covering the fifth ceremony), and then, for their 25th anniversary, making the transition to television in 1953.

To say that they have grown in stature into a major event is an understatement. No matter how frequently naysayers try to tell us that the ceremony is dull, the nominations are too elitist and therefore of no interest to the bulk of the moviegoers who actually buy tickets, or that the ratings have dropped from previous years, there is no denying the media gives the Oscars a gargantuan degree of attention and the majority of us want to "be there" and watch it happen.

They did not start out intending to be a national—and then worldwide—obsession but they were always full of interesting occurrences and have brought forth an avalanche of trivia and tidbits of information to excite the show business fan in us all. Here are some highlights of Oscar over the years.


Members of the Motion Picture Academy gather in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for the very first Academy Awards ceremony, on May 16, 1929.



The many Oscar statues adorning the red carpet get spruced up for the big ceremony.

Winners Only

 

Cher displays an outstanding example of Oscar fashion run amok as she poses with Cocoon winner Don Ameche in 1986.

One thing a lot of people don't know about the very first Academy Awards ceremony ever held (on May 16, 1929, at a ballroom in Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, which is still there to this day, for those sightseeing on Hollywood Boulevard) was that everybody in attendance already knew exactly who the winners were. This is because there were no nominees, per se; the actors and craftspeople being awarded had been notified a full three months in advance of their being selected. Originally, the Academy's 230 members chose ten worthy entries for twelve different categories then asked members from their five branches (Actors, Producers, Directors, Writers, Technicians) to whittle each list down to three recommendations. These were handed over to a Central Board of Judges consisting of five members (one from each branch) who made the final selections of winners.

This meant that the "nominees" listed for years to come in reference books were not, technically, nominees but finalists. Outside of this bit of trivia, there were several interesting aspects about the ceremony right from the get-go.

Take the statuette itself, one of the most recognizable pieces of hardware in the entire world. It was designed by the head (1924–56) of MGM's art direction department, Cedric Gibbons, who used a fellow by the name of Emilio Fernandez as his model. Although Fernandez did indeed pose nude, one assumes that he was not neutered like the resultant trophy; or as Dustin Hoffman later remarked upon receiving his first Oscar and inspecting it closely, "he has no genitalia." Interestingly, Fernandez would go on to be a writer and director of Mexican films and of his many acting roles is probably best remembered for playing the treacherous General Mapache in the controversial Sam Peckinpah western The Wild Bunch. As for Gibbons, he would earn himself 30 Oscar nominations and bring home eleven of the little men he designed. Presumably, had he never won any, he could have whipped up a few of his own, from memory.

Most unbelievably, for all those critics who complain annually about the Oscar ceremony's excessive length, the handing out of the trophies (by hosts Douglas Fairbanks and Al Jolson) at the first ceremony took up approximately five minutes of time. The rest of the gathering consisted of windy speeches by non-winners that were done after the awards were received. How would critics and home viewers like to sit through that instead of what we've got today?

 

The very first winner of the Best Actor Award, Emil Jannings (The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command), was also the first no-show at the ceremony.

Also, there were, technically, not one but two Best Pictures winners. Paramount's aviation epic Wings won as Best Picture, Production, while Fox's moody fable Sunrise was named Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. Since the latter category was dropped the very next year, the Academy has made it clear that Wings is the representative picture for this first honor, not Sunrise, which seems rather a slap in the latter's face. Also, despite the time-honored assumption that a Best Picture needs a Best Director nomination in order to win, neither William Wellman, who helmed Wings, nor F.W. Murnau, who was responsible for Sunrise, were in the running in that category.

The Best Actor winner, Emil Jannings (for The Way of All Flesh and The Lost Command), became the first no-show in the history of the awards. He had already finished up his contract at Paramount Studios and, fearing his accent would be too unintelligible for talking pictures, headed back to his native Germany to resume his career there prior to the May 1929 event. Knowing this, the Academy gave him his statuette in advance. Jannings' decision must rank among the worst in the history of Hollywood, as he had chosen to go back and work for his country just on the brink of the Nazis' rise to power. Because he stayed on under their reign, rather than flee to a less politically incendiary country as did other filmmakers and performers, his reputation was tarnished beyond redemption. Jannings was finished in the town that had put him in the history books by making him their first ever Best Actor Academy Award winner. To add to his dubious achievements, The Way of All Flesh remains the only movie to contain an Academy Award–winning performance that is now lost, no print having been saved, apparently. Might this have been the work of angry industry employees making a statement against Jannings' pro-Nazi career choice?

 

Not Just a Flash in the Pan: The Oscars Grow  

In its first decade of existence, the awards would receive their enduring nickname, Oscar (credited to Academy librarian Margaret Herrick; actress Bette Davis; or Sidney Skolsky, depending on who you believe); had its first posthumous acting nominee (Jeanne Eagels for The Letter, 1929–30); its only Best Picture winner to receive not a single other nomination (Grand Hotel); its only instance of two ceremonies being held in a single year (April and November of 1930, in an effort to catch up); the first tie in an acting category (Fredric March and Wallace Beery in 1931–32); and the addition of the all-important Best Supporting Actor and Actress slots (in 1936).

 

Three acting winners from 1944 share in their Oscar glory: Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way), Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight), and Bing Crosby (Going My Way).

In order to maintain the suspense that has become the crucial reason for showing up or tuning in to the ceremony, the Academy did not announce the winners in advance of the second ceremony, but still released the list of winners to the press with the understanding that they would not be printed or mentioned until after the gathering was over. After ten years, this risky approach, not surprisingly, finally went awry, in 1940, when an early paper published the winners before the nominees entered the banquet room (the year Gone with the Wind swept the awards), causing the Academy to insist on the sealed-envelope format starting the next year, one that has been used to this day.

Oscar moved away from the banquet setting to an actual theater, starting in 1944. For their first such venue, Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard was chosen, diagonally across the street from the first locale at the Hollywood Roosevelt and next to the future spot where they currently take place, at the Kodak Theatre. This would also mark Oscar's first overseas radio broadcast, to allow service men to keep up with the festivities. As they were held on March 2nd, Jennifer Jones became the first (and to date only) performer to win the Oscar (for The Song of Bernadette) on their actual birthday. That year also marked the first time the Best Supporting winners got real Oscars like the lead honorees—prior to that they were obliged to take home a plaque. Perhaps the plaque would have been the safer bet for the following year's supporting actor winner, Barry Fitzgerald, who accidentally decapitated the little gold man soon after while swinging a golf club in his house.   

 

Oscar in Your Living Room

 

Two starlets get to the bottom of Oscar’s appeal.

When television entered the mix in 1953, it was principally due to the Academy needing money and finding RCA's offer of $100,000 for the broadcast rights very tempting. The movie industry was still smarting from the new medium's dominance over the public and was at first reluctant to make their big annual event so easily accessible to every outsider's eye. It was not just that hundred-thousand dollar check that swayed them, but the fact that this telecast could serve as a gargantuan box office generator for not only the winning movies but for the films of whatever stars showed up on the telecast. And to make sure that stars were available on both costs, the program offered a satellite hookup to the (now demolished) Century Theatre near Columbus Circle in New York, for those nominees who were not able to fly west to be seen at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. If presenters were not enough, the show promised quick appearances by twenty-some past winners as part of the entertainment. One of those scheduled to appear, two-time winner Vivien Leigh, was absent for good reason. Not only had the poor woman suffered a nervous breakdown days prior to the telecast, but while she was convalescing in the hospital her Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire was stolen.

It turned out that the broadcast was happy to have stars in any way they could get them. As far as many of the nominated actors were concerned, this extravaganza wasn't a good enough reason to leave a movie set or buy a new outfit for. And so it became the norm for years to come—if you had a movie to do, you stayed where you were, rather than jump on a plane to fly to Los Angeles, face possible rejection, and then return to your far-off place.

The first telecast ceremony took place on a Thursday evening, March 19, 1953, on NBC starting at 7:30pm Pacific Standard Time, which meant that those on the East Coast were obliged to tune in at 10:30 at night. The competition wasn't exactly strong, with a pair of game shows filling up the other network slots, I've Got a Secret over on CBS and Personality Puzzle on ABC. Following the latter, that network offered a panel discussion on yachting, so it's safe to assume that Academy wasn't sweating out the ratings results. The show, hosted by the ceremony's most frequent emcee, Bob Hope, was supposed to encompass a 90-minute period, but not surprisingly and not for the last time, went into overtime by some 15 minutes. Not that most people were aware of it. The networks had cut the telecast off around the designated 90-minute mark, shortly after Cecil B. De Mille picked up the Best Picture Award for The Greatest Show on Earth.  

Viewed today, its rather amusing to see how un-slick the whole 1953 evening looks, as several honorees and presenters seem a bit lost as to what they're supposed to be doing, and the cameramen have trouble focusing on what they should be focusing on. With so many nominees absent, there were no shots of who was in the running for the major categories. Indeed, when Gloria Grahame won her trophy for Best Supporting Actress, viewers got their first glimpse of her as she approached the stage to accept it. She was, in fact, the only acting winner on hand in Hollywood. Best Actress Shirley Booth (who tripped on the way to the stage) was across the country in New York, while the two male victors, Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn, were south of the border, shooting the same picture, Blowing Wild. Most of the winners in the technical categories timidly bowed their heads to the microphone, said "thanks" and were gone, a surprising contrast to the lengthy lists read in later years.

 

Don’t try this at home: at the podium, aerialist Philippe Petit celebrates the documentary Man on Wire winning the Oscar in a most unusual way.

And did television audiences go for it? In a big way, to put it mildly. Billed officially as The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 25th Annual Academy Awards, the telecast not only throttled those game shows in the same time slot, but won its night, its week, and the entire 1952–53 television season. What's more, when the Nielsen ratings were tabulated, NBC realized that the first televised Oscar show had brought in the largest number of viewers for any program ever up to that time in the medium's brief history. There was no question that television wanted to be a part of the Oscars, very, very badly; that the celebrity-hungry viewers couldn't get enough of the starry line-up, no matter if select luminaries had chosen to stay away. Now everyone could experience the unexpected moments, the tension, the endless waiting, the dresses, and the musical entertainment that ran the gamut from delightful to ghastly.

A good example of the delightful came in 1958, when Mae West made a rare small screen appearance cooing the Oscar-winning "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to Rock Hudson, bringing down the house and quickly making this one of the great moments in Academy telecast history (see the video below). In contrast, the very next year, Oscar uncharacteristically ran short by twenty minutes, prompting host Jerry Lewis and conductor Lionel Newman to encourage the all-star ensemble that had gathered on stage to keep singing "There's No Business Like Show Business." This turned into a bizarre spectacle of famous stars paired off dancing in a desperate effort to fill time and keep home viewers entertained. No-show nominee Spencer Tracy, watching from home, later asked, "My God, have we fallen to this?" Little did he know the depths the telecast would stoop in the years to come.

 

The Highs and the Lows

 

Last year’s Best Actor winner, Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), strikes a familiar pose done by many previous honorees, holding the little gold man aloft in victory.

 

One of the most notorious moments in Oscar history found a “streaker” upstaging cohost David Niven in 1974.

 

The future Oscars would bring forth angry political diatribes during acceptance speeches (most famously Vanessa Redgrave's nose-thumbing to protestors who did not like her pro-Palestine stance), a nude man disrupting David Niven's moment at the podium, many chaotically miscalculated production numbers, and not one but two Best Actor winners (George C. Scott and Marlon Brando) making it known that they were not accepting their awards.   

The producers behind the telecasts never did seem to find a comfortable niche, going for both kitsch and snarky self-effacement; playing up the nostalgia at times and just as often making sure to cash in on the hot young celebrities to the exemption of past contributors. Many industry people have fallen all over themselves to get an invite, have proudly trumpeted their wins and nominations, while others have trashed the whole idea of competitive awards until they themselves were honored, suddenly being humbled by the attention.  

It appears that the easiest way to assure the public that winning an Academy Award has not gone to your head is to tell reporters that you keep it in your bathroom, something that a remarkably large number of winners have claimed, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, and Kate Winslet. Each has pretty much given the same reason for its location—allowing guests to vicariously live the moment of holding one without having to make a show of it in front of the actual winner. One only hopes that they all did this before they went about their intended business, and with the lid down. In any event, no matter where the actual statuettes end up, and no matter how quickly most viewers forget the results after its all over, there appears to be no end to the lure and the mystique of the 13.5 inch, 8.5 pound naked gold man.

ACADEMY AWARD(S)®, OSCAR(S)®, OSCAR NIGHT® and OSCAR® statuette design mark are the registered trademarks and service marks, and the OSCAR® statuette the copyrighted property, of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.