Oscar: The Story behind the Statuette

Oscars Statuette

Doing this post got me curious about the golden man. Is that really a sword he’s holding? The next logical step was, naturally, to turn to Google for help. The most interesting stuff I learnt came from this article:

In 1928, Emilio Fernández Romo, a former Huertista rebel who’d been exiled to Los Angeles, was asked for an odd favor. Could he pose for a sketch, in the nude, holding a sword?

Fernández—half Mexican, half Kickapoo Indian, and nicknamed “El Indio”—worked as an extra in Hollywood. He was, perhaps understandably, noncommittal. But his friend, Dolores, was asking on behalf of her husband, Cedric Gibbons, chief art director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In the end, Fernández agreed. Gibbons’ sketch became the basis for a small clay sculpture, intended to resemble a crusader with his sword. The sculpture was then molded and cast in metal 13.5 inches high.

  • The first Oscars were cast in solid bronze and then plated with 24-karat gold. After just a few years, perhaps in response to the Great Depression, bronze was replaced by britannium—an alloy made primarily of tin. Today, the britannium castings are electroplated with copper, then nickel silver, and finally the 24-karat gold.
  • Each Oscar statuette stands on a base resembling a five-spoked film reel. Each spoke symbolizes one of the original branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: directors, actors, writers, producers, and technicians.
  • Two actors have declined an Oscar: George C. Scott in 1970 (for Patton), and Marlon Brando in 1972 (for The Godfather).
  • Two actors have received a posthumous Oscar: Peter Finch in 1976 (for Network), and Heath Ledger in 2008 (for The Dark Knight). Both men were Australian.
  • The statuette’s official name is the Academy Award of Merit. The origin of the nickname “Oscar” is disputed. The earliest mention of the moniker in print appears in 1934, in an article by gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky about Katherine Hepburn’s Best Actress win for Morning Glory. Margaret Herrick, the Academy’s librarian, supposedly nicknamed the statuette on her first day on the job in 1931. She remarked that it resembled an uncle of hers, second-cousin Oscar Pierce. Actress Bette Davis also claimed to have nicknamed it—for her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. Whoever coined the name, “Oscar” was first used at the 1934 awards banquet, and by 1939 it had been officially adopted by the Academy.
  • After Vivien Leigh’s Oscar for Gone with the Wind was sold at auction for $510,000, the Academy instated a policy whereby an Oscar owner (its winner or inheritor), before auctioning the statuette, must first offer to sell it to the Academy for $1. If the Academy declines, he or she is free to hawk it. Several times, Oscars have been purchased by anonymous bidders, only to be returned to the Academy. Bette Davis’ Oscar for Jezebel ($578,000) and Clark Gable’s for It Happened One Night ($607,000) are two. Both times, the anonymous bidder was Steven Spielberg.
(c) Andreas Weber

(c) Andreas Weber

The Academy’s official site runs a page for the origin of the statuette as well, but it doesn’t mention El Indio.

Shortly after the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, the fledgling organization held a dinner in the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to set out its goals. Among the topics discussed that night was how best to honor outstanding moviemaking achievements and thereby encourage excellence in all facets of motion picture production.

Agreeing to institute an annual award, the group turned its attention to creating a suitably majestic trophy. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons designed a statuette of a knight standing on a reel of film gripping a crusader’s sword. The Academy tapped Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley to realize the design in three dimensions – and the world-renowned statuette was born.

Additional trivia:

Since the initial awards banquet on May 16, 1929, in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room, 2,809 statuettes have been presented. Each January, additional new golden statuettes are cast, molded, polished and buffed by R.S. Owens & Company, the Chicago-based awards manufacturer retained by the Academy since 1982.

Although the statuette remains true to its original design, the size of the base varied until 1945, when the current standard was adopted.

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