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Image of Walt Disney and Shirley Temple at the Oscars.
Shirley Temple presenting Walt Disney with a special honorary Oscar for his 1937 cartoon 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.'

How Art Shapes Our Lives: The Oscar

By Sal Maccarone

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was the idea of Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957), head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM.) Mr. Mayer felt that the organization would lend respectability and status to the movie industry, the reputation of which had been tarnished during the Roaring Twenties. So on May 4, 1927, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was formed to raise the cultural, educational, and scientific standards of filmmaking as a whole.

An Academy Award is an honor bestowed by the AMPAS that recognizes excellence in one of the many aspects of the film industry. Nominated directors, actors, and writers gather in great anticipation each year in the hopes of winning an “Oscar”, officially known as the “Academy Award of Merit.”

The formal ceremony where all this takes place is televised live in more than 100 countries and watched by more than 60 million viewers. The first Academy Award ceremony, honoring the 1927-28 film season, was held on May 16, 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The date for the upcoming 93rd Academy Award ceremony, which will honor 2020 films, has recently been moved up and will be broadcast on ABC on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

 

 

An actual Oscar statuette is a thirteen-and-a-half inch tall, eight pound image of a knight clutching a crusader’s sword while standing on a five-spoke film reel. Each spoke of the wheel is meant to represent one of the original branches of the Academy, including Actors, Writers, Directors, Producers, and Technicians. Elegantly rendered in the Art Deco style, each Oscar is cast in a gold-plated tin and copper amalgam.

 

The statuette’s design was the charge of Cedric Gibbons (1893-1960), who was an original member of the Academy, and the art director at MGM. Actor Emilio Fernandez (1904-1986) was talked into posing as the nude model. Sculptor George Stanley (1903-1970) then rendered his vision in clay, and that in turn was used to make a mold.

The first casting from that mold was done in 1928 at the C.W. Shumway & Sons Foundry in Batavia, IL. Interestingly, Cedric Gibbons went on to become an eleven-time recipient of his own creation.

How Oscar happened to acquire his name is still the subject of much debate. Legend has it that while studying the statue the Academy librarian, Margaret Herrick, chanced to remark, “Why, he resembles my Uncle Oscar” just as a news reporter [who coined the phrase] happened to walk by.

Just as likely is the competing story that Bette Davis named it after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. There are other claims as well! Whatever the case may really be, the trophy was officially dubbed the “Oscar” in 1939, the nickname stuck, and people have been comfortable using it ever since.

Quite valuable in their own right, the Oscar statuettes are awarded with one stipulation attached. Beginning in 1950, neither the winners, nor their heirs are allowed to ever sell an Oscar privately. The academy reserves the first right of refusal to buy an Oscar back at the hefty cost of one dollar. Early Oscars that are not protected by this agreement have been known to sell for incredible sums.

salmaccarone.com

 

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