Oscar: The Story Behind the Statuette

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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. And since 1929, gold-plated statuettes of “El Indio” have been given to actors, actresses, directors, and film production crew members every year at the Academy Awards. They are the Oscars, and they still have the sword.

Some things you may not know:

  • One Oscar statuette weighs 8.5 pounds, about as much as a gallon of milk.
  • 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.
  • For three years during World War II, Oscars were made of plaster due to a metal shortage. (To give you an idea of the extent of the shortage, in 1943, pennies were made of steel.) In later years, the recipients of these plaster Oscars were allowed to trade them in for the metal kind.
  • 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.
  • As of February 2009, 2,744 Oscar statuettes have been awarded.
  • Walt Disney holds the record for most Oscar wins—26. Most were awarded in the category of Best Short Subject: “Cartoons.” (One notable win is his 1943 award for ” Der Fuehrer’s Face,” an 8-minute anti-Nazi propaganda piece starring Donald Duck, with music by Spike Jones. The award, of course, was plaster.)
  • The next-highest number of Oscars went to costume designer Edith Head, who was awarded eight times for her work, including All About EveRoman Holiday, and The Sting.
  • 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.
  • Only one statue has been stolen. In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg shipped her Oscar (won for her role in Ghost) by UPS, to have it cleaned. The box arrived at R.S. Owens & Co. (the maker of the award) empty. The Oscar was later discovered in a garbage can in an Ontario airport, and returned to Goldberg.

You might be interested to know Emilio Fernández Romo went on to direct dozens of acclaimed movies in Mexico. His most famous appearances in American film are in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Fernández had the unique experience of seeing both movies nominated for statuettes of himself.

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