The Oscar


Shortly after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was organized in 1927, a dinner was held in the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to discuss methods of honoring outstanding achievements, thus encouraging higher levels of quality in all facets of motion picture production.

A major item of the business discussed was the creation of a trophy to symbolize the recognition of film achievement. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons took the idea to several Los Angeles artists who submitted designs. Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley was selected to create the statuette - the figure of a knight standing on a reel of film, hands gripping a sword. The Academy's world-renowned statuette was born.

Since the initial awards banquet on May 16, 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's Blossom Room, through the 71st Academy Awards Presentation on March 21, 1999, 2,286 statuettes have been presented. Each January, additional golden statuettes are cast, molded, polished and buffed by R. S. Owens and Company, the Chicago awards specialty company retained by the Academy since 1982 to make the statuette.

Initially he was solid bronze; for a while plaster and today gold-plated britannium, a metal alloy. He stands 131/2 inches tall and weighs a robust 81/2 pounds. He hasn't been altered again since his molten birth, except when the design of the pedestal was made higher in 1945. From 1928 to 1945, the base (originally designed by Frederic Hope, assistant to Cedric Gibbons), was Belgian black marble. From 1945 to the present the base has been metal.

Officially named the Academy Award of Merit, the statuette is better known by a nickname, Oscar, the origins of which aren't clear. A popular story has been that an Academy librarian and eventual executive director, Margaret Herrick, thought it resembled her Uncle Oscar and said so; and that the Academy staff began referring to it as Oscar.

In any case, by the sixth Awards Presentation in 1934, Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky used the name in his column in reference to Katharine Hepburn's first Best Actress win. The Academy itself didn't use the nickname officially until 1939.
The Academy won't know how many statuettes it will actually hand out at the Annual Academy Awards Ceremony until the envelopes are opened on Oscar Night. Although the number of categories and special awards is known prior to the ceremony, the possibility of multiple recipients sharing the prize in some categories makes the exact number of Oscar statuettes awarded unpredictable. As in previous years, any surplus awards will be housed in the Academy's vault until next year's event.

"Casting the Oscar statuettes is our New Year's celebration," says R. S. Owens spokesperson Noreen Prohaska. "It's our first project of the year, and certainly our most prestigious. Though we could probably do it quicker, we take three to four weeks to cast 50 statuettes. It may sound silly, but each one is done to perfection and handled with white gloves. After all, look at the people who will be clutching it on Oscar Night."

Prior to 1949, the statuettes were not numbered. Since that year, starting with a somewhat arbitrary number 501, each Oscar statuette has worn his serial number behind his heels.
The 15 statuettes presented at the initial ceremonies were gold-plated solid bronze. Within a few years the bronze was abandoned in favor of an alloy called Brittanium, which made it easier to give the statuettes their smooth finish. Due to the metals shortage during the World War II years, they were made of plaster. Following the war, all of the awarded plaster figures were redeemed for gold-plated ones.
The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, and the Special Achievement Award are all Oscar statuettes. An Oscar statuette also may be presented as an Honorary Award.

Or an Honorary Award may take the form of a Life Membership, a scroll, a medal or any other design chosen by the Board of Governors. For example, a wooden Oscar statuette with a movable jaw was presented to Edgar Bergen during the 1937 [10th] Awards, for his creation of Charlie McCarthy. Walt Disney received an Oscar and seven miniature statuettes in 1938 when he was honored for SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. The Honorary Award presented to Jean Hersholt himself in 1949 for distinguished service to the motion picture industry was an Oscar statuette on a special rectangular base on which were inscribed the signatures of the members of the Academy's Board of Governors.

The Honorary Juvenile Award (no longer presented) was a miniature statuette, the Scientific and Engineering Award is a plaque, and the Technical Achievement Award is a certificate. The John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation is a bronze medallion.
The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award is a solid bronze head of Thalberg, resting on a black marble base. It weights 103/4 pounds and is 9 inches tall. The trophy design was supervised by Cedric Gibbons, and was executed by sculptor Bernard Sopher during the Fall and Winter of 1937/38.

But it is the Oscar statuette that is arguably the most recognized award in the world. Its success as a symbol of achievement in filmmaking would doubtless amaze those who attended that dinner 70 years ago, as well as its creators, Cedric Gibbons and George Stanley.
It stands today, as it has since 1929, all 13 1/2 inches, without peer, on the mantels of the greatest filmmakers in history.


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