“He looks just like my Uncle Oscar!” So said Margaret Herrick, the Executive Secretary of the Academy in 1931 when she first laid eyes on the statuette. Fortuitously, columnist Sidney Skolsky was within earshot. He memorialized the comment by including it in his byline, and the moniker “stuck.” To be sure, that sourcing is not universally accepted. For example, according to one of Bette Davis’ biographies, she named the statue after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. However, the Herrick story sounds like the most plausible, so I am going with it. In any event, the Academy adopted the name officially in 1939.
The Academy Awards, aka the Oscars, is hosted annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The winners of AAs are selected by the Academy’s membership. It is the oldest and most prestigious of the awards. This year’s awards will be presented on Sunday, February 28 . The host will be Chris Rock.
Some little-known facts about the awards:
- The initial awards were presented in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel before an audience of approximately 270 persons. This year, by contrast, the awards will be televised and streamed live to approximately 40 million people around the globe. Moreover, as has been customary, they will be preceded by a elaborate ceremony, which will feature celebrities parading before their fans, the media, and a television audience on the “Red Carpet.”
- In 1929 the award winners, 15 in all, were disclosed to the media three months ahead of time. For a few years, beginning in 1930, the winners were disclosed the night before. Since 1941, however, the identitities of the winners have been sealed in envelopes and guarded like the proverbial “crown jewels” until they are disclosed at the ceremony.
- Since 1950 the ownership of the statuettes has not been unencumbered. Legally, neither the winners nor their heirs are free to sell them on the open market without first offering them back to the Academy for $1. Their value on the open market would be substantial. For example, a few years ago, a pre-1950 statuette sold via on-line auction for $861,542.
- The voting membership of the academy is approximately 5,800, roughly 94% Caucasian, 77% male, and 54% over the age of 60. More on that later.
- In order to be eligible for the Best Picture Award, a film must be a minimum of 40 minutes long and must have opened in LA County by December 31 of the previous year.
- Other than Best Picture, only the members of each branch vote for the nominees in that category. For example, only directors nominate candidates for Best Director. The entire membership votes for the winners, as well as for Best Picture.
- For many years, the awards were presented in late March or early April. Beginning in 2004, however, they were moved up to late February or early March. The major reason for this was to shorten the intense lobbying and advertising campaigns of the Oscar season, which had become excessive. In addition, the late February-early March period is devoid of competing extravaganzas, such as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in late March, which has grown very popular. ABC, which televises the event, receives an additional benefit in that February is a “sweeps” month.
From time to time, some critics have accused the Academy of bias, for example:
- Favoritism toward romantic dramas, historical epics, family melodramas, and historical biographies (Shakespeare in Love, Chariots of Fire, the Best Years of Our Lives, Annie Hall) at the expense of action films or sports films. Often, these so-called “Oscar-bait” movies have won at the expense of more popular films such as Star Wars, Goodfellas, Hoosiers and Raging Bull. I have long felt that there has, at times, been a disconnect between the Academy voters and the general audience.
- Sentiment has, sometimes, led to awards for popular entertainers or those who have been denied in the past. Also, some awards have been given more for a distinguished career than for the most recent individual performance. One example would be John Wayne winning for his performance in “True Grit” in 1969. Wayne had been one of the most popular performers for three decades, but he had never won an Oscar.
- This year, the absence of nominations such as “Straight Outta Compton”for Best Picture and Will Smith for Best Actor in “Concussion” have resulted in accusations of racial bias. Critics have denoted the composition of the voting membership, as noted above, as being problematic. I’m not sure. Through the years there have occasionally been curious snubs, such as Eddie Murphy being passed over (in favor of Alan Arkin) for his superb performance in “Dreamgirls.” I did not see “Compton,”so I can’t comment on that. Smith’s performance was worthy of a nomination (although, which nominee would he replace?). However, I don’t believe those omissions are cause for protests and boycotts. I am definitely not in favor of a quota for nominations of minorities. As long as the nominations and Oscar voting are subjective, there will always be some that are overlooked. Our society is too PC as it is. Part of life is dealing with disappointments.
I would like to denote few puzzling choices for Best Picture in past years, cases in which the winning picture was soon forgotten and an also-ran or two became a classic or at least substantially more popular or memorable. For example:
a. 1977 – “Annie Hall” beat “Star Wars.” Unless you’re a big Woody Allen fan chances are you don’t remember “Annie Hall;” “Star Wars” was a mega-hit and spawned several sequels as well as ancillaries such as toys and games.
b. 1941 – “How Green Was My Valley” beat “Citizen Kane.” “Valley” has been long forgotten, and “Kane” is on many people’s short list of the best movies ever.
c. 1990 – “Dances with Wolves” beat “Goodfellas.” I saw “Dances.” It was a nice movie, but “Goodfellas” is a classic gangster film with an all-star cast (DeNiro, Pesce, Liotta) and is on tv frequently.
d. 1940 – “Rebecca” beat “The Grapes of Wrath,” a powerful drama about the Depression-era California migrant workers starring Henry Fonda, among others.
e. 1998- “Shakespeare in Love” beat “Saving Private Ryan.” “Shakespeare” was soon forgotten and is now no more than the answer to a trivia question, whereas “Ryan” was a classic WWII movie with an all-star cast headed by Tom Hanks and Matt Damon). Who can ever forget the classic D-Day landing scene?
f. 1946 – “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which few recall and is never on tv, beat “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is a Christmas classic starring Jimmy Stewart and which is on tv annually.
I could go on. In fact, I could write an entire blog on just this sub-topic, but you get the idea.
Finally, I know you are all anxiously awaiting my predictions, so here they are:
Best Picture – “The Revenant” with honorable mention to “Spotlight.”
Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne – “Danish Girl.” A long shot, but I thought his performance slightly edged out those of Di Caprio and Cranston. Di Caprio will likely win. There is some sentiment for him as he has had many outstanding performances throughout his career.
Best Actress – Brie Larson – “Room,” although I will be rooting for Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”).
Best Supporting Actor – Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”). Not known for his acting ability, but was outstanding in this role.
Best Supporting Actress – Alicia Vikander – “Danish Girl,” although honorable mention to Jennifer Jason Leigh – “Hateful 8.”
Enjoy the awards show as well as the “Red Carpet,” although I strongly recommend using a DVR to get through the many “dead spots.”