This History of the Oscar

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927 and although Hollywood had been making movies for a few years prior to that, actors, actresses, directors and other studio workers had not been lauded for their efforts in the industry. All that changed on May 16, 1929 with a banquet held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. That’s when golden statues were given to Hollywood’s finest in several categories of merit. MGM Studio’s art director Cedric Gibbons designed the award, rumored to have been based on a nude pose by actor Emilio Fernandez; local artist George Stanley then sculpted the statue.

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Officially known then as the Award of Merit, the origin of the statue’s nickname has never been determined. The best-known story (and perhaps the most-accepted) is that then-Academy librarian Margaret Herrick remarked that the statue looked like her uncle Oscar. Other possibilities were that Bette Davis saw its resemblance to her husband or that someone made a joke at the expense of the Academy. However it got its moniker, the statue was known as “Oscar” as early as 1934, with the Academy officially embracing the name in 1939.

The Oscar is a tasteful statue of a nude man with a crusader’s sword in his hands, standing on a film reel with five spokes, each spoke representing the five branches of moviemaking: directors, actors, writers, technicians and producers. A number is etched at the base, otherwise, they are all identical.

Over the years, the basic design has gone through some changes. At the first ceremony, the statues were made of gold-plated bronze in Illinois. By the late 1930s, they were crafted from an alloy called Britannia metal and covered in 24-karat gold. In 1937, in a cute, but quite unusual break from the norm, Walt Disney received seven tiny honorary awards for his movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For three years during World War II, the statues were made of plaster and exchanged for gold-plated metal awards at war’s end. While the size of the base was changed many times prior to 1945, Oscar is otherwise still basically the same handsome guy he’s always been.

Today, the statues are again made of Britannia metal with a covering of 24-karat gold, crafted in Chicago by R.S. Owens and Co., a firm that’s made the award since 1982. Like he’s been since his birth in 1929, Oscar is 13 ½ inches high, weighs a hefty 8 ½ pounds. Each year, a few extras are made since the Academy doesn’t know how many will be needed until the envelopes are opened.

Officially, since 1950, the award is not allowed to be tendered for sale on the open market without first offering it to the Academy for a token price. But it’s a safe bet that most of the nearly 3,000 coveted Oscars presented over the last 87 years are still in the possession of their original owners and heirs.