By Jenn Thornton
The glitz, the stars, the showmanship—it’s all part of the Hollywood institution known as the Academy Awards. And yet, despite the boldface names and various ceremonial splendors we associate with the triumphant awards-season finale, things weren’t always so glamorous. In fact, in its infancy, the cultural touchstone was a bit of a well-intentioned ruse on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Launched in response to pressure to unionize the motion picture industry, the academy was founded in 1927 by a small band of film luminaries that included Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios’ Louis B. Mayer and the United Artists husband-and-wife duo Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. But it was more than a mere union-busting maneuver; the academy mediated labor disputes, self-regulated cinematic content to placate the censorship-enforcing Hays Office, and promoted technical advances in filmmaking. An offshoot of these efforts, the Academy Awards ceremony was founded to recognize cinematic achievement—but more importantly to provide prestige to a place that was once considered to be at the bottom of the social stratum: Hollywood.
Lights, Cameras, Action
Although it hardly reflects the Hollywood we know today, the area was suffering its own indignities at the time of the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.
“In the beginning, films were not considered an art form, but vulgar popular entertainment for the masses and for immigrants; it was not the high-class operation it is today,” explains film historian Joseph McBride, a former columnist for Daily Variety and author of 17 books, including biographies of directors Frank Capra, John Ford and Steven Spielberg. He adds that the ceremony functioned as something of a public relations campaign that helped elevate the profiles of both the city and the industry.
The first Academy Awards ceremony, hosted inside the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, was little more than promising—although its black-tie billing was an early forerunner of the sartorial excesses to come. Of the 12 awards bestowed that night—which were announced three months in advance—Best Picture went to “Wings,” a silent film starring “it girl” Clara Bow. The second year, the ceremony moved to the Cocoanut Grove restaurant at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and gave sound a voice: The ceremony’s maiden all-talk contender, “The Broadway Melody,” went on to nab top honors, while the banquet proceedings were broadcast via radio for the first time.
By year three, however, voting rules had changed drastically—1930 served as the first year that winners and nominees were voted on by the entire academy, rather than just a board of judges, setting the precedent for years to come.
Moving on Up
During its initial decade, the gilded statuette that’s become an emblem of the Academy Awards was officially nicknamed “Oscar” in 1939—although how and by whom remains a mystery. Some say it was the doing of actress Bette Davis; others insist it was the academy’s librarian Margaret Herrick, who believed it looked like her Uncle Oscar; additional credit is given to gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky.
Regardless, not every Academy Award winner had the chance to bring Oscar home. Up until 1944, supporting role nominees walked away with only plaques; if you were a film editor in the early years, the best you could hope for was a certificate. Meanwhile, juvenile performers, such as 6-year-old Shirley Temple, received Oscar in miniature. But by the time 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal met her prize at the podium in 1973, the child-sized Oscar was all grown up.
Over the years, the event itself also matured, with its ever-increasing stature necessitating a move from hotel banquet rooms to a series of larger venues, among them Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now TCL Chinese Theatre), the Shrine Auditorium and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which hosted 25 ceremonies. Today, after a decision by the academy to transfer the show closer to its roots, the star-studded event takes place at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
Along with periodic venue changes that add to the excitement, another aspect of the Academy Awards that keeps film lovers on the edges of their seats is the announcement of each year’s master or mistress of ceremonies. In the very early years, the academy presidents made the official awards presentations, but hosting duties have since expanded to bring well-known comedians, actors and actresses up to the podium.
When it comes to hosts, the academy has seen mixed results over the years—for every Johnny Carson there’s a questionable selection, like the odd pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011. But having emceed 18 Oscar ceremonies, Bob Hope is—quite literally—the host with the most.
“[He] set the standard for affably jokey masters of ceremonies,” notes Barry Monush, assistant curator at The Paley Center for Media. “[His] quips came from someone with savvy about the industry, but were not too poisonous to get anyone too upset.”
Adopting Hope’s funny but unthreatening tone, nine-time presenter Billy Crystal remains an Oscar favorite whose potshots and clever remarks—whether in reference to Jack Palance’s one-armed pushups at the 1992 ceremony or Dame Judi Dench’s underpinnings—birthed many classic moments to complement his witty opening numbers, movie montages and impromptu observations. Recent years have seen an appeal to younger audiences, with hosts including Seth MacFarlane and Jon Stewart. At press time, the name of the 2015 host remains under wraps, but speculations have included a few standouts, including Ellen DeGeneres, who would mark her third time hosting the event; Neil Patrick Harris, an Emmy Award-winning, four-time Tony Awards host; and “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey, no stranger to the Academy Awards stage, having taken home two statues himself.
Words to Remember
Though few can match Crystal’s spur-of-the-moment commentary, more than a few have tried—some even using the Academy Awards as a platform to espouse political views. The ceremony has never been immune to controversy, be it contentious remarks or regrettable (and now revoked) mandates brought on by McCarthyism of the 1950s.
If George C. Scott’s milestone refusal of his 1970 Oscar for “Patton” in statement against the Academy’s competitive awards was a strong argument for airing your grievances publicly, then it got a boost two years later from Marlon Brando. Along with boycotting the 45th Academy Awards—at which he was named Best Actor for “The Godfather”—Brando stirred the status quo by sending American Indian activist Sacheen Littlefeather up to the stage to inform a stunned academy that he was protesting the insensitive treatment of Native Americans on-screen.
“From that point on, winners took into consideration the vast audience watching, realizing they had one of the great public platforms in the world for voicing their views on all kinds of subjects, whether the movie they were winning for had anything to do with their gripes and issues or not,” Monush notes.
Politics aside, speeches of all lengths and tenor are part of awards ceremony territory. Among the most unforgettable came from Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1939 for her supporting role in “Gone With the Wind.” Sadly she was seated at a segregated table, apart from her fellow cast mates, when her name was called, but presenter Fay Bainter encouraged the entire nation to “stand and salute” McDaniel as she accepted the award.
“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” McDaniel said in her speech. “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.” Some acceptances, however, took on a much less serious tone—take David Niven, who, when caught completely surprised by streaker Robert Opel’s in-the-buff entrance at the 46th Academy Awards, composed himself long enough to make a perfectly timed joke at Opel’s expense.
Others still are noted for their exuberance: Overcome by her Best Actress Oscar for “Norma Rae” in 1980, Sally Field’s enthusiastic proclamation—“You like me, right now, you like me”—was matched years later by Cuba Gooding Jr. In 1997, the “Jerry Maguire” co-star accepted the Best Supporting Actor award with effusive expressions of love for everyone from Tom Cruise to James L. Brooks, and refused to be muzzled by an increasingly loud orchestra, roused to silence him.
From the memorable speeches to celebrity appearances, the Academy Awards remains one of the nation’s biggest celebrations of excellence and artistry in film. And although influences like independent film and robust marketing campaigns continue to affect Academy Awards outcomes, the ceremony itself is like a classic film—simply timeless.