The 'Oscars' - The Academy Awards Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 'Oscars' - The Academy Awards

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The 'Oscars' are the most prestigious of all the annual awards for moviemakers. The reason for this, apart from being one of the longest running, is that they are awarded by a great number of the peers of those nominated, who together form the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, or 'The Academy'). These awards are held annually in Hollywood which is supposedly the home of film making (although don't tell that to Cannes - where the European film awards are held - or India - the largest production centre of movies in the world, often affectionately known as 'Bollywood'). In a city where movie making is the main industry, it is not too surprising that all attention is focused on the run and rewarding of the best of the year. So what is all the hype about?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

A look at the history of the body responsible for nominating, voting and awarding the little gold statuettes that are a world famous symbol shows how the awards have grown from a small industry event to the biggest show on earth.

The Academy is a body of honorary members from all fields of the motion picture industry. Membership in the Academy is by invitation from the Board of Governors and is limited to those who have achieved distinction in the Arts (the acting, writing and direction of films) and Sciences (the technical skills cinematography, editing or sound) of motion pictures, hence the title of the organisation. Criteria for membership are either a catalogue of film credits reflecting the high standards of the Academy, receipt of an Academy Award nomination, achievement of a unique distinction, earning of special merit, or making an outstanding contribution to film. There are currently over 6,000 members of the Academy.

The Academy was first organised in May 1927 with only 36 members. These were drawn from the executives and stars of the time. The list of Academy presidents reads like a who's who of film, the first being Douglas Fairbanks Senior, with others including William deMille (brother of legendary director Cecil B deMille), Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Walter Mirisch and Karl Malden. Sid Ganis currently holds the Presidency1.

The Academy Awards

The public face of the Academy is the annual awards ceremony for outstanding achievement. These awards were first handed out in May 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The suspense and security teams guarding the results we are used to today were not in evidence back then. In fact in the pre-television age the Newspapers had notice of the winners at 11pm the night before the awards so they could print them on the evening of the ceremony.

From the Blossom Room, the awards continued to be banquet affairs at the Roosevelt, Ambassador or Biltmore Hotels. But by 1942 the hotels were no longer big enough to host the ceremony so the Awards moved into the theatres of Los Angeles, first to Grauman's Chinese Theatre2 in 1943. This was also the first ceremony to be broadcast across the nation on radio and overseas to the GIs in Europe and the Far East.

In 1947 the ceremony moved to the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, while the 21st awards were held in March 1949 at the Academy's own Melrose Avenue Theatre. There then followed a ten-year stint at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. This venue made history on 19 March, 1953, when the awards were televised for the first time on NBC. In 1961 the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium took over the hosting honours and ABC the broadcasting of the event. It was here in 1966 the full effect of Oscar's golden glow was first seen by the nation as for the first time the ceremony was broadcast in colour - nearly 40 years after the first Technicolor films were produced.

From 1969 until 1986 the awards were presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Centre of Los Angeles County (in fact the 1969 awards were the first major event of any kind at this now world-renowned venue). Then for two years the ceremony returned to the Shrine Auditorium. For a time, the ceremony alternated between the Dorothy Chandler and the Shrine. The larger Shrine with its 6,000 seats was ideal for accommodating all the members of the Academy who wish to attend. As there are only 2,500 at the Dorothy Chandler, the events there had a more homely atmosphere.

Since 2002, the awards have been back in Hollywood Boulevard, next door to Mann's Chinese Theatre, in a new venue, the purpose-built Kodak Theatre, which is part of the new Hollywood and Highland development.

The Hype of the Ceremony

Outside the theatre in which the award ceremony is held (located alongside the red carpet on which the members of the Academy and the nominees will pass in their tuxedoed and evening gowned best), there are now traditionally two groups vying for position. The first is the world's media, trying to get a word from each of the contenders on their way into the theatre so that they will have something to show on their coverage and news programmes to justify the bill for their evening dress for the evening. Secondly the queue will have formed days in advance for the seats in the bleachers which are given to the general public on a first-come basis. These are prestige seats for anyone who is not a member of the Academy despite the fact that all they will see is the stars exiting their limousines and processing along the carpet and into the sanctity of the theatre having negotiated the media scrum.

Since the nominations were announced, the top designers and jewellers will have been plying their trade for the actresses and actors' wives or girlfriends to be clothed in their latest fashion. The actresses who are up for the Best Actress award will understandably be given almost free range from all the top designers and many will not make a final decision until the last few hours before they leave their hotel to be chauffeured to the ceremony. Some top designers have been known to suddenly offer dresses rejected by one actress to another at the eleventh hour. One of the most-asked questions along the red carpet on the way into the ceremony (after 'Who do you think will win?') is 'Who is your designer?' Some of the men in recent years have chipped in with the name of the designer of their suit before their partner or co-star can get their own name out.

The Voting System

Every member of the Academy is entitled to vote in their area of specialism and expertise. Films that are eligible are any that have been shown on a Los Angeles screen before 31 December of the year preceding the awards ceremony. This leads to a rush of films having special screenings and premieres in the month of December to ensure they achieve the cut off date before going on general release. Once a film becomes an eligible contender, the real business of getting recognised by the voters gets under way. The one category open to every member of the Academy to vote for is the Best Picture category.

Members of the Academy are treated to showings and possibly even early video copies of the films they are eligible to vote for. Posters and adverts in trade newspapers and magazines start to proclaim that films have already been nominated for other awards, while others simply act as gentle (but expensive) reminders to the Academy, usually headed with the words 'For your consideration'.

The Secrecy of the Awards

Since 1941 the actual identity of the winners has been the most closely guarded secret in Hollywood. This followed the debacle of 1940 when anyone who entered the venue could have garnered the results from the first edition of the Los Angeles Times, which was available just before the ceremony began. The winners and the press had also been notified in advance, the former to prepare their speeches and the latter to prepare their reports.

Now the winners' names are such a closely guarded secret that they are held in the vault of an accountancy firm3 under the supervision of a security firm. The resulting tension is now of great importance to our televisual age, and the five cameras focused on all the nominees have captured some genuine moments of surprise, disappointment, anger and joy.

The Oscar Statuette

At 35 centimetres (13.5 inches) and plated in 24-carat gold the Oscar is the most yearned for award in film making. The statue depicts a knight, holding a crusader's sword, standing on a reel of film. The film reel features five spokes, signifying the five original branches of the Academy (producers, directors, actors, technicians and writers). Cedric Gibbons (MGM's chief art director) designed the statuette in 1928; his assistant, Frederic Hope, designed the base, originally in Belgian black marble. The artist George Stanley sculpted the design while the California Bronze Foundry cast the first batch of bronze statuettes.

Until 2001, 2,365 Oscars have been awarded, with the initial 13 categories growing to more than 20 today. However, the name 'Oscar' wasn't officially adopted until the 1939 ceremony. The rumour behind how it got its name is that the Academy librarian Margaret Herrick thought the statuette bore an uncanny resemblance to her Uncle Oscar and so the in-joke with the staff at the Academy was to name it Oscar. The name was first used in print by columnist Sidney Skolsky to describe the first of Katherine Hepburn's wins for Best Actress in 1934.

One major scare to hit the Academy Awards was in 1999 when 53 of the little golden figures went missing, suspected of being stolen. They were later retrieved from a rubbish cart days before they were to be presented. Duplicates had been hastily prepared in the intermission just in case the ceremony would have to proceed without the usual sparkle on the podium.

The First Awards

From the archives, here are the winners from the first awards ceremony, held on 16 May, 1929, which covered films made during 1927-1928.

  • Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production) - Sunrise

  • Best Picture (Production) - Wings

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role - Emil Jannings for The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh

  • Best Actress in a Leading Role - Janet Gaynor for Seventh Heaven , Street Angel and Sunrise

  • Best Director (Comedy) - Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights

  • Best Director (Drama) - and Frank Borzage for 7th Heaven

  • Art Direction - William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and Tempest

  • Cinematography - Charles Rosher, Karl Struss for Sunrise

  • Screen Play (Adaptation) - Benjamin Glazer for 7th Heaven

  • Screen Play (Original Story) - Ben Hecht for Underworld

  • Title Writing - Joseph Farnham and George Marion Jr4

  • Best Effects - Roy Pomeroy for Wings

There were also two honorary awards given - to Charlie Chaplin, for his versatility, shown in The Circus, and to The Jazz Singer, the first full-length feature film to utilise synchronised sound.

Today's Categories

In 2002, a new category was added to the ceremony, that of Best Animated Film. Quite rightly, the Academy has recognised that animation has come a long way since Walt Disney produced the first feature length cartoon5, back in 1937.

The other categories are:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role
  • Best Original Screenplay
  • Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Best Film in a Foreign Language
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Visual Effects
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Sound Editing
  • Best Sound
  • Best Music (Original Score)
  • Best Music (Original Song)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Make Up
  • Best Animated Short
  • Best Live-Action Short
  • Best Documentary Feature
  • Best Documentary Short

Additional awards are given for scientific and technical achievement (usually held at a different location on an earlier date) as well as honorary awards for individuals - often considered 'lifetime achievement' awards.

Oscar Records

With so many years of history behind them, the Oscars have their own special achievements. There are records for almost every conceivable category, but here are just a few of the major ones.

  • Most Nominations - Walt Disney had 64 nominations. Of those nominees still living, John Williams has the most, with 39 for his numerous music scores and songs.

  • Most Nominated Actor - Two actresses share this honour: Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep with 12 each.

  • Most Acting Oscars - Katherine Hepburn again, with four Awards for leading Actress.

  • Most Awards - Walt Disney won a record 26 statuettes, and that's not counting the special seven miniatures he got for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to go with his own full-sized award.

  • Most Nominations and Never Lost - Four time winner and nominee Mark Berger won awards in the sound category for Apocalypse Now (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), Amadeus (1984) and The English Patient (1996).

  • Clean Sweep of the Major Awards - The five major awards (Best Picture, Directing, Actor, Actress and Writing) have been won by only three films in Oscar history: It Happened One Night , One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.

  • Most Oscars for a Single Film - Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King bagged 11 a piece.

  • Most Nominations for a Single Film - All About Eve and Titanic both had 14 nominations.

Further Reading

The Official Academy Awards Site

BBC - Films site

1As at January 2006.2Best-known as Mann's Chinese Theatre, though the management are currently making moves to re-establish the original name.3Price Waterhouse Coopers - formerly Price Waterhouse, who have handled the ballot results since 1934.4Still very much the age of silent movies, this rewarded the efforts of the people who wrote the caption cards that told the story. Ironically, by the following year, the silent era was almost at an end.5Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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