Granted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the ‘Academy Award of Merit’ is meant to recognize exceptional achievement in film artistry and technical accomplishment. It’s split into 24 separate categories, including the ones that make it onto DVD covers such as Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Director, as well as the less well-known ones such as Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography. AMPAS, or simply ‘the Academy,’ is an honorary body of roughly 6000 significant figures in the film industry founded by mogul Louis B. Mayer (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) fame). It had only been in existence for two years when the Oscars were established as a way to gain publicity for the work of its members.
The statuette itself was sculpted by an artist called George Stanley after a design by cinema architect Cedric Gibbons, who went on to win eleven of the awards himself, and it hasn’t changed in design since it was first presented in 1929. The most commonly cited origin for the name ‘Oscar’ describes when Margaret Herrick, then-librarian and later executive director for the Academy, noted that the award looked like her ‘Uncle Oscar.’
But even though nobody’s quite sure how the Academy Award got its nickname, but for over 90 years ‘Oscar’ has been synonymous with the small gold-plated statuette, and the ceremony conferring it has gone from a small, 15-minute event in 1929 to the elaborate, televised gala event of fame and controversy today.
The Oscars have become more of a publicity event than Mayer could ever have hoped for, with the two hour ceremony dominating television coverage during the lead up to the night itself, when the sealed envelopes containing the winners’ names are opened, and the golden figurines are handed out. Until the 91st Academy Awards, a high-profile comedian was usually engaged to host the show, with Bob Hope Hosting nineteen times, followed by Billy Crystal with nine appearances.
Prospective winners are hotly debated, and the effects of an award on a film’s bottom line are difficult to calculate, but almost always beneficial. 'The Triplets of Belleville' (2007) saw its box office returns triple to $7 million after being nominated for Best Song - not even a win! - while everyone’s favourite Noughties rags-to-riches story, 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008), gained a third of its ticket sales after being nominated for nine Oscars, and another third after winning seven of them.
It also adds a prestige which is unrivalled, with winners enjoying respect and fame, and multiple winners becoming legends. John Ford and Katherine Hepburn both had four Oscars; costume designer Edith Head, known for working with some of the biggest stars of the mid-20th century such as Paul Newman and Grace Kelly, won seven; and Walt Disney won a record 22 Oscars and four additional honorary Academy Awards out of a total 59 nominations.
Audrey Hepburn scoops the gong for scariest eyebrows.
Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather' (1972). Not a fan of The Oscars. Apparently the invitation was an offer he could refuse.
The ‘Merit’ part isn’t always accurate, though. Since the Awards began being handed out, there have been some winners which have been quietly acknowledged as, to put it bluntly, awful. The 1985 Award for Best Song, for example, went to Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You,’ which not even the singer himself defended in a year which saw the release of Ray Parker Jr.’s ‘Ghostbusters’ and Prince’s ‘Purple Rain.’ Another baffling winner was 'Out of Africa', which won Best Picture in 1986, in which 'Witness' was entered into the competition and Akira Kurosawa’s mind-blowing 'Ran' wasn’t even nominated.
The Awards aren’t universally lusted after, either. While most actors and artists are thrilled to receive even a nomination, some have made a point of refusing. Marlon Brando rather dramatically turned down his Best Actor for 'The Godfather' (1972) by sending along Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to read a speech he had prepared outlining his complaints about the treatment of Native Americans in both Hollywood and US society in general, which drew a mixture of jeers and applause. Somewhat more tersely, George C. Scott asked to be permanently removed from the Academy’s list after receiving his second Best Actor nomination for his role in 'Patton' (1970). Privately, he famously snarled that the Awards were a “goddamn meat parade.”