How The Academy Awards, and Their Iconic Oscar, Came To Be

Oscar is 95 this year, meaning he’s been around longer than most of us. And many people assume the look of the award, his nickname and the structure of the annual voting … just kinda happened.

However, Bruce Davis details the thought and innovations behind these things in his authoritative new book, “The Academy and the Award: The Coming of Age of Oscar and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” (Brandeis University Press). 

Davis, who was AMPAS’ executive director for 20 years, dispels a lot of Oscar lore. No, neither Bette Davis nor the Academy’s Margaret Herrick came up with the nickname Oscar. No, Mexican actor Emilio Fernandez was not the model. Cedric Gibbons didn’t sketch out the design on the tablecloth at the Biltmore.

Davis also points out, “Contrary to widespread opinion, the Academy’s knight is neither naked nor bald.” Oscar is wearing a thong-like strap and has close-cropped hair.

The Academy was basically the brainchild of MGM topper Louis B. Mayer; Fred Beetson, Conrad Nagel and Fred Niblo were present at the birth in January 1927. 

Davis writes that “almost no one outside their industry was thinking of movies as an art form” and awards were on the back burner of the new organization. In a pre-guild Hollywood, there were lots of battles between creatives and money people, so the Acad de­clared itself the arbiter of labor disputes. Another high priority was to battle the constant threat of censorship and negative publicity.

And films had become a huge industry, with estimates that 100 million Americans visited theaters every week, at a time when the U.S. population was 120 million. 

Davis writes that the idea of awards was raised at meetings, but everybody seemed to avoid it. It was too complicated: Who would vote? Who is eligible, how many categories and how many awards in each? 

Darryl F. Zanuck, at the time a Warner Bros. powerhouse, considered awards “a wasted effort” for AMPAS, according to the book. Film exec Frank Woods countered that the trophies “would be coveted and would become a valuable distinction. … If there could be developed a real competition for quality in this business, it would certainly have some effect of improvement of the product.” 

He got his wish.

On Feb. 20, 1929, Variety ran a list of winners at the first Academy Awards — on page 7. Most other publications ignored them. The ceremony took place three months after the announcement.

MGM’s primo production de­signer, Cedric Gibbons, 37, was asked to design an award. People suggested a medal or loving cup, but Gibbons “asked them to raise their sights,” Davis writes. He offered them “a vision, a new concept for an award.”

Davis writes that “prior to Oscar, there were no awards that the public was on a first-name basis with.”

Columnist Sidney Skolsky claims to have originated the Oscar nickname, but Brazilian scholar Waldemar Dalenogare Neto found a press item referring to Oscar before Skolsky’s first mention. Bette Davis claimed she named it after her ex-husband, and longtime AMPAS employee Herrick said she coined it after her Uncle Oscar.

But Bruce Davis — whose academic background and years at the Academy made him the ideal writer for this invaluable book — says credit for the name “should almost certainly belong to” Eleanore Lilleberg, an Acad secretary-office assistant. 

The nickname began to “seep out into the Hollywood community between 1930 and 1933,” writes Davis. Many in AMPAS felt “Oscar” was demeaning, but “by 1939, the organization had decided that the nickname was an asset rather than an impropriety.”

As a coda, Gibbons won 11 of the statuettes that he designed and donated them all to the Academy. 

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