It’s that time again – awards season. The Golden Globes were handed out last week, but the real prizes await – the Academy Awards. The nominations were announced yesterday, and, of course, are controversial. But controversial nominations are nothing new to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and, in fact, these Awards – the Oscars – were born out of controversy, back in the 1920s.
Officially, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science was established in 1927 to honor a relatively new art form – motion pictures. It was also a way to measure and recognize the contributions of actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and others. But it is important to examine the historical context of the founding of the Academy as well.
While the “movies” had been around since the late 1890s, they had only begun to take the shape we’re familiar with today, with a plot, acknowledged actors and directors, etc., shortly before World War I. But by the 1920s, millions of people went to the movies weekly, and religious and political leaders, as well as parents, were keenly aware of the influence the movies exerted. Fans were able to follow the on-screen and off-screen activities of their favorite stars in magazines and newspapers, and young men and women emulated the hairstyles, fashions, and habits of their screen idols (young women, for example, often began to smoke because movie stars made it look so glamorous!)
A series of scandals involving Hollywood insiders tarnished the image of Hollywood, though, beginning in 1921 when popular film comedian Fatty Arbuckle was accused of killing a minor film actress during a “wild” party. He was put on trial three times before being acquitted, but his film career was permanently derailed.
Two actresses, Mabel Normand (picture below) and Mary Miles Minter, were suspects in the murder of movie director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, a crime which even today remains unsolved. Stories of illicit sex – Minter was a minor – and drugs were widely published, raising concerns about the moral values being conveyed to moviegoers. Eventually, a morals “czar” was appointed – Will Hays – and his job was to make sure that movies were conveying wholesome messages. Studios required their actors and actresses to sign contracts containing “morals” clauses which regulated both their public and private behavior.
But studio heads, such as Louis B. Mayer of MGM, worried that further restrictions would be put on their creative abilities (which ultimately would affect their bottom line), so in 1927 they proposed the creation of an “academy” to set high standards for the motion picture industry. This “academy” would thus legitimize and uplift the movies. They appointed the popular actor Douglas Fairbanks (married to “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford) as the first Academy president.
The first Academy Awards were handed out in May 1929 at a small ceremony held in a Hollywood hotel. Only 270 people attended this “dinner-dance”, and there were no surprises, since the award winners had been announced three months earlier!
The statuette handed out wasn’t known as the “Oscar” until the mid-1930s; supposedly, it was given this name by the Academy’s librarian, who remarked that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar.
The youngest actor to receive an Oscar was Shirley Temple, who was five years old when she received an honorary Oscar in 1934. The oldest recipient? George Burns, who was 80 years old when he was recognized for his Best Supporting Actor role in 1975’s “The Sunshine Boys”.