Hollywood's biggest party--the Academy Awards--is alternately viewed as shameless self-promotion on the part of the movie industry and as glamour incarnate. Sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy Awards annually honor excellence in film. Although it has been said that the ceremony is merely a popularity contest, winning an Oscar still represents a significant change in status for the recipient. After more than 70 years of Academy Awards ceremonies, the event has been criticized as having become a self-congratulatory affair that gives Hollywood a yearly excuse to show off to a global televised audience of millions. But no one can deny that when Hollywood's stars don designer clothes and jewelry, the world turns up to watch, proving that star power and glamour are still the essence of American popular culture.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was the brainchild of Metro Golwyn Mayer (MGM) mogul Louis B. Mayer. In the late 1920s the motion picture industry was in a state of flux. Experiments being conducted with sound threatened the demise of silent pictures, even as the scandals which had rocked the industry in the early 1920s brought cries for government censorship. Additionally, Hollywood was seeking to unionize and, in 1926, the Studio Basic Agreement was signed, unionizing stagehands, musicians, electricians, carpenters, and painters. The major talent, however, still remained without bargaining power.
In this restive atmosphere, Louis B. Mayer proposed to create an organization that would bring together representatives from all the major branches of the movie industry in an effort to promote both progress and harmony. Thirty-six people attended the first meeting in January, 1928, including actress Mary Pickford, designer Cedric Gibbons, director John Stahl, producers Joseph Schenck and Louis B. Mayer, and actor Douglas Fairbanks, who became the first president of AMPAS. Six months later, an organizational banquet was held at the Biltmore Hotel, where 231 new members joined. During the next year, the new organization formed various committees, one of which sought to create an award that would honor excellence in the motion picture industry.
The first Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929. It took Academy president Douglas Fairbanks five minutes to hand out all the awards. Janet Gaynor and Emil Jannings were named Best actress and Best Actor while Wings won Best Picture. The ceremony was brief and unspectacular. Janet Gaynor professed to have been equally thrilled to receive the award as to have met Douglas Fairbanks. The local and national media ignored the event completely.
Each winner received a small, gold-plated statuette of a knight holding a crusader's sword, standing on a reel of film whose five spokes represented the five branches of the Academy. The statuette quickly earned the nickname Oscar, although the source of the nickname has never been pinpointed; some say that Mary Pickford thought it looked like her Uncle Oscar, while others credit Bette Davis, columnist Sidney Skolsky, or Academy librarian and later executive director Margaret Herrick with the remark. Whatever the source, the award has since been known as an Oscar.
By 1930, the motion picture industry had converted to talkies, and the Academy Awards reflected the change in its honorees, signifying the motion picture industry's acceptance of the new medium. Silent stars such as Great Garbo, Gloria Swanson, and Ronald Coleman, who had successfully made the transition to talkies, were honored with Oscar nominations.
It was also during the 1930s that the Academy Awards began to receive press coverage. Once a year, an eager nation awaited the morning paper to discover the big Oscar winners. The decade saw the first repeat Oscar winner in actress Luise Rainer; the first film to win eight awards in Gone with the Wind; the first African-American recipient in Hattie McDaniel as best supporting actress for Gone with the Wind; and the first honorary statuettes awarded to child stars Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, and Mickey Rooney.
In the 1940s, the Academy Awards were broadcast by radio for the first time, and Masters of Ceremonies included popular comedians and humorists such as Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, and Will Rogers. With a national audience, the Oscar ceremony, which had alternated annually between the banquet rooms of the Biltmore and Ambassador Hotels, moved to legitimate theaters such as the Pantages, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and later the Shrine and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. No longer a banquet, the Oscars became a show--in 1936, AMPAS had hired the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse to tabulate votes, thus ensuring secrecy; in 1940, sealed envelopes were introduced to heighten the drama.
In 1945, the Oscars were broadcast around the world on ABC and Armed Forces radio, becoming an international event. With each passing year, the stars, who had first attended the banquets in suits and simple dresses, became more glamorous. The women now wore designer gowns and the men tuxedos. Additionally, each year the Oscars featured new hype. In 1942, sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were both nominated for best actress. Fontaine won that year, but when the same thing happened four years later de Havilland had her turn and publicly spurned her sister at the ceremony. The press gleefully reported the feud between the two sisters, who never appeared together in public again. Rivalries were often played up between nominees, whether they were real or not. In 1955, for example, it was the veteran Judy Garland versus the new golden girl, Grace Kelly.