Tthe Academy Awards: Oscar's Bona Fides
The history of the Academy Award statuette, the famous "Oscar", including information in its creation, composition & construction
- Academy Award of Merit
- Intrinsic Value
- Protecting Oscar's Image
He's bigger than you think, and much heavier than his pictures suggest. Unlike most six-foot-tall screen legends, who seem to shrink to five and a half-foot disappointments in person, he actually seems taller in person. Some of that has to do with the "soap box" he stands on, like the legendary 5'4" tall Alan Ladd. He is truly impressive in the flesh, so to speak, though he doesn't have any. He is 13 and ½ inches tall and weighs a solid 8 and ½ lbs., stripped, which he always is. His name is "Oscar," and this is the story of his bona fides.
The Oscar statuette, perhaps the most famous award in the world, was sketched out on a napkin by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer set design department head Cedric Gibbons a week after the Academy was established, on orders from his boss, Louis B. Mayer, the "M" in MGM. The driving force behind the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, "L.B." thought giving out awards would generate goodwill for the Academy.
Sculpted by Los Angeles artist George Stanely, it an Art Deco representation of a Crusader, which explains the sweeping girdle of the sword somewhat concealed by Oscar's forearms. The sword proved to be the perfect prop for protecting the naked gent's modesty. The "Crusader" stands on a five-sprocketed film-reel whose five spokes represent the five branches of the Academy: actors, producers, writers, directors and the technical crafts.
Academy Award of Merit
The official name of the little gold gentleman is the "Academy Award of Merit," and winners' statuettes were inscribed "First Award for Merit" until the 1950s. In addition to making the awards, R.S. Owens also engraves the statuettes for winners, who are required to return the awards the day after the ceremony to have their names immortalized on their own Oscars.
While the actual figure of the Academy Award has not changed in 80 years, the statuettes originally were fabricated from solid bronze and gold plated. Early Oscars were prone to tarnishing and pitting, and in 1931, in order to improve the finish, the base metal was changed to brittanium, a pewter-like alloy consisting of tin, copper and antimony.
The Academy orders 50 or 55 statuettes annually to replace its coffers, which are depleted by the previous year's awards and by replacing lost or damaged Oscars. Casting 50 statuettes typically takes trophy-maker R.S. Owens (Chicago, Illinois), three weeks to a month to fulfill the order.
R.S. Owens has manufactured all the Oscars handed out by the Academy since 1983, when the original manufacturer gave up the account due to financial problems. It takes ten employees an average of five & ½ hours to fabricate each Oscar, beginning with the casting of the statuette in a 45-pound steel mold. After being ejected from the mold, the cast is deburred and degreased, and then polished for 45 minutes to a mirror finish.
During the polishing process, the cast is first electroplated with a light coat of copper, then copper-plated again with a heavier layer. The statuette is then nickel plated, sealing the pores in the cast, and then bathed in a silver-plate wash as silver adheres well to gold. Finally, after even more polishing, a 24-karat gold plate is applied before a lacquer finish is baked on to the statuette to prevent tarnishing.
R.S. Owens CEO Owen R. Siegel believes that the Oscar statuette has a higher intrinsic value than any other award as it contains more gold than comparable awards. He should know, as his company manufactures the advertising industry's Clio Award, the Emmy, the Miss America Award, the MTV Music Video Award, and the National Football League's Most Valuable Player Award.
Since the 1970s, the actual value of the statuette has been a secret, though Siegel admits that without the gold plate, the award would be worth less than $100, about its value in the early '70s, before inflation. But the Oscar now sports a heavier layer of gold plate and thus has a greater gold content than it did 25 years ago. According to Siegel, the value is a secret because "The Academy wants them to be considered priceless."
The statuette itself is very vulnerable and prone to breaking off above the feet if not held properly at the base, as the proud mesomorph Oscar is top-heavy and tapers down sharply at his ankles. There once was a vulnerability of another kind, when the Oscar was made from plaster due to the shortage of metals caused by World War II. Bing Crosby, winner for 1944's Going My Way, was practicing his golf swing in his living room when he clipped his plaster Best Actor award on the mantle-piece and decapitated it. He, and all other winners of plaster Oscars, was given metal awards after the wartime shortages were eliminated.
Oscar originally stood on a more modest, tapered base made of Belgian black marble that was designed by Gibbons' assistant at MGM, Frederic Hope. In 1945, his "soap box" was raised to its current height of thee inches, and it took on its current perpendicular configuration. The Belgian marble, and the wartime plaster, were scrapped for a new base of spun brass, electroplated in black nickel.
All the Academy Awards given out over time didn't always come in the guise of the familiar Oscar statuette. Before 1963, when juveniles were allowed to compete in the award categories proper along with the "adults" (always a hard word to use when describing the denizens of Hollywood), the Academy gave out a miniature Oscar for the best juvenile performance. Another recipient of miniature Oscars was Walt Disney, who got a full-sized statuette and seven miniatures as a special award honoring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature. Ventriloquist and radio comedian Edgar Bergen was given a miniature wooden Oscar with a moving mouth to honor him and his sidekick, the dummy Charlie McCarthy.
The Academy always had difficulty deciding how to honor performances and achievements outside the standard categories. Honoring juvenile performances with tiny Oscars was unsatisfactory to some of the Academy governors, so in the late 1930s, a prototype of a different, full-size award for juveniles was worked up, but the idea was jettisoned.
Supporting actors and actresses, a late edition to the awards in 1936, were given molded metal plaques with a bas-relief of a tiny Oscar up until 1942. The Academy began replacing the plaques with full-size awards in the early 1970s. Similar plaques were given to some of the major craft awardees such as art design into the early 1950s and are still given out for winners in the lesser scientific and technical awards categories. Only Class I winners for significant breakthroughs such as Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, are given an Oscar statuette.
Protecting Oscar's Image
Until the Academy got serious about protecting its image and copyrighted the statuette and the name "Oscar," studios would issue their own knock-offs of Academy Awards. Columbia Studios gave out miniature Oscar statuettes honoring both Columbia Pictures' first "First Award" for Best Picture (It Happened One Night) and the studio's 15th anniversary at a banquet for Columbia exhibitors in 1935.
In 1950, the Oscar was not only copyrighted, but winners were required to sign an agreement requiring them to sell back the statuette to the Academy for one dollar if they chose to part with it. This was done to put a stop to trafficking in Oscars, which really didn't become a major issue until the memorabilia boom of the 1990s. Attempts to sell post-1950 Oscar statuettes were prohibited by the Academy, though they are powerless to stop transactions undertaken in foreign locales.
Nowadays, the closest a non-winner can get to an Oscar, outside of buying one at auction or inheriting one from a no-longer-lucky relative, are the tiny miniature Oscar chocolates that are placed on the table at the Governors Ball.