Its official name is the Academy Award of Merit, but the origin of the less cumbersome nickname “Oscar” is not clear. For years, Bette Davis claimed to have coined the name when she quipped that the statue’s backside resembled her husband (Oscar). However, Davis recently relinquished her claim when references to the moniker were found in print three years before her 1937 win.
Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been trying to solve the mystery. “I had three claimants,” he said. “I was able to disprove two, but I find the third one rather suspicious, which is a very unsatisfying conclusion.” The preferred story is that in the early ’30s, Academy librarian and eventual executive director Margaret Herrick commented to staff that the statuette resembled her Uncle Oscar – and the nickname stuck. Officially, the Academy started using the name in 1939.
“The Oscar is better now than it was 25 years ago because the gold content has been increased,” the manufacturer of the statuettes states. “I believe the Oscar contains more gold than any other famous award.” The specific dollar value, however, is a secret: “The Academy wants them to be considered priceless”. But because of the simple design, “If there was no gold, they’d be worth less than $100 each.”
Each statuette takes 10 people and about 5 1/2 hours of labor to make, close to an hour in polishing alone. “Though we could probably do it quicker, we take three to four weeks to cast 50 statuettes”. “It may sound silly but each one is done to perfection and handled with white gloves. After all, look at the people who will be clutching it on Oscar night.”
The special care is not wasted on Bruce Davis, who first watched the manufacturing process about two years ago. “I was very impressed,” Davis says. “I knew it was a complex process, but to see it done with such care was very reassuring.”
Building a Legend
The Oscar stands 13-1/2 inches tall, not including the 3-inch base, and weighs a deceivingly hefty 8-1/2 pounds. The figure is hand cast in brittanium – an alloy of tin, copper and antimony that is much like pewter – in a 45-pound steel mold. The statuette is then deburred, degreased and polished to a mirror finish. “We spend about 45 minutes just polishing each one” the manufacturer says.
Several layers of metal plating and polishing between each application give the statuette its perfect finish. The brittanium cast first receives a light copper electroplate, then heavy copper. Nickel plating is applied to seal the pores of the metal. Then the statuette is washed in silver-plate, which adheres well to gold. Finally, after more polishing, the statuette is plated in 24-karat gold and receives a baked lacquer finish.
Of course, they’re not engraved until later because the winners are top secret, even to the people who polish and primp the Oscar. The engraver receives the list of winners only after the ceremony, then engraves the plates to ship back to Hollywood.
The idea for the Oscar was hatched in 1927, when then-MGM President Louis B. Mayer proposed that the one-week-old Academy create a special film award. Cedric Gibbons, MGM art director, and sculptor George Stanley are credited for the design – a knight holding a crusader’s sword standing atop a reel of film whose five spokes symbolize the five branches of the Academy: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers.
Unlike many other big-name awards, the Oscar has changed very little since its birth in the late ’20s. The design has remained identical except for slight variations in the base, which was originally slightly smaller and made of Belgian black marble. Even the base – now made of spun brass and plated in black nickel – hasn’t changed for 53 years.
The only other variations were in materials. For the first three years, the statuettes were made of gold-plated solid bronze, which was changed to brittanium to ensure a flawless finish. Later, during World War II, the statuettes were cast in plaster when manufacturing with metal was restricted. But the plaster casts were replaced quickly after the war.
All of the plaster versions were thought to be lost until recently when one was discovered in the Academy vault. More than a half century later, it’s amazing any survived. “I imagine the Academy was quite embarrassed about [the plaster versions] at the time,” says Davis. “They were probably all banged against a trash can or something.”
In addition to the Oscar, ARA member R.S. Owens manufactures scores of other big-name awards such as the Emmy, the MTV Music Video Award and the NFL’s MVP Award. Upscale awards may be old hat to Siegel now, but he still remembers the uphill battle of the early years.
The Oscar is arguably the most widely recognized trophy in the world. The Academy’s Davis attributes its notoriety to three things. First, its age: “[The Academy] was the first organization to begin giving awards in film, so the public has been aware of it since the early 1930s.”
Second, its status in the film industry: “I think it has retained that aura because, even if people aren’t absolutely sure what the Academy is, they do know that it’s the people who make movies looking at all their accomplishments for the year and selecting the outstanding examples.”
Third, its timeless design: “It’s a gorgeous piece of sculpture with a machine-age, streamlined design that was popular in the 1920s and has managed to continue to look modern to this day,” Davis says.
Its popularity has made the Academy Awards an national tradition each spring, having been interrupted only three times in its 70-year history. The first delay was in 1938 when destructive floods hit Los Angeles; the second, in 1968 out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, whose funeral was held on the day originally scheduled for the awards; and most recently, in 1981 after the assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan.
Every year the Academy orders 50 to 65 new Oscars, depending on how many are left over from the previous year and the number of potential winners. “We have to plan for the maximum to win in every category – a maximum assault,” Davis says. More than 2,300 statuettes have been awarded since the first one was presented in 1928.
Leftovers will be kept in a vault until next year’s ceremony and are sometimes used to replace damaged statuettes. Recipients who request replacements are required to turn in the damaged trophy. “The only way to accumulate them is to keep doing wonderful film work,” Davis says.
The Academy owns many historically significant Oscars. “Often heirs of recipients will return them to us, or recipients themselves will leave instructions to return their Oscar to the Academy,” Davis says. “They don’t want something undignified to happen to it.” The statuettes are displayed from time to time at Academy headquarters or at the nearby Herrick film library.
Of course, security is always a concern when the statuettes are transported from place to place. Fifty statuettes were shipped on March 11 from the manufacturer’s factory to Hollywood by Brinks truck and a special United Airlines charter. Fortunately, none has ever been lost in transport, but there are at least a few Oscars on the lam.
“We recently became aware that we lost one,” says Davis. During the 1972 ceremony, two winners were called but only one was in attendance. One winner came up and claimed her award and the other statuette was left on the podium as they broke for commercial. Someone must have pocketed it, Davis says.
Recently it turned up on the black market. “The Academy will make every effort to get it back,” he says. The Academy is able to track missing Oscars because they are numbered, starting in 1949 with the somewhat arbitrary number 501.
“[Oscars] have always been among the most valuable things that a person in this industry can acquire, but they recently have gained a secondary financial value,” Davis says.
© 1998, Awards and Recognition Association