Encore

The Birth of Oscar

Seventy years ago Hollywood launched the ultimate celebration of film known as the Academy Awards

There were no loopy production numbers, no gauntlet of paparazzi. And if there was a Goldberg in the house, you can bet she wasn't a black woman named Whoopi. Still, the first Academy Awards ceremony — held May 16, 1929, in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — did set the tone for its latter-year counterparts in one familiar way: It was a self-congratulatory party for a very exclusive club.

In 1927, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and a handful of studio heavies established the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (International was later dropped). The idea had been conceived during a cigar-chomping meeting, ostensibly to address labor concerns, at Mayer's home. Membership, which cost $100, was open to distinguished contributors, meaning producers and directors (with a few actors thrown in for variety). At first, no one thought much about presenting trophies.

One year later, again at the urging of Mayer, a voting system for ''awards of merit for distinctive achievement'' was instituted (the term Oscar — which historians say was coined by an Academy employee and not, as legend has it, by Bette Davis, who thought the statue's butt reminded her of husband Harmon Oscar Nelson's — wouldn't catch on until the mid-'30s). The first Academy Award winners, who had been notified of their honors long before, were treated to a black-tie banquet of broiled chicken and fillet of sole. Best ''Production'' went to Wings (a sort of proto-Top Gun starring Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, and Charles ''Buddy'' Rogers). Janet Gaynor won Best Actress (for three films: Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel). And like an early-era Roberto Benigni, German-born Emil Jannings took home Best Actor (for The Last Command and The Way of All Things). Proving that some things truly never change, Academy president Douglas Fairbanks made a plea for brevity in acceptance speeches.

Unlike today's extravaganza, however, the first Academy Awards ceremony was far from a media event — The New York Times ignored it, only one radio station covered it, and television was still in its experimental phase. Did anyone recognize the pop-culture monster they'd created? ''I hardly think so,'' says Budd Schulberg, 85, screenwriter of On the Waterfront and the son of legendary Paramount chief B.P. Schulberg. ''Mayer had dreams of grandeur. But it was all so provincial, like an assembly in a school auditorium.'' Still, Schulberg, who was 15 at the time, confirms that from the get-go the little gold guy instigated huge rivalries. ''There was always a definite sense of competition, especially between Paramount and MGM,'' he says. ''Wings was a Paramount picture, and I remember my father came home singing drunkenly and celebrating.'' Seven decades later, Schulberg, like the rest of us, still can't tear himself away from the awards. ''I hate myself for spending hours watching,'' he says. ''But I do it every year.''


Time Capsule: May 16, 1929

At the movies: Show Boat, ''the picture that will stand for romance as long as romance endures,'' debuts — with sound — at the Globe in New York.
On the club scene: Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton and his Cotton Pickers appear at the Elks Club in Steubenville, Ohio.
At bookstores: Sinclair Lewis' tale of infidelity, Dodsworth, tops the fiction list in Publishers Weekly.
On Wall Street: Brokers enjoy a rampant bull market, blissfully unaware that stocks will crash in five short months.

Originally posted May 14, 1999 Published in issue #485 May 14, 1999 Order article reprints
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