By Emily Frisan
Lights, camera, action! Hollywood’s biggest night, the 95th Academy Awards, or the Oscars, will take place this year on March 12th. The award ceremony is regarded by many as the most prestigious, significant awards in the entertainment industry for artistic and technical merit. Although very different from its original dinner in the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the annual event continues to capture audiences worldwide.
The Oscars was born out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which formed in 1927. Originally named the Academy Award of Merit, the Academy officially adopted the name “Oscar” in 1939 for the trophies given as the award. The statuette itself was created upon the agreement of distributing an annual award, where the Academy then turned to Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley to craft the iconic figure. However, the story behind naming the trophy an “Oscar” has conflicting origins. Actress Bette Davis claimed the name was derived from her observation that the backside of the award looked just like her husband’s, Harmon Oscar Nelson. On the other hand, gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky claimed to have given the award its nickname, while Academy librarian Margaret Herrick declared the figure resembled her Uncle Oscar.
The ceremony was originally broadcasted via radio until 1953, when it was then presented on television, however it wasn’t until 1966 that the Academy Awards ceremony was broadcasted in color. The first-ever winners for best actor and actress were Actor Emil Jannings for his leading role in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh, and Actress Janet Gaynor for her leading roles in Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise. Since its debut in 1927, there has been a range of iconic, memorable, and even shocking moments at the Oscars. As widely acclaimed as the award ceremony is, it has not gone without its controversies.
In 1973, Marlon Brando was honored for his monumental performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but famously declined to attend the ceremony. Instead, Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, was given the podium to read a letter from the star explaining his rationale for rejecting the award, which included “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Overlooking backstage, a furious John Wayne was supposedly detained by six security guards who stopped him from physically assaulting Littlefeather and taking her off the stage.
In more recent controversy, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was first used by activist April Reign in response to the 20 acting nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards all being granted to white actors, highlighting the award ceremony’s history of lacking racial and ethnic diversity in award recognitions. Although the board has since been diversified, female members of the board climbed from 25 percent in 2015 to just 32 percent in 2019, while the percentage of people of color only slightly increased from 8 percent to 16 percent over the same period. To this day, the Academy and its nominations have been historically made up of, and still are, majority white men.
In 2017, the Best Picture Award was mistakenly given to La La Land when the movie Moonlight was actually the award’s recipient, highlighting yet another racial discrepancy in the ceremony’s contentious history. Most recently, pop culture has not let go of the infamous Will Smith slap. Last year, Oscar’s host, comedian Chris Rock, made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s hair loss, triggering her husband Will Smith to clap back, ultimately storming the stage and slapping him twice. The slap shocked both the audience at the ceremony as well as global audiences watching on their screens, confusing most viewers about whether the slap was genuine or staged.
Be sure to check out the animated map from Esri, ‘Birthplace of Oscar Winners,’ which charts the birthplaces of every Academy Award winner in the best actor, best actress, and best director categories over the last nine decades; and don’t miss the annual award ceremony this Sunday, which is streamed on ABC.