On 1 January 1927, Louis B Mayer had dinner with three pals - the actor Conrad Nagel, the director Fred Niblo, who made Ben-Hur, and Fred Beetson of the Association of Motion Picture Producers. No records survive of their talk that evening. But Louis broached the idea of setting up an academy to guard motion pictures. Maybe Niblo asked, "What'san academy, Louis?" Mayer told him: it was all about public relations.
The other thing about PR is that it's a high polish to conceal other motives. And Mayer always had other motives. Only a month earlier, the Hollywood studios had been compelled to sign the studio basic agreement with stagehands, carpenters, painters and electricians. The unions had gained their first foothold in the business. Mayer was worried, because he foresaw the same curse overtaking more prized job functions - writing, directing and acting. He wanted to ward that off.
And so he imagined an academy, drawn from all levels of movie-making, set up to promote the business and settle disputes. Once you had an aca- demy, who needed a union?
There were other motives. The movies had their greatest age in the 1920s. Proportionally, more people went then than at any time since; and there was dismay at the effects this craze was having on education and moral standards. That opposition, voiced by academics, churches and politicians, was sharpened by a series of scandals that befell the business - the Fatty Arbuckle "rape" in 1921; the strange death of director William Desmond Hurst, in 1922; the narcotics demise of Barbara La Marr in 1926, and the greatest scandal of all in a God-fearing, hard-working country - the ease with which some beautiful idiots were making fortunes. There was already a feeling that the movies needed control: the Hays Code of 1933 was one example of that, but the high-flown word "academy" was another.
There was something more fundamental still. Mayer's father was a poor, uneducated Russian rag-and-bone man. With that uncouth figure still living in the house, he was close to being the highest-paid man in America. He was also a Jew charged with spoiling the idealism of American youth and the principles of its society. His fellows, those who ran the business with him, had similar personal stones. And they were nervous. They wanted respectability. The word "academy" is important to that effect because it is so high-flown, and the full name, "the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences", is the equivalent of the nouveau riche wanting culture in a hurry.
Ten days after the first meeting, 36 industry leaders met at the Ambassador Hotel in LA and formed the Academy - with "international" in front of it (soon dropped). By May, the Academy was chartered, with about 300 members. What would they do? "Take aggressive action against unjust attacks," according to the Regulations. "Promote harmony and solidarity ... reconcile internal differences ... make awards for merit."
Cedric Gibbons, the head of Mayer's art department, was at the Biltmore hotel banquet and he sketched a figure - a male nude, holding a sword that rested on a can of film. Margaret Herrick, the Academy's first librarian, looked at the statuette that resulted and said it looked like her uncle, Oscar Pierce.
The first Oscars, covering 1927-8, were presented at the Roosevelt Hotel, LA, on 16 May 1929 as a strictly private affair. But something remarkable happened: two films were chosen as Best Picture. FW Murnau's Sunrise won as the "most artistic achievement". But the flying epic Wings won, too, as the best popular show. The struggle between respectability and commerce could not have been clearer. But the following year - and thereafter - there was only one Best Picture, and everyone knew that it was the movie that let Hollywood feel good about itself.
The next year, at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, the awards were broadcast live on the wireless after a banquet. Studios took large tables in the middle of the room - lesser figures sat on the edges. It was in 1952 that the awards were televised for the first time, and as that become the norm, so the convivial banquet (with table-hopping and heavy drinking) gave way to a theatrical format. That's why, later today, the audience will gather at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown LA with many of the guests required in their seats by 4pm for a 6pm start - and then a three-and-a-half-hour show. Whatever else, the end of March has become a festival for high-class floristry, rented tuxedos and limousines as long as pools. The crush of these vehicles is so great that a few years ago awards night was switched from Monday to Sunday. And so a live audience of 2,600 and a world-wide TV crowd of well over a billion will celebrate the world's smallest private club get-together. Academy membership has grown over the decades, but only to something close to 6,000. The membership is broken down into branches - actors (about 25 per cent of the whole): directors; writers; musicians; art directors; cinematographers (the smallest group, with about 150 members); editors; sound technicians; studio executives (about 7.5 per cent); producers; PR people; short-subject film-makers; and members-at-large.
Membership is run through the branches. Candidates have to be nominated by two people from the relevant branch. The branch committee then approves or denies the claim, and an upward vote moves on to be approved by the board of governors. Not many applications are declined. But original nominations depend on real prominence - on being nominated, for example, or for being involved in a couple of significant pictures. Membership then stands for life on the payment of $200 annual dues. In theory, there is a category for "retired" as opposed to "active" members. Retirees get a break on their dues - but they don't vote. This is another reason why old actors never give up: the voting is fun, especially when voting members are given well over 100 videotapes a year of all the pictures close to contention.
Every year, the nomination process follows the principle of membership. The five nominees for every award are voted on by branch members only. Then the whole membership is allowed to vote on winners. There are Academy screenings in many major cities (including London), as well as the videotapes and the heavy press advertising that runs from Christmas through to March. Still, no one is stuffy enough to insist that a voter has seen everything - or anything - before casting a ballot. And the final counts go unreported. There have been ties, but the Academy never reveals the voting pattern.
Is the whole thing fair? Although the balloting is secret, once upon a time studios did pressure their employees to vote for their pictures. But since the breakdown of the studio contract system, no one can really challenge the Academy - beyond the gesture of refusal from the few people like actor George C Scott, who won for Patton, but never accepted the Oscar because, he said, he refused to compete with his fellows.
The Academy turns the counting process over to accountants Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, which insists on secrecy. The worst that can happen - like this year - is that some ballots, and even some Oscars, get lost in the mail. Legends abide of whimsical or drunken presenters who read out the wrong name.
Critics have pointed to the age of the voters, and their conservatism. Many Hollywood old-timers are rich and old-fashioned. Sometimes you can believe they are shocked by too much novelty. But this year they have nominated Being John Malkovich.
If you want to denigrate the Oscars, it's easy, and history is there to help you. Chaplin never won an Oscar in competition: ditto Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Barbara Stanwyck, Lillian Gish, and so on. To remedy that, the Academy decided to award "honorary" Oscars for career achievement. But still, Citizen Kane was beaten by How Green Was My Valley; Bonnie and Clyde by In the Heat of the Night, Taxi Driver by Rocky. His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner and The Searchers were never nominated. The system seems silly until you win, or until something you love wins, and you see some veteran moved to tears.
One last thing - the best: most of the income from the TV rights goes to pay for the Academy library in LA, named after Herrick. It is a great repository for personal and studio archives, and one of the finest research facilities for a medium that has often sought to blind us to the facts and leave us happy with high polish.
'The Oscars: a Film 2000 Preview with Jonathan Ross': BBC1, 10.55pm tonight. 'Oscar Night with Barry Norman': Sky 1, 1am tonight
THOMSON'S OSCAR TIPS
These aren't necessarily the winners I'd pick, but they are my idea of what the Academy is going to go for:
Best Picture: 'American Beauty' Director: Sam Mendes Actor: Denzel Washington, 'The Hurricane' Actress: Annette Bening, 'American Beauty' Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine Best Supporting Actress: Angelina Jolie Best Original Screenplay: Alan Ball, 'American Beauty' Adapted Screenplay: 'The Cider House Rules' Photography: Conrad Hall, 'American Beauty' Best Score: 'The Talented Mr Ripley' Best Foreign Film: 'All About My MotherReuse content