Oscar: Hollywood's golden mystery man

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The Independent Culture

The golden guy known to the world as the Oscar, the real star of Sunday's Academy Awards, has become a Hollywood icon over the past 82 years, but the origin of his name has been lost in time.

The venerable statuette, officially named the Academy Award of Merit, is the child of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was created in 1927 as a small industry body to promote films.

Initially made up of 36 members with actor Douglas Fairbanks as its first president, the newly founded body created the golden trophy to honor performances by the industry's leading actors, actresses and directors.

An art director from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, Cedric Gibbons, was selected to design the statuette - the figure of a knight standing on a reel of film, his hands gripping a sword.

From these humble beginnings was born an award that would become a global symbol of excellence.

The first Academy Awards were held on May 16, 1929 at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. They consisted of a simple dinner banquet attended by around 270 guests. Fairbanks handed out the 15 statuettes in just 15 minutes.

Ironically, the birthplace of the Oscars is just a short stroll from the Kodak Theatre, where more than 3,300 stars and Hollywood power brokers will gather for Sunday's 82nd annual awards ceremony.

Around 50 Oscars will be handed out during the glittering three-hour show, which over the years has expanded into a global spectacle with a red-carpet arrivals line that has become the world's most glamorous fashion show.

Since the first awards ceremony, around 2,500 of the trophies have been handed out in an awards ceremony that has become bigger, glitzier and more glamorous over the years, with the exception of wartime shows.

The early editions of the statues were bronze, but during the World War II metals shortage, the trophies were made of plaster. Those were later redeemed for the now gold-plated ones.

The trophy, standing 34 centimeters (13.5 inches) tall and weighing 3.85 kilos (8.5 pounds), wasn't always called an Oscar, but his form has not changed since his birth, except when his pedestal was raised 1945.

But the origin of the statuette's nickname is unclear.

One legend has it that Academy librarian and eventual executive director Margaret Herrick thought it resembled her uncle Oscar and said so. Her staff began referring to it as Oscar.

Oscar-winner Bette Davis claimed she thought of the name because the nude statuette had a rear end that reminded her of the derriere of her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson.

Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky used the name in a 1934 column in referring to Katharine Hepburn's first best actress win, but the Academy itself did not use the nickname officially until 1939.

Carried initially by radio, the Academy Awards were first televised in 1953 in black and white, making the jump to color in 1966.

In the early days, there was little suspense, as the results had been given to newspapers in advance for publication after the ceremony.

The invitation-only awards ceremony, which is now watched by up to one billion television viewers in more than 150 countries, has never been cancelled, though on rare occasion, the show was postponed.

Ceremonies were delayed in 1938 because of heavy flooding in Los Angeles, in 1968 after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and in 1981 after the attempt on the life of one-time actor and then-president Ronald Reagan.

But just four days after the US-led war in Iraq erupted in 2003, the 75th anniversary edition of the show went ahead as scheduled, with only one nod to the circumstances - a smaller, more somber red carpet show.

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