Oscars Babylon: Tales from the Academy awards

Tonight, Hollywood's red carpet is rolled out once again for the annual orgy of self-congratulation. But not everything in the history of the Oscars is a cause for back-slapping

By David Randall
Sunday 07 March 2010 01:00

Secrets of the little golden god

Popular legend has the Oscars statuette as unchanging, made of precious metals, and non-replaceable. This is not entirely the case. One-off variants have twice been produced. In 1939, Walt Disney was voted a special award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Academy presented him with one normal one, plus seven little miniatures. Film memorabilia auctioneers regularly salivate at the thought of that one coming on the market. Less valuable, but just as quirky, is the one given to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in 1937. It was, like his dummy Charlie McCarthy, made of wood. During the war (that's the 1942-45 war to Hollywood), the Academy patriotically conserved metal by having the statuettes made of plaster. These days the gongs are made of the alloy britannium, then plated in copper, nickel silver, and then 24-carat gold. They stand 13.5 inches high, weight 8.5lb, and are made by RS Owens & Co of Chicago. In the rare instances of serious damage, the Academy will replace it. In this category, Jack Lemmon holds the record: one of his two Oscars had, uniquely among the 2,701 statuettes awarded, rusted.

Great security breaches of our times

These days, security at the ceremony is as obsessional as only Americans know how. Zbigniew Rybczynski can testify to that. After he'd collected his gong for best animated short in 1982, he stepped outside for a smoke, and was barred from re-entering because the guards mistook his assurances in broken English – "I have Oscar! I have Oscar!" – for madness and had him arrested. But once things were more lax. In 1937, the supporting actress winner Alice Brady was at home nursing a broken ankle. When her award was announced, a man stepped forward to receive it, then left the stage. Neither he nor the statuette was ever seen again. The most startling security breach came in 1974, when, as David Niven and Liz Taylor prepared to open an envelope, a streaker ran across the stage. He was Robert Opel, who owned a gay erotic photo gallery and was killed in a robbery in 1979.

Miss American Vampire accepts

The queasiest moment in Oscars history came in 1972. Marlon Brando lent his weight to the Native American cause by sending one Sacheen Little Feather to accept the best actor statuette on his behalf. Her real name was Maria Cruz; she was not entirely representative of the Apache nation, being the winner of the 1970 Miss American Vampire contest. The preposterous Brando had given her a 15-page speech to read out, but horrified Academy officials insisted she restrict herself to 45 seconds. When Vanessa Redgrave accepted a gong for Julia in 1977, she did at least make her polemical pitch against Zionism in person. She thus maintained the tradition of embarrassing podium performances by Britons, begun in 1943 by Greer Garson, who rambled on for nearly six minutes, the longest speech ever made. By contrast, Ray Milland (born in Neath) made one of the dignified acceptances in 1946 – he simply bowed to the audience and exited, stage right.

The shredding of egos

The Academy Awards show began as a 15-minute handing out of statuettes whose winners had been announced months before. (The voting had to be adjusted as the performer who got most votes as best actor was Rin Tin Tin.) But the Oscars gradually grew from a private banquet at $5 a head, to a public spectacle which kept its secrets until the night, and thence into today's bloated endurance test.

Some of the fun has been seeing the outrageous clothes. (Our winner would be the costume designer Lizzy Gardiner, who graced 1994's ceremony in a dress made of American Express gold cards.) But no amount of frippery can mask the real reason many watch: see some of the world's biggest egos reduced to matchwood. As the compère Billy Crystal told the Oscars audience once: "You stars can't take anything for granted. The only person guaranteed to wake up with a statue tomorrow is Tipper Gore."

How Joan Crawford upstaged everyone

No-shows by winners at the ceremony used to be common. Some were unavoidable, like that of Sidney Howard, winner of the 1940 award for his Gone with the Wind screenplay, who was run over by a tractor before Oscars night. Others were expected, like the failure in 1939 of George Bernard Shaw to make it across the Atlantic to collect his writing award for Pygmalion. And then there are the more contrived absences, such as Joan Crawford's in 1946. Nominated as best actress for Mildred Pierce, but unable to face losing in public, she claimed flu. But, ever the conniving old trouper, she had a make-up artist and hair stylist standing by just in case she won. She did; the statuette was dispatched to her sick bay, closely followed by photographers. They were ushered into La Crawford's presence, and, snuffling convincingly, she posed for the pictures that stole the next day's front pages. Now that's upstaging.

Tears well before bedtime

Only occasionally does one get a glimpse of real scratch-your-eyes-out bitterness at the Oscars. Olivia de Havilland, losing out to Hattie McDaniel for supporting actress in 1940, fled to the kitchen at the Coconut Grove where she shed floods of tears over the consommé. Only after David Selznick shook her violently could she compose herself enough to return. And then there was Carole Lombard. She and Clark Gable had gone to the 1940 ceremony full of expectation of his chances of winning for Gone with the Wind. He lost out to Robert Donat, and, at the end of the night, Lombard consoled him: "Don't worry, Pappy, we'll bring one home next year." Gable said he'd felt this had been his last chance, to which Lombard responded: "Not you, you self-centred bastard. I meant me." Still, as Frederic Raphael said: "Awards are like haemorrhoids; in the end every asshole gets one."

A winner, segregated even at the awards night

Not all Oscar winners are equal, as the story of Hattie McDaniel shows. The daughter of former slaves, she worked as an actress in Hollywood, playing maids on screen, and also, because her salary was so low, playing them for real. She won the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. It was a role criticised for feeding a black stereotype, but it won her an Oscar for best supporting actress. What it didn't win her was equality. She could not attend the film's premiere in Atlanta because of the venue's "no blacks" rule. When it came to the Oscars, she had to sit in the segregated part. Hattie died in 1952, and willed her statuette to Howard University in Washington, where she hoped it would be a beacon of achievement. So it might still be, had it not disappeared one day in the 1960s. The Academy refuses to replace it, although it has done so with other lost Oscars. Unequal, even in death.

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