OSCAR - FROM A DOODLE TO A DIDDLE
At 75 years of age, Oscar stands defiant and strong. The septuagenarian has survived wars between stars and galaxies, gods and monsters and a galaxy of stars. Oscar has been contemptible and corruptible but still he is coveted by The Bad And The Beautiful, desired by The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and worshipped by billions as The Greatest Show On Earth. Keith Lofthouse flips through the archives for some fascinating facts and tantalising trivia.
Oscar is to die for.
His father was MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, who founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at a private gathering of high-powered Hollywood moguls in 1927 to block the emerging unions from eating into studio profits.
The Awards themselves were a mere afterthought and the design of the statue, a naked knight plunging a sword into a reel of film, was the result of an idle doodle by MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons at an early committee meeting.
"the statue reminded her of her uncle Oscar
In the beginning, Oscar had no other name than the Academy Awards of Merit until Margaret Herrick, on her first day as an Academy librarian in 1931, remarked how the statue reminded her of her uncle Oscar Pierce, a Texas fruit and wheat farmer.
The nickname went round the office, reached the ears of a Hollywood gossip columnist and stuck after Walt Disney mentioned it in an acceptance speech for the Three Little Pigs in 1934.
Australia’s own love affair with the Oscars began in 1932 when Frank Capra plucked 75-year-old Australian-born stage actress, May Robson, from relative obscurity to star as Apple Annie, a penniless street vendor who became Lady For A Day.
Robson was a warm favorite to win the first Aussie award, but missed out to Oscar’s most honored actress Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory…the first of her four wins in 10 nominations.
Seventy Australians have since been nominated and 27 have either won or shared awards with costume designer Orry-Kelly our only three time winner for An American In Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).
While it has always been advisable for nominees to die before the end titles (and Best Actor winners have been doing it since Emil Jannings in 1929 to Roberto Benigni, Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington for the past four years), Jeanne Eagels, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Richardson and Massimo Troisi all received posthumous nominations but only Australia’s Peter Finch has “won.”
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” he ranted in Network (1976) and life imitated art when the 300 media interviews he did trying to win that Oscar finally killed him.
“If the son of a bitch hadn’t died,” snapped co-star William Holden in an alcoholic slur “I could have won my second Oscar!”
Sometimes stars come back from the dead to win Oscars. After stealing crooner Eddie Fisher from petite wife Debbie Reynolds in a very public scandal, Elizabeth Taylor was dead in the water as an Oscar contender for the abysmal Butterfield 8 in February 1961. But when voting began in March she was lying at death’s door in a London hospital after a tracheotomy and was suddenly hot favorite to win. “Hell,” said the first Mrs Fisher years later, “even I voted for her.”
Liz wasn’t the first or the last of the sentimental winners. Though other performances were more deserving, Paul Newman was a shoe-in for The Color Of Money after seven nominations, just as Geraldine Page was overdue for The Trip To Bountiful at her eighth try. Peter O’ Toole will rightly receive an honorary Oscar this year after seven nominations, just as W. C. Fields, Stan Laurel, Charles Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson (probably the best actor never to be nominated) were remembered before they died.
Inside Oscar declared 1953 as the year the awards “sold out to the enemy” when they were telecast for the first time. Ironically, it coincided with Cecil B. De Mille’s circus extravaganza The Greatest Show On Earth being named Best Picture…better, apparently, than High Noon, The Quiet Man and Singin’ In The Rain which wasn’t nominated.
Jose Ferrer went down on his knees to play a stunted Toulouse-Lautrec in a non-musical Moulin Rouge, but the Oscar went to Gary Cooper who stood tall for High Noon.
No Oscar telecast has rated higher in America than the year of Titanic (1998) when 55.2 million viewers tuned in. Maybe it was because the James Cameron epic was a box-office world-beater but when the great pontificator was named Best Director his shameless “I’m King Of The World” acceptance speech turned many viewers off and when later he called for a “few seconds of silence” in memory of the real Titanic those surviving the telecast went down with the ship.
They haven’t resurfaced. Last year Oscar’s audience sank to 41.8 million for the longest ever telecast (four hours and 16 minutes), a plunge of more than a million U.S. viewers from the year before.
Ever mindful of its own publicity and needing to maintain high ratings to justify the marathon airtime and the box office boom it generates, Oscar might have stooped to a desperate liaison with Robert Opal in 1974.
Opal was the infamous streaker who passed behind presenter David Niven flashing a two-fingered peace sign, plus other digits, which prompted Niven’s famous riposte: “Just think, probably the only laugh that man will ever get is for stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings.”
Oscar and his naked knight were splashed across the front pages of newspapers worldwide the next day; Opal did the rounds of all the TV talk shows and was briefly a stand-up comedian (no pun intended).
"The publicity was priceless"
The publicity was priceless but God knows whether Opal was paid for his services. He was, however, a professional streaker who strutted his stuff at Hollywood parties and he could only have wangled his way backstage if armed with a battery of VIP passes.
When he was gunned down in his Fey Way sex shop in 1979, Opal’s secret died with him but now he is an indelible part of a history that will be littered with winners, losers, ghosts and skeletons until the last picture show.
Published February 20, 2003
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Some Like It Hot (1959) - Marylin Monroe’s costumes by Orry-Kelly, Australia’s only three-time Oscar winner.