Ceremony: The Birth of the Academy Awards

by Tom George Hammond

The opulence of the current Academy Awards befits the ceremony’s foundations.  Louis B. Mayer, the studio demon and minor antagonist to civility (he was very much a precursor to Weinstein), created the “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” in order to prevent the growing Hollywood set from unionising.  Instead of gifting actors and writers with pension plans, Mayer offered them a gold statue, and the initial plan worked a treat.  The first ceremony was hosted in the Roosevelt Hotel in 1929; there was a luscious banquet, a host – Douglas Fairbanks, the first great silent film star who would soon slip out of fashion in the transition to sound – and honorary awards given to Al Jolson, for The Jazz Singer, and Charlie Chaplin.  Chaplin was then still reeling from the onslaught of publicity surrounding his troubling divorce from Lita Grey, who he had begun an affair with when she was 15 years old (he was 36) on the set of The Gold Rush in 1925.  The first film to win Best Picture was Wings (1927), a tragedy about two friends attempting to survive the First World War.  Another of that evening’s winners was German actor Emil Jannings, who collected Best Actor for his work in the films The Way of All Flesh (1927) – now a lost film – and The Last Command (1928).  This was very much Jannings’ peak in Hollywood, and he would soon return to Germany and appear in Nazi propaganda films such as Uncle Kruger and Bismarck’s Dismissal.  He is, one hopes, the only Oscar winner to have also been titled “Artist of the State” by Josef Goebbels.  Best Actress was first awarded to Janet Gaynor, then just 23 years-old, and one of the few silent film stars who convincingly transitioned into ‘talkies’.  She is rumoured to have had a ‘lavender marriage’ to the costume designer Adrian – yes just Adrian, the Adele of costume design – and there were whispers that Gaynor was secretly having an affair with Mary Martin, while Adrian was having private evenings with Cary Grant. 

In the year 1930, as the U.S. buckled into the Great Depression, the Academy held two Oscar ceremonies.  The awards were reprised so quickly because of the astonishing restructuring of Hollywood that came with the popularisation of the ‘talkies’.  Many silent film stars were unseated by this evolution, and film was entering what is now, perhaps naively, regarded as a giddy age known as the ‘pre-Code era’.  The Hays Code was named after William Hays, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who was hired to “clean up” motion pictures when he was appointed chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.  The Code itself was written by a small coterie of Catholic laymen, including the magnificently named Joseph Ignatius Breem, who would later form the National Legion of Decency in 1933.  A document was presented to Hays outlining the new “Production Code” in 1930, although it did not come into effect properly until 1934; it outlawed profanity, nudity (even in silhouette), portrayal of sexual perversions, ridicule of the clergy and miscegenation.  So, for a brief four-year period, between 1929-34, mixed-race couples, homosexuals and silly clergymen were allowed to be portrayed on screen.  Hays was one of two guests of honour at the second Oscar ceremony of 1930 – the other was Thomas Edison – and treated the audience to an hour-long lecture about morality in cinema.  The Hays code was formally abandoned, and replaced by the MPAA, in 1968.

The early Oscar ceremonies were marked by error and scandal.  In 1930, Best Actress was awarded to Norma Shearer, who was married to Irving Thalberg, head of productions at M-G-M.  Those contracted to M-G-M were reportedly highly encouraged to cast their ballot for Ms. Shearer.  In 1932, Fredric March won Best Actor for his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and moments later Wallace Beery was also awarded the same trophy for his wok on The Champ (also 1931).  This came after Conrad Nagel, the then Academy president and that year’s host, hastily ordered a statue for Beery after the former was informed that Beery had only lost the nomination by one vote (in the old Academy rules, that constituted a tie).  In 1936, Hal Mohr was awarded with Best Cinematography for his work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite the fact that he had not been nominated.  A pattern started to emerge for how the awards would function.  The Oscars have never escaped the albatross of their bad decisions; as an example, at the same ceremony in 1936, Bette Davis won Best Actress for her performance in Dangerous, which many considered to be an implicit apology from the Academy for not rewarding her turn in Of Human Bondage the year before.  Davis, in Of Human Bondage, delivered what one reviewer deemed to be “the best performance ever recorded for the screen by a U.S. actress”, but she was not even nominated for it.  This tradition of the Academy rewarding creatives for lesser work remains proudly in effect even today.  Al Pacino’s quintessential performance in The Godfather Part II was bested at the 1974 Academy Awards by Art Carney’s role in Harry and Tonto (which was described by Variety as a “pleasant film about an old man who rejuvenates himself on a cross-country trek”).  Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, but won his Oscar for a shouty film set in Boston.  When Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992, the envelope may have said Scent of a Woman, but he was winning for The Godfather.  An optimist might say that Lulu Wang will one day receive her own award from the Academy, and for whatever she is winning for, she will also be winning for The Farewell.

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first non-white person to win an Academy Award.  She was also the first black person to ever be permitted to attend the Academy Awards.  For her performance in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel was invited to the Ambassador Hotel despite the hotel’s strict ‘no-blacks’ policy.  She was seated at a separate table from her fellow cast members, placed right next to the kitchens, and read a speech that was written for her by studio head David O’Selznik, a speech that included the statement; “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry”.  After her Oscar win, McDaniel was put on tour by David O’Selznik and portrayed her ‘Mammy’ character on stages across the U.S.  In 1958, Miyoshi Ukemi won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the Second World War tragedy Sayonara.  Ukemi was the first – and to this date, the only – Asian actor to win an Academy Award. 

The night of McDaniel’s win also saw Bob Hope host the Academy Awards for the very first time.  Before his hiring, the host was commonly the Academy President, although in 1938, the planned host had taken ill at the very last minute and was replaced by Southern comedian Bob ‘Bazooka’ Burns. Back to Bob Hope, however, whose droll style dictated the model for all future emcees, and indeed the Academy spent the next fifty years either employing Hope again – who hosted 19 times – or male comedians of a similar physical stock (that stock being slick, handsome but not especially handsome, a star but a comedy star, satirical but firmly in the employ of the court); so Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Jack Lemmon, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and of course Billy Crystal.  Their skill with all things smooth masked how wonderfully messy the ceremonies themselves remained.  Until 1940, the winners were leaked to the press before the ceremony even began (Price Waterhouse used to inform Mayer of the winners in advance).  In 1945 – the Oscars continued to be held throughout the Second World War, as a symbol of American strength and resolve (although the statues themselves were made of plaster during that time, to save precious metal) – the actor Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor for the same performance in Going My Way.  He was beaten to Best Actor by Bing Crosby, who won for his performance in Going My Way.  The 1953 Oscars marked the first time that the ceremony was broadcast on live television.  (Before this, the ceremony had been broadcasted on radio since 1932.  The Oscars had also been open to public attendance since Bette Davis rallied for the change as Academy President in 1941).  It was a decision borne from economic necessity; the Academy had their funding cut off from the studios and were saved from cancellation by an investment from NBC.  That ceremony, again hosted by Bob Hope, saw High Noon lose Best Picture to Cecil B. DeMille’s weird circus movie The Greatest Show on Earth.  When that category was announced, the audience was so surprised and disgruntled that they forgot to clap. 

All these moments of error and segregation should render the Oscars completely weightless; the Awards are still dogged by their segregationist instincts and it is clear that it has never mattered to the Academy what project an actor or director wins for, so long as they eventually win for something.  But while these things have always been the case, just as every other Best Picture winner has always been a sober biopic about recent history or a War, there is layer of tragedy to the history of the Awards. 

One tragedy that sticks in the mind; two years after the first televised ceremony, Judy Garland had established herself to be the clear favourite to win Best Actress for her performance in George Cukor’s remake of A Star is Born.  Garland had previously played the role of Esther Blogett in a radio adaptation of the same film in 1942, a role that was originated by Janet Gaynor in 1937 – who experienced a major career rejuvenation because of it.  The superb James Mason took the reins from Fredric March as the troubled star Norman Maine, but it was Judy’s film from the moment it entered production.  Garland and Cukor were troubled children of the Hollywood machine.  They both had triumphant years in 1940, with Garland winning an honorary award for her performance in The Wizard of Oz and Cukor brushing off the humiliation of his very public firing from Gone with the Wind by making The Philadelphia Story.  Incidentally, both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, nominated in the same year for Best Picture, saw three directors work on them during filming – Victor Fleming ended up claiming the credit for both productions, leaving Oz prematurely to take the helm of the latter.  Judy Garland was treated abysmally as a child star; she was shaped and abused by the monstrous Louis B. Mayer, starved by the shallowness of the studio system, slapped repeatedly on the set of Oz by Fleming, then cast away from M-G-M when she was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Cukor, meanwhile, was what was winkingly known as a “woman’s director”.  His secret left him vulnerable; on the set of Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable is said to have stopped a scene because he could not “be directed by a fairy”; “I have to work with a real man!”.  (Gable perhaps feared for his own reputation after his dalliance, as a younger man, with the actor William Haines, the latter of whom was fired from M-G-M by Louis B. Mayer after he refused to enter a ‘lavender marriage’ to counter rumours of his homosexuality.  Haines then left Hollywood to become an interior decorator).

The collaboration between Cukor – an instinctive actor’s director who helped to build the careers of Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo – and Garland led to the latter delivering her greatest on-screen performance; it was the culmination of twenty years of stardom and the torture of stardom, but it was also a comeback, after Garland’s dismissal from M-G-M, and a defiant stand against the studio that had torn into her and then cast her aside.  Cukor, who earned his first Best Director nomination for his adaptation of Little Women in 1934 (starring Hepburn as Jo March), did not receive any recognition from the Academy that year, and nor did the film receive a nomination for Best Picture.  After the film was released, Warner Bros. became anxious at the film’s three-hour runtime and eventually cut A Star is Born down to 100 minutes.  It is thought that this move from the studio immensely damaged the film’s chances for the Academy Awards yet Garland still garnered her nomination.  NBC seemed so sure that Garland would win for her performance that evening, on March 30th 1955, that they sent a camera crew to the hospital room where she was resting, having just given birth to her son Joseph.  Her victory speech was prepared, and when the winner for Best Actress was announced, it was planned that the broadcast would cut live to the all-conquering Garland, after she had improbably rebuilt herself from a malevolent studio system…

And then Grace Kelly won for The Country Girl, and the camera crew swiftly left Garland alone in her hospital room.