It’s Oscar weekend. Designers are putting the finishing touches on gowns and jewelers are polishing millions of dollars in gemstones that will grace the necks of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities at the 84th annual Academy Awards. Fans around the country are planning parties to watch the pre-eminent film industry awards show.
But this has not always been the case. In the early years, taking home an Oscar—the 13 ½-inch gold statuette some believe was named after the uncle of Margaret Herrick, the Academy’s first director and librarian—was not the honor that is has become today.
Hollywood didn’t just appear. It was built, and the people and stories behind it are fascinating.
Debra Ann Pawlak, a Michigan native who has been enchanted by Hollywood since she was a young girl, digs deep into the roots of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in her latest book, Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy.
American Profile: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded during a turbulent time in the motion picture industry. What did the founders hope to accomplish by establishing the Academy?
Debra Ann Pawlak: Hollywood was receiving a lot of bad press from murders, affairs and scandals and the founders wanted to polish its tarnished image and show that they could produce outstanding work. Actors, writers, directors and producers also needed a governing body to mediate disputes and support one another.
AP: Louis Burt Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., is considered the founding father of the Academy, but who were other influential members?
DAP: Mayer enlisted the help of 33 men and three women, all of whom were at the top of their game in 1927 Hollywood. Each offered a unique contribution. Hollywood stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks—Hollywood’s first super couple—were almost like royalty, while others contributed behind the scenes. Joseph Arthur, a prime example of a man behind the camera, figured out how to catch the color blue in film, making a huge contribution to film in Technicolor.
AP: More than 80 years after the first ceremony, the Academy Awards continues to honor the best in the industry. What changes have made the largest impact on the organization?
DAP: When the awards ceremony began broadcasting on television in 1953, it drew in the public’s attention and began the transformation from a low-key dinner into the red carpet affair of today. In fact, Janet Gaynor, who took home the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928 for her roles in Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise, said the award was not a big deal at the time.
AP: After the shift from radio and live performances to movies, do you see another shift emerging in the future, or will movies always dominate the entertainment industry?
DAP: Although evolving, movies will always be a top form of entertainment. People like a good story; they like the wow factor from special effects, such as computer-animated graphics that make movies look so realistic it’s scary. The movie industry is always evolving to keep people’s interest.
AP: Any predictions for Best Picture this year?
DAP: My secret hope is that The Artist will win Best Picture. The awards would really come full circle, considering that a silent movie has not won since the very first award ceremony in 1929, when sound in film did not exist.