The highlight of the year for the movie industry is without a doubt, or at least it used to be. But when did it all start?
In 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was established by Louis B. Mayer, the founder of the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation, which then would be joined into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Mayer’s purpose in creating the award was to unite the five branches of the film industry, actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers. However it would take until 1929 before the first ceremony was held.
The first Academy Awards ceremony, held on May 16, 1929, was more like a corporate banquet than the star-studded spectacular we expect today. (It merited only a tiny, two-paragraph notice in The Times.) The location was the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, with roughly 270 people plunking down $5 per ticket. “It was just a family affair,” Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Academy Award for best actress, told The Times in 1982.
“I remember there was an orchestra, and as you danced, you saw most of the important people in Hollywood whirling past you on the dance floor. It was more like a private party than a big public ceremony.”
Douglas Fairbanks, the M.C. of the evening, handed out all 15 statues. Only five performers were nominated, and just two of them — Gaynor and Louise Dresser — were in attendance, as Gloria Swanson and Richard Barthelmess were traveling. Emil Jannings, the best actor winner, had returned to his native Germany, though he asked for, and received, his award before he left.
At the time of the first Oscar ceremony, sound had just been introduced into film. The Warner Bros. movie The Jazz Singer—one of the first “talkies”—was not allowed to compete for Best Picture because the Academy decided it was unfair to let movies with sound compete with silent films.
The distribution of the awards, by most accounts, clocked in at about 15 minutes.
The first official Best Picture winner was Wings, directed by William Wellman. The most expensive movie of its time, with a budget of $2 million, the movie told the story of two World War I pilots who fall for the same woman. Another film, F.W. Murnau’s epic Sunrise, was considered a dual winner for the best film of the year. German actor Emil Jannings won the Best Actor honor for his roles in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh, while 22-year-old Janet Gaynor was the only female winner. After receiving three out of the five Best Actress nods, she won for all three roles, in Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise.Back then, actors and actresses could win for more than one performance.
The Academy officially adopted the name “Oscar” for the trophies in 1939. However, the origin of the nickname is disputed.
One biography of Bette Davis, who was a president of the Academy in 1941, claims she named the award after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. A frequently mentioned originator is Margaret Herrick, the Academy executive director, who, when she first saw the award in 1931, said the statuette reminded her of “Uncle Oscar”, a nickname for her cousin Oscar Pierce.
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