In its 87 years, the Academy Awards Ceremony has progressed from a quiet affair with three honors to an international spectacle with many categories and non-competitive awards. Everyone knows the Oscars, and even cinephiles who prefer independent film will make a point to track the nominees for Best picture. In spite of this, just who the Academy is and what it does isn’t all that well known.
It started in 1927, when Louis B Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) met with thirty-six actors, directors and writers at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and established the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Mayer’s intention was to unify creatives, standardize practices, such as writing contracts, and push the new medium of film forward.
What we known now as The Academy Awards started as a small, private award ceremony among AMPAS members. MGM, Paramount, Fox and Warner donated regularly to AMPAS to support the award ceremony until the Academy established its own budget. According to the original goals, the awards ceremony was listed in one of the bylaws as an afterthought—to offer an “award of merit for distinctive achievements.” The first Academy Awards ceremony was held in the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, the last year of the Silent Era in film history. The winners were all from films released in 1927, the founding year of the Academy. Silent war film Wings, directed by William Wellman, received the award for Best Picture. Emil Jannings took home Best Actor for The Way of All Flesh and Janet Gaynor Best Actress for her role in Seventh Heaven. File those names away for your New York Times crossword puzzles.
Mayer had not imagined that the Awards Ceremony would progress as it did. In 1933, the award ceremony was partly broadcasted on a few California radio stations for the first time. By 1945, the full show was broadcast nationally on radio, even gaining the acknowledgement of President Roosevelt. It was officially a media sensation.
Emanuel Levy explains in his book Oscar Fever:
The Show’s public grew rapidly: In 1948, an unprecedented audience of over 50 million listened to the proceedings, when ABC beamed the event to all its national affiliates and the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast to American soldiers overseas. A decade later, in 1959, the audiences doubled: 80 million Americans watched the show on television or listened to it on the radio, and another hundred million people were reached oversea, also via radio.
The mania surrounding The Oscars became mutually lucrative for television stations and for AMPAS. Television saw increased ad revenues by featuring A-list Hollywood actors on the tube (something it struggled to achieve), and AMPAS received its share, allowing it to break from major studio support and theoretically free itself from political influences.
The Oscars are the longest-running award ceremony in film and they set the standard for other performing arts awards, including the Academy’s strict regulations regarding what classifies as a film and what qualifies a nominee. The Tony, The Emmy, The Grammy, and The Golden Globes followed suit in creating separate award ceremonies to honor broadway, recorded music, and television—and more film. The Academy also predates the major film festivals such as Venice (1932) and Cannes (1946), whose winners are determined by audiences and juries, unlike the Academy’s members-only votes, which brands it as a different kind of award, in some ways more mysterious.
Politics, winner and “loser” upsets, fierce competition, advances in technology, public dissatisfaction and even theft of the statues has affected the organization of the Academy, expanding categories and refining the nomination process. The category for Supporting Actor or Actress was created in 1936 to acknowledge a dynamic in storytelling between leading roles and supporting roles, itself an indication of the medium’s progression in the transition from silent films to talkies.
In 1939, Best Picture the nominees were Gone With The Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr Chips, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Love Affair…and Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach…and The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. The award went to Gone With The Wind, but there was an enormous fuss about all that didn’t win, as one can easily imagine, given the number of classic films released in that one year. The mind reels. (And can you really believe that Wizard of Oz did not win Best Picture?) Controversies continued to crop up about snubs at the awards, and so in 1945 for the 17th Awards Ceremony, the Academy only nominated five films for Best Picture. This made nomination snubs a media preoccupation until 2010, when the nominees were increased to ten again. It’s lucrative move for the studios, as people will make a point of seeing Oscar-nominated films that they might have otherwise missed, and that added buzz likely extends back to the Awards themselves.
A large theft of the awards from the manufacturer lead to a less glamorous new procedure at the turn of this century. All statues presented on stage are decoys. (Hollywood is a land of make-believe, after all.) Winners are later sent the genuine article with their name engraved in the base.
But who decides who gets a golden man knocking at their door? The Oscars have gained prestige due to the strict rules for AMPAS membership. Levy writes, “Academy membership has always been by invitation only. From the start, the idea was to create an association of Hollywood’s creative elite.” This bold launch makes AMPAS unique. The Screen Actors Guild membership is more varied and open, including television and theater professionals, and currently shows a membership of 100,000. The Guild functions more as a labor union, while AMPAS members are strictly movie-making professionals, including actors (the largest group), directors, cinematographers, costume designers, producers, make-up artists, writers, music and visual effects artists, and has a membership of around 6,000. The Academy functions as a support system, offering merit and rewards with the Oscars, a screen writers fellowship, film archive and library. The Academy heralds as high cultural shaper and education organization.
Nominations and voting is restricted as well. Since all voting is conducted by active members, it is important for all members to participate. Rules and regulations for films are public information and listed on the Oscars’ website. For films to qualify for nomination:
All eligible motion pictures, unless otherwise noted must be:
a. feature length (defined as over 40 minutes),
b. publicly exhibited by means of 35mm or 70mm film, or in a 24- or 48-frame progressive scan Digital Cinema format with a minimum projector resolution of 2048 by 1080 pixels, source image format conforming to ST 428-1:2006 D-Cinema Distribution Master – Image Characteristics;
c. for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County,
d. for a qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days,
e. advertised and exploited during their Los Angeles County qualifying run in a manner customary to industry practice, and within the Awards year deadlines.
The top three categories of interest have not much changed from the first awards in 1927: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role. The feature films released in any given year are the result of years of work, but taken as a whole they reveal what American and global audiences are thinking and feeling in the present, especially when a movie performs well at the box office. The Awards put a sharper focus on this phenomenon and the top three categories in particular are a small study in American sentiments at the time.
This year’s nominees for Best Picture are American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash. It’s a formidable list that shows an array of challenging film topics: war veteran struggles, civil rights, aging and childhood, fatherhood, tragic genius and darker, sometimes obscured parts of our history.
Nominations for Best Actor include Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper for American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton for Birdman and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything. Nominations for Actress in a Leading Role include Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon in Wild.
These nominees and the power of their portrayals become the subject of debate, which in turns is a flashpoint for debates about the defining characteristics of the role—for instance, Islamophobia and veterans issues around Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Chris Kyle in American Sniper, and gender norms and media portrayals of women in Gone Girl via Rosamund Pike’s femme fatale, and wealth and psychosis via Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. In short, the Academy may be closed to those outside the industry, and the coveted Oscars may be limited to precious few in the Hollywood pantheon, but the whole ceremony and buzz surrounding it has become cultural touchstone even beyond America’s borders. The language of cinema is universal, and the Academy and the Oscars are there to make sure everyone hears it loud and clear.
To immerse yourself, enjoy Eight Days of Oscars at the Cinerama, which features all the nominees for Best Picture. You also have a few more days to see the Oscar-nominated short films at Seven Gables. (Ends Thursday, February 5.) Then prepare yourself for a dazzling night with host Neil Patrick Harris on ABC on Sunday, February 22nd, 4 PM PST. Seattleites celebrate it in style at Three Dollar Bill Cinema’s Oscars party, also at the newly renovated Cinerama. Buy tickets online.