13 remarkable moments in the history of the Oscars
When was the first Academy Awards? How many Oscars did Titanic (1998) win? Here's everything you needed to know about the history of the most notable event in the film industry...
When was the first Academy Awards?
The Academy Awards were first held in 1929, and each year the film industry awards gold-plated statuettes – commonly called Oscars – in a glittering and star-studded ceremony.
Who was Oscar – and why were the gold statuettes named after him?
Officially the Academy Award of Merit, everyone knows the golden knight holding a sword and standing on a reel of film as Oscar. Cedric Gibbons, art director at movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, gets the credit for designing the statuette but not for naming it.
There are three theories. Hollywood journalist Sidney Skolsky always maintained he thought it up as a less-grandiose antidote to the pretentiousness of the award ceremony. Meanwhile, actor Bette Davis claimed she once remarked the statuette’s backside resembled that of her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson.
The most likely winner, however, is Margaret Herrick, a librarian at the Academy, who said the knight (not just his bum) looked like her uncle Oscar.
Who was the first African-American to win an Academy Award?
Hattie MacDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as ‘Mammy’ in the 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind.
How many Oscars did Titanic (1998) win?
With 14 nominations and 11 wins, the blockbuster epic Titanic (1997) dominated the Academy Awards in 1998.
Which role has won Oscars while having two different actors playing the character?
Vito Corleone – played by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1973) – was the first character to have two different actors win Academy Awards for playing him. The Joker is another example of this occurrence; actors Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix both won Oscars for their portrayal of the unhinged Batman nemesis.
The history of the Oscars: 13 key moments
1929 Academy Awards: The first ceremony takes place
Founded by Louis B Mayer, head of MGM studios, in 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was intended as a non-profit organisation with the goal of advancing the film industry. The first Academy Award Ceremony took place two years later at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on 16 May 1929. Tickets for the private dinner cost $5 and the presentation ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks [actor and first president of the Academy] lasted just 15 minutes.
The film industry was undergoing a dramatic change at the time, with the revolutionary introduction of new sound technology. Although hugely popular ‘talkies’ such as The Jazz Singer (1927) had been released before the first Academy Awards, they were not considered, because it was seen as unfair to compare them to silent movies.
The first ever Academy Award was bestowed upon Emil Jannings, for Best Actor for his leading roles in silent films The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928).
The first ever Academy Award for Best Picture went to Wings, a 1927 silent movie that told the story of two pilots in love with the same woman. The film cost $2 million to produce, making it the most expensive movie of its time. Up until the release of The Artist in 2012, Wings was the only silent film to win Best Picture.
1934 Academy Awards: The wrong Frank gets up on stage
Arguably one of the most awkward Academy Awards moments happened in 1933, when both Frank Lloyd and Frank Capra were nominated in the Best Director category.
Caught up in the excitement of the ceremony, Frank Capra heard Will Rogers, who presented the award, exclaim “Come on up and get it, Frank!” He duly ran up to the stage to claim his award, only to find that it was in fact Frank Lloyd who had won.
More like this
Capra called the journey back to his chair 'the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life'
Capra called the journey back to his chair “the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life”, saying “I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm. When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying”.
However, Capra’s humiliation didn't last long: he won the Best Director gong the following year for It Happened One Night (1934).
1938 Academy Awards: An imposter nabs an Academy Award
The Best Supporting Actress Award of 1938 went to Alice Brady for her role in In Old Chicago (1937). However, she was too ill to attend the ceremony. When her award was announced an unknown man took to the stage to collect it, apparently on her behalf. Before anyone realised something was wrong the man had vanished. The mystery of the imposter’s identity – and what happened to Brady’s stolen statuette – was never solved.
Statuettes vanished again in 2000, when crates containing 55 Oscars disappeared from a loading bay. Some 52 of the statuettes were recovered soon after, found by citizen Willie Fulgear, who was rummaging in a bin behind a foodstore in LA’s Koreatown. According to the The New York Times he was looking for boxes to use for an upcoming house move. Astonished by his unexpected discovery, Fulgear told reporters: “I’ve got more Oscars than any of the movie stars”.
Investigators believed that the culprits took the Oscars by accident, unaware of the crates’ contents.
1939 Academy Awards: The name ‘Oscar’ is officially adopted
Popular legend has it that the name ‘The Oscars’ originated from Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, who claimed the award statuette bore a striking resemblance to her Uncle Oscar.
In 1939 the Academy decided to officially embrace its now synonymous nickname, which had been used informally for several years.
1939 Academy Awards: George Bernard Shaw becomes the only person to have won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize
After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, Shaw received an Academy Award for adapting his 1913 stage play Pygmalion into a film script. He didn’t attend the ceremony, however, reportedly saying: “They might as well send some honour to George for being king of England”.
1940 Academy Awards: Results are leaked ahead of the ceremony
At the first Academy Awards in 1929, the winners had been announced to the public three months previously. However, the following year the Academy decided to create a sense of suspense and instead sent an advanced list of award winners to newspapers, embargoed for publication until 11pm on the night of the Oscars ceremony.
This system remained in place for the next 10 years. However, in 1940 the LA Timesbroke the embargo and announced the winners in their evening edition, meaning that nominees could find out their fate before turning up at the ceremony.
As a result of this fiasco, the following year (1941) the sealed envelope system (that is still used today) was introduced and the results became a closely guarded secret.
1940 Academy Awards: Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Academy Award
McDaniel made history in 1940 by winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her role as ‘Mammy’ in the 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind.
However, in the year that McDaniel won, the Oscars ceremony was due to take place in a hotel that upheld a strict racial segregation policy. Film producer David O Selznick reportedly had to call in favours just to have McDaniel allowed into the building. Despite being the recipient of a major award, McDaniel had to sit at the back of the auditorium on a segregated table away from the rest of her co-stars. McDaniel was also banned from attending Gone With the Wind’s Atlanta premiere because of segregation laws.
It wasn't until 62 years later that a black actress received an Academy Award in the leading role category – Halle Berry won Best Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2002. In her famously emotional acceptance speech, Berry said: “This moment is so much bigger than me. It's for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened”. Berry is still the only black actress to have ever won in the leading role category.
1943–5: Oscar statuettes are made of painted plaster
The Oscars statuette, which depicts a knight with a crusaders’ sword stood on a reel of film, was designed by MGM’s chief art director Cedric Gibbons in 1929. In the early ceremonies the gongs were made from gold-plated solid bronze, which was later substituted for the pewter-like alloy Britannia metal.
However, as the Second World War raged, metal shortages meant that the awards had to be made from alternative materials. Consequently all awards handed out between 1943 and 1945 were made of painted plaster. When the war was over, all recipients of plaster awards were invited to exchange them for metal ones.
1945 Academy Awards: First Academy Award comes in handy in the Second World War
Emil Jannings, winner of the first ever Academy Award (for his performances in silent films The Way of All Flesh  and The Last Command ) was ruled out from the new Hollywood talkies because of his thick German accent.
Jannings therefore returned to Germany, where he became associated with Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, starring in several films promoting Nazism. When the Allies stormed Berlin in 1945, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette around with him to win over American GIs and to demonstrate his former allegiance to the US.
1968: The ceremony is postponed
In 1968 the Academy decided to push back the ceremony from 8 April to 10 April following the assassination of Martin Luther King, whose funeral was scheduled for 9 April.
The 1981 ceremony was also postponed following an assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan.
1973: Marlon Brando’s Oscar is rejected by Sacheen Littlefeather
Marlon Brando famously refused his Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather (1972) in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. He did not attend the ceremony, instead sending Native American activist actress Sacheen Littlefeather to make a speech in his place.
When Littlefeather explained Brando’s actions, the audience was clearly unsure how to react – some people cheered, others booed. A confused Roger Moore, who attempted to present the award, apparently took the statuette home with him after Sacheen Littlefeather refused to accept it.
Brando was not the first person to have refused an Oscar: in 1936 Dudley Nichols rejected his Best Adapted Screenplay award for The Informer (1935) due to ongoing strike action by the Screen Writers Guild.
Later, after receiving a Best Actor nomination for his titular role in Patton in 1971, George C Scott informed the Academy that if he won he intended refuse the award. Everyone was therefore very surprised to hear him announced as the winner. Goldie Hawn, who presented the award, exclaimed “Oh my god!” when she read the result.
Unsurprisingly, Scott did not attend the ceremony, which he reportedly dismissed as a “two-hour meat parade”.
1974: Tatum O’Neal become the youngest-ever Oscar winner
The 10-year-old received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Paper Moon (1973), in which she starred opposite her father, Ryan O’Neal. She accepted her award wearing a mini tuxedo and platform shoes.
1998 Academy Awards: Titanic wins 11 Oscars
With 14 nominations and 11 wins, the blockbuster epic Titanic (1997) dominated the Academy Awards in 1998. Starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet, it tells the tragic story of the passenger ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.
Films with historical settings have long performed well at the Oscars, from 1931's Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front, through to recent films such as The King’s Speech (2010), Lincoln (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013).
Other notable historical films that have swept the boards include the 1959 Charlton Heston epic Ben Hur (11 wins), 1996’s The English Patient (nine wins) and 1939 Civil War drama Gone With the Wind (eight wins).
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dances with Wolves (1990), Schindler’s List (1993) and Shakespeare In Love (1998) each took home seven awards.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in February 2016
Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.