Next Monday night in Los Angeles the filmmaking community will gather for its annual orgy of mutual backslapping and backstabbing, known as the Academy Awards. The orchestra will drown out speeches that stray beyond forty-five seconds in length. The TV audience will get bored and go to bed half-way through. And there will be tears, boy will there be tears! Some of them will be shed onstage as Oscars are accepted with becoming humility or unseemly gloating. Others will be blinked back by the four rejected candidates in the major categories.
But it’s probably fair to say, given the sums of money lavished on Hollywood stars, that there probably won’t be too many of the successful nominees looking at their statuettes and thinking, ‘I wonder how much I can get for this on eBay?’. That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences long ago devised a mechanism to ensure that every second pawn shop in downtown LA wasn’t selling Academy Award statuettes hocked by winners in the ‘best supporting’ categories, who then succumbed to the infamous Oscar Curse, and couldn’t get any more work. It may well be because of their ‘buy back’ policy that a persistent myth has arisen. This suggests that the statuette itself is worth only $1!
Should you find yourself in need of a bit of spare cash, or maybe the golden statuette clashes with your new curtains, you can’t just sell it on the open market. For all Oscars won after 1950 you first have to offer the statuette back to the Academy for a single dollar. It serves to discourage a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. So, in that sense at least certain statuettes could be said to be only worth one dollar.
But the cut-off date of 1950 means that there actually is a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. In 1999 the late Michael Jackson paid more than one and a half million dollars for the Gone With the Wind Best Picture Oscar from 1939. Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress statuette from the same film fetched half a million dollars.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the intrinsic value of the post-1950 statuettes in terms of raw materials and labour. They weigh around four kilos each, are 24 carat gold-plated, over copper and nickel silver, and are reckoned to cost around $400 each to produce. They are just over 34 cms tall and their official name is the Academy Award of Merit.
Another contributory factor to the myth that they are only worth a dollar might have come from the World War 2 period. From 1942 to 1945 they had other uses for metal in the USA, so the Oscar statuettes were made from gold-painted plaster. After the war recipients of Academy Awards during those three years were invited to redeem their plaster saints for the real thing. One winner was particularly grateful for that indulgence. The Irish character actor, Barry Fitzgerald won the 1944 Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of a grumpy Irish priest in the Bing Crosby vehicle, Going My Way. Fitzgerald, like the star of the film, was a keen golf fan and managed to shatter his ersatz Oscar taking an indoor practice swing.
The Academy always has a few spare statuettes handy on the night of the awards ceremony, just in case of a tie. It has happened on a number of occasions over the years that two candidates have received exactly the same number of votes. In fact, in times gone by, if there was only a single vote between the top two nominees, the generous academy would deem the result a tie and give each of them an Oscar.
As to the name ‘Oscar’ itself – in keeping with the prevailing mythology, it does actually appear to have come from the Academy’s librarian Margaret Herrick, who said, when she first saw the statuette, designed by Dubliner Cedric Gibbons, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’. So at least that famous story is not a myth. The Academy itself gave up the ghost and started officially calling the statuette after Uncle Oscar in 1939.
But, is the Oscar statuette only worth a dollar? No, it isn’t. That’s fake history.
Cedric Gibbons with Oscar