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10 Oddities of Academy Award History

by Barbara J Petoskey
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The Academy Awards have provided plenty of memorable moments, whether slip-ups, a slap, or a naked man dashing across the stage behind presenter David Niven during the streaking fad of the mid-1970s. But from its beginning, the rules and values of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have, themselves, made for unique twists as they evolved with the medium to better reflect the changing times and honor the talents of its members.

Related: 10 Screen Greats Never Voted Oscar’s “Best”

10 The First Academy Award Ceremony Had No Surprises

The Academy Awards 1928-1929

The Academy handed out its first awards following a black-tie dinner on May 16, 1929, in a ceremony that took all of fifteen minutes. There was no suspense because the results had been announced in February and printed in the Academy’s newsletter. The first statuette (not yet nicknamed Oscar) had already been given to actor Emil Jannings, who was photographed with it before he returned to Germany.

The next year, the Academy held off on revealing its honorees until the presentation event, but it did give the list to newspapers in advance so it could be published immediately afterward. This protocol continued through 1940 when the Los Angeles Times jumped the gun and printed the winners in an evening edition available to attendees as they arrived for the ceremony. In response, the Academy changed to sealed envelopes and total secrecy after that.[1]

9 The First Judges Made Their Own Rules

The Spoken Words That Caused A Sensation In “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

The early selection process was not particularly democratic. Members of the newly founded Academy made suggestions from among all films released from August 1, 1927 to July 31, 1928. Then, a small Board of Judges whittled the top ten vote-getters in nine categories down to three finalists in each, and a five-man (yes, all male) Central Board of Judges selected the winners. No distinction was made between lead and supporting roles, and actors and actresses were recognized for a body of work during the designated time period rather than a specific film.

The Board of Judges also had the final say-so on eligibility. While various technologies to link images with music and sound effects had been experimented with for years in short films, The Jazz Singer (1927) changed everything. This feature-length movie boasted not only music but brief moments of dialogue, including the silver screen’s first ad-lib: Al Jolson saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

The all-powerful judges deemed this box office favorite to be unfair competition for silent films and declared it ineligible for the first Outstanding Picture honors. As a consolation prize, Warner Bros. received a Special Award “for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.”

In another unilateral decision, the judges gave a second Special Award to Charlie Chaplin, stating in a letter to him that it had “unanimously decided that your name should be removed from the competitive classes and that a special first award be conferred upon you for writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus. The collective accomplishments thus displayed place you in a class by yourself.”[2]

8 The Academy’s Math

How Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn Tied for Best Actress

The Academy Awards for 1931-1932 featured not only the first radio broadcast of part of the ceremony but also the first presentation of two awards for the same category. Frederic March received one more vote for his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than did Wallace Beery for The Champ, but under the Academy’s odd rules at the time, a difference of less than three votes was considered a tie, and both actors were honored. March and Beery also shared the fact that they had each recently adopted children. March suggestively joked, “Under the circumstances, it seems a little odd that Wally and I were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.”

In later years, the rules were changed to recognize only an exact tie in a major category. In 1969, during the first ceremony to be televised worldwide, Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) shared Best Actress honors when each received 3,030 votes. For Hepburn, this was her record-setting eleventh nomination and third win. For Streisand, it was her film debut.[3]

7 Oscar Junior

Judy Garland receiving a Special Award

W.C. Fields is credited with advising actors to never work with children or animals. How much worse to compete for an award with a child, as happened when Lionel Barrymore beat out nine-year-old Jackie Cooper, nominated for Best Actor in Skippy (1931). To avoid a recurrence, in its seventh year, the Academy created a special half-sized Juvenile Award for the little box-office dynamo Shirley Temple “In grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934.” When she finally received her miniature statuette long past her bedtime, the sleepy six-year-old thanked the presenter, then asked, “Mommy, can I go home now?”

A total of twelve Juvenile Awards would later be given, including to Mickey Rooney (age eighteen) and Deanna Durbin (seventeen) in 1939, Judy Garland (seventeen) in 1940 for Babes in Arms and The Wizard of Oz, and Margaret O’Brien (seven) for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). A Juvenile Award was last presented to Hayley Mills (fourteen) for Pollyanna (1960). Mills was in an English boarding school at the time and not available to receive the mini-Oscar from its first recipient, a grown-up Shirley Temple.[4]

6 Lack of Support

Academy Awards Out-takes 1936

Starting with films released in 1936, nominations were made by a committee of fifty, and winners were voted on by the entire Academy membership. Also, the two acting categories, where performers with smaller parts had always lost to those with more screen time, were expanded to include separate recognition for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress.

However, these winners received a plaque mounted vertically on a wooden base alongside a small, raised figure of Oscar. Supporting players did not receive the same statuette as their starring peers until 1943.[5]

5 An Oscar That Might Speak for Itself

Charlie McCarthy & Edgar Bergen in ‘Nut Guilty’ (1936)

As a child, Edgar Bergen taught himself ventriloquism from a twenty-five-cent pamphlet called “Herrmann’s Wizards’ Manual.” During the 1920s, he and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, became a hit on the vaudeville circuit, with the act’s success due more to its humor than to Bergen’s technical skills, as he played straight man to his wise-cracking sidekick.

Their popularity expanded first to radio, then to a string of movie shorts and features. In 1937, the Academy recognized both partners with an Honorary Award: appropriately, an Oscar statuette made of wood that had a moveable mouth. The duo attended the presentation ceremony in their signature top hats and tuxedos.[6]

4 Better Late Than Never

Walt Disney Has the MOST Oscars?!

Walt Disney’s studio produced two of the three nominees in 1932’s new category of Short Subjects (cartoons), and he took home the award for his six-minute Flowers and Trees, the first animated short in full color. Disney continued to rack up wins or nominations in that category during Oscar’s first decade.

But while audiences were dazzled by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), this groundbreaking film was nominated only for Best Music, Score along with thirteen competitors because the “cartoon” category assumed a short film rather than a full-length feature.

To make up for this oversight, Disney was given an Honorary Award in 1939 that recognized (albeit belatedly) his masterwork “as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” This one-of-a-kind award had a full-size Oscar atop a wooden column flanked by seven dwarf Oscars on descending steps.

The “cartoon” category for short subjects was finally changed to the more comprehensive “animated films” in 1971. But again ahead of its time, Disney’s spectacular Beauty and the Beast (1991) would have to compete with flesh-and-blood actors for Best Picture because feature-length animation did not receive a category of its own for another decade, in time to honor Shrek (2001).[7]

3 Oscar Joins the War Effort

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Presentation of the fourteenth Academy Awards was scheduled for February 26, 1942, less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II. Rather than cancel, the Academy decided to stage a more modest affair, with no searchlights outside and the stars wearing less formal attire rather than tuxedos and gowns or in uniform like James Stewart, a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force.

Even Oscar dressed down for the duration. Whereas the 13 ½-inch tall statuette had previously been cast in solid bronze with a 24-karat-gold plate, the awards presented between 1943 and 1945 were made of plaster and coated with a bronze lacquer to conserve metal for the war effort. Winners were told they would be able to trade them for the traditional version when the war was over.[8]

2 Better Really Late Than Never

Charlie Chaplin’s Honorary Award | 44th Oscars (1972)

After receiving special honors in the Academy’s first year, Charlie Chaplin only won a single competitive Oscar, and it was given for work that waited two decades to be recognized. In October 1952, Chaplin sailed for London shortly before Limelight (a film he had written, directed, starred in, and scored) was released in New York City.

Meanwhile, with no clear evidence, the Justice Department was investigating allegations that he had ties to communists, and the U.S. attorney general labeled him “an unsavory character.” Chaplin, still a British citizen, had his re-entry permit revoked, and he vowed never to return. When the American Legion and other veterans’ groups threatened to picket the totally apolitical Limelight, and RKO Studios head Howard Hughes urged RKO theaters not to book the film, future showings around the country were canceled.

Academy rules of the day stated that a film had to have a public screening in Los Angeles to be Oscar-eligible in a given year. Although Limelight had a one-week run in San Francisco in 1955, it did not make its required L.A. premier until December 1972. Finally, in March 1973, Chaplin, Ray Rasch, and Larry Russell (the latter two long deceased) shared the Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score of the twenty-year-old film. The previous spring, Chaplin had broken his pledge and come back to Hollywood to accept a second Honorary Award “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”[9]

1 Oscar Sees Dead People

Heath Ledger Wins Best Supporting Actor for the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ | 81st Oscars (2009)

James Dean only had three major film roles in his all-too-brief career. Yet he was nominated for Best Actor honors in consecutive years—both posthumously. Six months after the charismatic actor debuted in East of Eden (1955) and weeks before the opening of Rebel without a Cause (1955), he was killed. On September 30, 1955, at age twenty-four, his Porsche Spyder collided with another car on a mountain road near Cholame, California, only hours after Dean was ticketed for speeding.

The late Dean received an Oscar nod that winter for East of Eden but lost to Ernest Borgnine in the Best Picture winner Marty. Because Dean’s final film, Giant (1956), was not released until the following year, he had a second chance from beyond the grave but lost to Yul Brynner in The King and I.

Veteran film star Peter Finch died of a heart attack not long before being nominated for Best Actor in Network (1976). He became the first performer to win after his death. His Oscar was accepted by his widow, Eletha Finch, and the film’s screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky.

Twenty-eight-year-old Heath Ledger died on January 22, 2008, from what was determined to be an accidental overdose of multiple prescription drugs. One year later to the day, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). When he became the first posthumous winner in this category, his parents and sister accepted on his behalf.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen