By February or March every year, we relive the same story. A film defies expectations (or lack of it) and wins big at the Academy Awards. But what are the Oscars really made of? Blood, sweat, aspirations? Yes. But pure gold – nah, here, you’d be wrong.
In 2011, a study tells us that the going production rate of each Oscar statuette is $400, made on a mould of Britannia metal (or pewter) – a composition of 92% tin, 6% antimony, and 2% copper – and then plated in 24k gold. This year the Academy chose to forgo pewter for bronze – which is double in price. But does $800 bald man of gold, officially known as the Academy Award of Merit, really defines success?
The award champions individual contributions, and yet its fraternity is a mix of power-players and guilds. Millions are spent on Oscar campaigns per picture, while the Academy spends north of $47 million per year in producing the event (they made $109 million from last year’s broadcast amongst other ancillary tie-ins).
Big movies, especially those well-known internationally (like La La Land this year) win big, but there is always a catch – or at least, a forethought, and some restrictions.
Once You Win – You Can’t Get Rid of It!
There’s no denying it: an Oscar is the ultimate personification of excellence, and for those who win an Oscar, the label – and the award – stays with you for life. Even when you don’t want it anymore.
You see, there is a strange tactic at play here – a sort of a bureaucratic muscling within the clause – that stimulates that once someone wins an Oscar, they are legally forbidden to sell it – ever.
The clause came into effect after 1950, as a means to keep Oscar’s reputation from getting tarnished. The strong-arm tactic, meant to keep the Oscar trademark from copyright infringement, had shut down rentals of 8-foot tall Oscar statuettes used for parties, killed the OscarWatch.com website, and sued a chocolatier from making the candy in Oscar’s image, writes LA Times. During the last 30 years, the Academy has filed about a dozen lawsuits to keep the awards safe. The god-complex, though, has a strong motive: to keep the Oscar’s brand safe.
Now one may be wondering: why would anyone sell one’s Oscar?
Case in point: Harold Russell – a rare non-professional actor to win not one but two awards – Best Supporting Actor and an additional honorary trophy, for The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946. In 1992, Russell sold the award to cover medical expenses for his wife. “I don't know why anybody would be critical. My wife's health is much more important than sentimental reasons. The movie will be here, even if Oscar isn't”, he is quoted saying in his obituary in The Guardian.
The Oscar was auctioned to an anonymous bidder for $60,500 – but only because it’s win predated the Academy’s rules.
Others aren’t that lucky. However, for those who really want to sell their Oscars, the Academy, by law, has first dibs: their officially offered price – $10 – may be a little bit off from one’s expectations.
$10, however, is very generous, considering that the amount was previously $1.
Oscar Collectors and Saviours
The Academy is, first and foremost, a fellowship. And fellows take care of their own. In 1996, Steven Spielberg, who himself is a recipient of three Oscars and a nominee of 13, anonymously bought Clark Gables Best Actor Oscar for $607,500. The award was for It Happened One Night, 1934 – remakes of which we’ve seen in Bollywood with Raj Kapoor and later Aamir Khan.
Spielberg, though, didn’t stop there: he later (again anonymously) bought two of Bette Davis’s Oscars – one for Dangerous (1935) and another for Jezebel (1938) – for $180,000 and $578,000 respectively. The director, however, had clear intentions from the start. The Oscars weren’t for his own collection – they were his gift to the Academy.
Kevin Spacey, like Spielberg, saved for George Stoll’s 1945 Best Score Oscar for Anchors Aweigh for $157,000 and donated it to the Academy.
Others didn’t have the same intention.
Michael Jackson bought the Best Picture Oscar that went to Gone with the Wind (1939) for $1.54 million as memorabilia. David Copperfield, the world-renowned magician, kept Michael Curtiz’s Best Director trophy for Casablanca (1943) in his bedroom for inspiration. He had bought the Oscar for $232,000, but eventually resold it.
On February 29, 2012, an auction by Nathan D. Sanders resulted in a sale of $3 million. “The highlight of the auction was”, as The Guardian notes, “the sale of Herman Mankiewicz's 1941 best screenplay statuette for Citizen Kane, which went for $588,455. Orson Welles' twin Oscar for the same prize reached $861,542.”
Herman J. Mankiewicz was the elder brother of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (the brothers looked uncannily alike) – the former was one of the most highly paid screenwriter of that time, heading Paramount’s screenwriting department; the latter won four Oscars; two for A Letter to Three Wives (1950) and All About Eve (1951).
Oscars sold at the event belonged to: How Green Was My Valley (Best Picture, 1941) for $274,520; Cavalcade (Best Picture, 1933), for $332,165; Skippy (also Best Director, Norman Taurog, 1931), for $301,973; Ronald Colman’s Best Acting award for A Double Life (1947), went for $206,250 while Charles Coburn’s Best Supporting award for The More The Merrier (1943) for $170,459. Trivia buffs would be happy to note that it was the first award in the Best Supporting Actors category.
Winning by Numbers
It’s not always bad news, restrictions and politics. Oscars are, first and foremost, about winners. And most of them are pretty popular.
Walt Disney, the man who most of us know because of Mickey Mouse and the Disney logo, is also the man with the most Oscars – 22, in fact. He is but one of an exclusive club, whose entry is limited, first by the amount of love one has in the industry, and secondly, by how successful they are.
Edith Head (1897-1981), a prominent Costume Designer, had eight Oscars to her name. As does Alan Menken – the music director who gave the songs and music for Disney hits Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Recently Emmanuelle Lubezki made history by winning consecutive Oscars for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015).
Other back to back winners are Spencer Tracy (Captain’s Courageous, Boys Town in 1937-38), Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump in 1993-94), Katherine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in the Winter in 1967-68), directors John Ford (Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley in 1940-41), Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also won back to back awards in screenplay in the same year for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve in 1949-50, and Alejandro Iñárritu, for Birdman and The Revenant.
As far as films go: Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) – all tied with 11 wins. Return of the King has an exceptional record, with 11 out of 11 wins.
But then, there are also exceptions: for example, ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, the man who lensed The Shawshank Redemption (1994), No Country for Old Men (2007), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Skyfall (2012) and Sicario (2015) has been nominated 13 times, never winning one. Go figure!