Friday 18 August 2017

The Irish father of film's biggest prize

Dubliner Cedric Gibbons designed the world's most famous golden statuette and went on to win a few

Hollywood royalty: Cedric Gibbons (left) with Dolores Del Rio and David Niven at the Trocadero Cafe in Los Angeles for Connie Bennett’s birthday party, 1943. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hollywood royalty: Cedric Gibbons (left) with Dolores Del Rio and David Niven at the Trocadero Cafe in Los Angeles for Connie Bennett’s birthday party, 1943. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jonathan deBurca Butler

Tonight the great and the glamorous of Hollywood will gather at the Dolby Theatre to honour their colleagues in the film profession's most prestigious awards ceremony. Approximately 30 people will walk away with an Oscar this evening and we are hopeful there will be some Irish among them.

What they may not know, as they stand there staring lovingly at the coveted golden statuette, is that it was designed by an Irish man.

The Academy Award of Merit, to give it its official title, was designed by Hollywood art director and set designer Cedric Gibbons in 1928.

As his model, Gibbons used Mexican actor and director Emilio Fernandez. Though the well-built Fernandez was at first reluctant, he ended up posing nude for Gibbons, who based the statuette on the Mexican's impressive frame. He then tailored the design with some Art Deco touches, posed it like a knight, and gave it a sword. The base has been streamlined to cater to the ever-changing whims of fashion, but the design of the statuette itself has not changed since it was first given out in 1929.

Fernandez had been suggested to Gibbons by Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress and beauty who had made her name in the silent era. She and Gibbons were lovers and in 1930 they married.

In a magazine interview she gave shortly after the wedding, Del Rio explained why Gibbons was such a catch.

"Cedric is perfect," she asserted. "First, he is American, with that dash most American men seem to possess. And he is understanding and sympathetic... he is an artist, and in his artist's appreciation he has been endowed with the sensitivity of the Latin. A perfect husband, no?"

Of course, Gibbons was not American. He was Irish. He was born in Dublin in 1893, but soon after his father, Austin P Gibbons, an architect originally from Westport, moved the family to New York. Here, Gibbons Snr set up a successful architectural firm but records show that he died in 1906, at the age of just 41.

Having graduated from the Art Students League of New York in 1911, Cedric spent a short period working in his father's practice before moving on to work at the (Thomas) Edison Studios. He first designed a set for a film released in 1919 and, though the studios closed shortly after, it was enough to get him noticed on the West Coast. In 1918, he made the trek across the United States to join the newly-formed Goldwyn Pictures.

When, in 1924, the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B Mayer Pictures to create MGM, he took Gibbons on as the studio's artistic director.

A year later, he visited Paris for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. It was a huge influence on him. The avant-garde ideas of architecture and design that he saw on display went into the pioneering Big White Sets, which made him a darling of the American movie industry.

In the press release for Our Dancing Daughters (1928), starring Joan Crawford, MGM heralded Gibbons's "modernistic" effects, including "weird beds" devoid of conventional legs. His use of geometric solids and voids, along with elaborate stepped recesses, were custom-made for the all-singing, all-dancing black-and-white movies of the period, where contrast was expressed in shape rather than colour.

He soon rose to the top of his trade and was, at least on the face of it, prolific. His name appears on no fewer than 1,500 movies; a physical unlikelihood, which according to the book Let's Go to the Movies! by Lester Gordon was down to the fact that "His 1924 contract stated that every film released by MGM in the USA would give him the credit of Art Director, even though others did the majority of the work".

Either way, by the end of the decade, he was so influential among the jet set of Los Angeles that he was one of the founding members of the Academy for the Performing Arts, the very same body with responsibility for handing out those shiny gold statuettes every year.

Gibbons was himself nominated a total of 38 times. He won a staggering 11, making him the most decorated Irish person in Oscars history. The Wizard of Oz (1939), Quo Vadis (1951) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950) are among the most famous movies bearing his name.

He brought the same sensibilities he used in his movies to his own house, a large temple to Art Deco, which he built as a love nest for himself and Del Rio. It still stands and sold in 2015 for $3.6m.

It was at one of the many parties that Gibbons hosted there that Errol Flynn was discovered, while practising archery on the lawn. The two would become life-long friends.

On the surface, Gibbons and Del Rio's relationship was as pristine as their newly-built mansion. Behind closed doors, cracks had begun to appear. One story suggests there was a trapdoor from the master bedroom closet that led to the closet in the downstairs bedroom. Gibbons slept downstairs, Del Rio slept upstairs and when he felt the urge he would climb the ladder.

He wasn't the only one. Del Rio, whose career had floundered somewhat with the invention of talkies, became frustrated with Gibbons's busy schedule. That frustration led her to Orson Welles. Their two-year affair caused something of a scandal and led to the couple's divorce in 1941.

Gibbons was never far from beautiful women. In December 1942 gossip columnist, Dorothy Kilgallen spotted Gibbons "sniffing orange blossoms…" with 19-year-old Hazel Brooks, a stunning South African actress, a photo of whom would later be voted "Most Provocative Still of 1947" by the International Society of Photographic Arts. The age difference inspired a certain amount of winking in the gossip columns when they married, but their marriage proved a strong one. In 1956, Gibbons was presented with the statuette he had designed one last time, for Lust for Life, a biopic starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. In 1960, he died with Hazel Brooks by his side.

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