Wednesday 11 December 2019

Did Marisa Tomei really win? Six Oscar myths debunked

Marisa Tomei accepts her Oscar in 1993
Marisa Tomei accepts her Oscar in 1993

Rebecca Hawkes

From the star of Cousin Vinny who 'accidentally' won an Oscar to the dog supposedly cheated out of his. Here's the truth about six enduring Academy Awards myths...

1. Did Marisa Tomei win an Oscar ‘by mistake’?

Poor Marisa Tomei. A particularly persistent rumour claims that the star wasn’t supposed to win Best Supporting Actress back in 1993 – and that 74-year-old presenter Jack Palance called her name by mistake, either because it was the only name he could remember, or because he was reading off the teleprompter rather than off the card in his hand. (Or, some sources suggested, because he was drunk.)

The unkind story may have gained traction due to the fact that Tomei, who won the award for her performance in the comedy My Cousin Vinny, was a relative underdog in her category, competing with “serious” actresses  such as Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. Palance’s reputation as something of an eccentric (his Oscars acceptance speech the year before memorably featured a bout of push-ups) probably didn’t help matters much.

But despite its longevity, the rumour appears to be absolutely untrue. Most online investigations (Snopes and Gawker both have good longer reads on the story) suggest that it can be traced back to a gossip piece in The Hollywood Reporter, published on March 22 1994, a day after the following year’s ceremony.

In it, the publication claimed that “a rumour is currently making the rounds in Manhattan, fanned by no less than the former son-in-law of a distinguished Academy Award winner, to wit that last year Marisa Tomei received her Oscar statue by error”. In the version reported, Palance “arbitrarily” reads out Tomei’s name after being unable to make out the name on the card.

The articles quickly dismisses the rumour as impossible, pointing out that two members of the accounting company responsible for regulating the Oscars ballots are sat backstage at all times, ready to leap into action should a mistake be made. But, after their report, the story quickly spread: Entertainment Weekly covered it (again, pointing out that it probably wasn’t true) and Tomei herself eventually took part in several Saturday Night Live skits, designed to poke fun at the rumour. And in 1997, film critic Rex Reed fanned the flames of conspiracy, after he claimed on TV that a “massive cover-up” had taken place.

These days, perhaps the most obvious rebuttal comes via YouTube, where the video of Tomei’s win makes it pretty clear that Palance is reading her name off the card (skip to 1.27).

2. Were they named after someone’s uncle?

No-one seems to know exactly where “Oscar” – the friendly-sounding nickname for both the Academy Award statuettes and for the ceremony itself – comes from. An often-cited story, however, claims that the name was the creation of Academy librarian and director Margaret Herrick, who once pointed out that the gong “looked just like” her Uncle Oscar.

This has always sounded a little unlikely, and it turns out the truth could a bit more complex.

The first written example of the term, for instance, was in 1934, in an article by the Hollywood gossip writer Sidney Skolsky. But, instead of attributing Herrick and her uncle, Skolsky later claimed that he coined the phrase himself, as a way to mock the “phony dignity” of Hollywood and of the awards themselves.
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“It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name, ” he wrote in his 1975 memoir (via Mental Floss). “I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human.”

“You know how people can rub you the wrong way? The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys…”

Elsewhere, it’s been suggested that actress Bette Davis may have “named” the award, after her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson Jr, although few people now believe this to be true.

3.  Is there an Oscars curse?

Liver-munching Leonardo DiCaprio is hotly tipped to win an Oscar this year for his performance in The Revenant – but should the star be secretly worried about the prospect of winning?

The legend of the “Oscars curse” has several variations (sadly none of them involve Margaret Herrick’s uncle returning from the dead, wrapped in bandages, and hungry for vengeance). In a nutshell, it states that after winning the coveted Best Actress or Best Actor award (or the Best Supporting award) the recipient will usually suffer a prolonged period of bad luck.

Often, this can take the form of a career dip: Cuba Gooding Jr (who won Best Supporting Actor in 1996 for Jerry Maguire), Halle Berry (who won Best Actress in 2001 for Monsters Ball) and Jennifer Connelly (Best Supporting Actress for A Beautiful Mind in 2002) are sometimes cited as examples of individuals who have never matched their winning performances. (The “curse” is apparently more about prestige and acclaim than financial success.)

Halle wore an Elie Saab dress when she picked up her Oscar for Best Actress for Monster's Ball in 2002. As Cosmopolitan magazine put it: "Probably one of the best-known Oscar dresses of all time, it shows off Halle's best parts, while the strategic embroidering still leaves something to the imagination. There's a lot of material on the bottom half, but it doesn't swallow her up or hide the shape of her legs."

There’s also a Wikipedia page dedicated to the “Oscars love curse”, with a list of all the Best Actress winners who have later allegedly been cheated on by their husbands or partners, or seen their relationships disintegrate: the names include Bette Davis, Barbara Streisand, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Lawrence. Of course, it’s not exactly the most reliable of sources – but is there anything in it?

A cheery 2015 study titled The Real Oscar Curse: The Negative Consequences of Positive Status Shifts examined how the personal lives and careers of Oscar winners changed after their success.

It found that, for female winners, the post-win divorce rate was 85 per cent lower than that of non-nominees.

It wasn’t such good news for male winners, however: the divorce rate for Best Actors was found to increase by 205 per cent in the first year after their win.

On the plus side, however, the rumoured career dip was found to be untrue, with winners in fact taking on more films than average in the years following their success.

"The Oscars actually improved their acting careers,” said the study’s co-author, Dr Heeyon Kim (of the University of Singapore).

4. Was Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar thrown into the Potomac river?

Hattie McDaniel, who claimed the Best Supporting Actress Award for her performance in Gone With The Wind, is remembered today for being the first black person to win an Oscar – and for doing so at a time when racism was rife and segregation still in place. Famously, she was made to sit apart from her cast-members during the ceremony itself.

McDaniel, who died in 1952, bequeathed her Oscar to Howard University – but the statuette was discovered to be missing in the early Seventies, and no one now seems entirely sure where it is.

One enduring story claims that it was thrown into the Potomac river by protesting students after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968.

Hattie McDaniel with Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

But an in-depth study into the whereabouts of the missing Oscar by academic Professor W. Burlette Carter, available to read online here, concludes that this story was a fabrication. Carter, who does not know the present day whereabouts of the statuette, also investigates and dismisses claims that the Oscar was stolen by a faculty member at the time, arguing that, while it was removed from display in the Seventies, it remained with the university.

“At press time, this writer cannot say where the McDaniel Oscar is now,” Carter concludes, “She can only speak as to where it was as of 1972. It was not thrown into the Potomac River. Protesting students did not take it. Professor Owen Dodson did not slip it under his coat on his way out, nor did Professor Mike Malone take it. The story of its fate is a rather pedestrian one. In the midst of the dramatic changes wrought by the ‘60s, those in charge acted responsibly. They made room for the young to have their say, and they placed the Oscar, the shoes, and other artifacts back in the Pollack Collection.”

5. Are the Oscar statuettes really made of gold?

The short answer to this? No. The awards were originally made from gold-plated bronze, before this was later swapped for an alloy known as Britannia metal, which is still used today. The Britannia metal statuette is plated in copper and nickel silver, before getting a finishing coat of 24-carat gold. According to the Academy Awards memorabilia website Hollywood Golden Guy an exception was made during the Second World War, when plaster Oscars were used due to a shortage of metal. Winners were later able to cash these in for “the real thing”.

6. Was Rin Tin Tin unfairly cheated out of his Oscar?

There was widespread outrage back in 2012, when audiences claimed that Uggie, the adorable canine star of The Artist, deserved an Oscar for his work on Michel Hazanavicius's Best Picture winner.

A “Consider Uggie” campaign  urging awards bodies to recognise the four-legged thesp with a Best Actor nomination, gained considerable traction on Facebook – and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts was eventually forced to issue a statement: "Regretfully, we must advise that as he is not a human being and as his unique motivation as an actor was sausages, Uggie is not qualified to compete for the Bafta in this category."

Uggie, who sadly had to be put to sleep last year after a battle with prostate cancer, never gained any “human” awards (although he did manage to gain the prestigious Palme Dog Award at the Cannes Film Festival). But the campaign echoed an earlier animal actor controversy, from the very first Oscars ceremony back in 1929.

Uggie the Jack Russell in The Artist.

Author Susan Orlean (who also wrote The Orchid Thief, the book being adapted in Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation) has argued that famous German Shepherd, movie star and canine celebrity Rin Tin Tin was cheated out of the Best Actor prize at the very first Academy Awards, back in 1929.

In her book Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend, Orlean claims that while Rin Tin Tin gained the most votes, the Academy, keen to uphold prestige, opted to give the award to German silent film actor Emil Jannings.

“That first year that the Oscars were awarded, it seems to have been more a popularity contest than a serious assessment of performance,” Orlean told Deadline in 2012. “In terms of popularity, Rin Tin Tin didn’t have a peer, he was a huge star around the world and helped Warner Bros transition from its start as a small studio into a large one. I can’t imagine that Emil Jannings was opening films, but Rin Tin Tin certainly did.”

However, Orlean's claim has been knocked down elsewhere. As writer Andre Soares points out: "Each member of the actors' branch could select only one performance in one of two categories, Best Actor and Best Actress. Votes were then tabulated by a Board of Judges and the top three nominees were announced. For the record, they were Emil Jannings for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, Richard Barthelmess for The Noose and The Patent Leather Kid, and Charles Chaplin for The Circus." Poor Rin Tin Tin, it seems, was never a contender.

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