15 little-known facts about the Oscars

Oscar night is almost upon us. And short of watching all the nominated films to be able to make reasonable arguments for why so-and-so was snubbed, what better way to get into the spirit than reading up on some of the fascinating, bizarre and little-known trivia from throughout Oscar history?

Here are some facts sure to make you look like the smartest person on the couch this Sunday evening during the Academy Awards (Sunday, 5:30 p.m., ABC).

  • Where the name Oscar comes from is a bit of a mystery. There are a few widely circulated, but mutually contradictory, stories about the statuette’s nickname. The most common is that then-Academy librarian Margaret Herrick chose the nickname for its strong resemblance to her “Uncle Oscar,” according to Oscars.org. Another claims Bette Davis named it after her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. A third possibility is that it was named after Oscar Wilde. Regardless of its origin, though, the nickname was in common use by the mid-1930s, and it was officially adopted by the Academy in 1939.
  • The structure of the Academy Awards has changed a lot over the years. The first ceremony, held in 1929, lasted only 15 minutes, according to History.com, and the names of the winners had been announced three months in advance. That changed with the second awards show in 1930, which held off on announcing the winners to the press until the night of the awards. But it was only after the Los Angeles Times leaked the names of the winners early, in 1941, that the sealed envelope was introduced.
  • The statuettes only sort of belong to the winners. According to Forbes.com, Oscar recipients are forced to sign an agreement stipulating that, should they ever choose to sell their statuette, they must first offer to let the Academy buy it back for $1. This practice was adopted in 1950, meaning that some of the older awards occasionally appear in auctions. Michael Jackson, for example, purchased David Selznick’s Best Picture award for “Gone with the Wind” for $1.54 million when it went up for sale in 1999.
  • Child actors used to have their own special category. In 1935, a 6-year-old Shirley Temple became the first recipient of the now-defunct Academy Juvenile Award, a miniature Oscar statuette presented to actors under the age of 18. Other stars that received the award include Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and, for the last time it would ever be presented, Hayley Mills (of “Parent Trap” fame).
  • There’s an award for Best Musical. Also known as Best Original Song Score and Adapted Score, this category is still technically in the rule books, but it hasn’t been presented since “Purple Rain” won back in 1984, due to an insufficient number of potential nominees every year.
  • Winners only have 45 seconds per acceptance speech. Although the time limit might seem overly harsh, there’s a good reason for it beyond just making sure the ceremony doesn’t drag on into the small hours of the night. On multiple occasions, winners have, for lack of a better word, abused the opportunity to speak to such a large body of their peers. In lieu of an acceptance speech for his “Godfather” win in 1973, Marlon Brando famously sent Sacheen Littlefeather to read a 15-page speech about the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. The producer of the awards show threatened to have Littlefeather arrested if she exceeded 60 seconds. Greer Garson’s pre-time-limit 1942 acceptance speech for her role in “Mrs. Miniver” holds the Guinness World Record for the longest speech in Oscar history at 5½ minutes.
  • Not everyone wants to be honored. Brando refused the 1973 Best Actor award as a form of protest. Before him, though, in 1970, George C. Scott, as recounted by Entertainment Weekly, rejected a Best Actor trophy for “Patton” because he felt actors’ performances should not be put in competition with one another.
  • Winning is good for your health. According to Forbes, a study by scientists at the University of Toronto found that Oscar winners live, on average, four years longer than the losers. And multiple Oscar winners live six years longer.
  • Who has the most Oscar nominations? If you picked John Williams, you’d be close. The “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” composer received his 49th nomination — 45 came from the same category, Best Original Score — last year for “The Book Thief.” But Williams actually ranks second to Walt Disney, who racked up a staggering 59 nominations and, even more impressive, 26 wins.
  • After Disney, the person with the most wins is … Cedric Gibbons. If he isn’t already a household name, he probably should be. As a supervising art director at MGM from 1924 to 1956, Gibbons was credited with work on more than 1,000 films, including “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” all of which earned him a total of 39 nominations and 11 wins. Also of note, Gibbons was the person responsible for designing the Oscar itself, according to Oscars.org.
  • Women vs. men. Let’s look at the numbers (via Wikipedia): The youngest recipient of the Best Supporting Actor award was Timothy Hutton for “Ordinary People” when he was 20; Tatum O’Neal won Best Supporting Actress for “Paper Moon” when she was just 10. Similarly, the youngest Best Actor was Adrien Brody, 29, for “The Pianist”; Marlee Matlin was 21 when she won for “Children of a Lesser God.” And then there’s the frequency factor: Meryl Streep earned her record-setting 19th acting nomination this year for “Into the Woods.” Among men, the honor of most Oscar nods belongs to Jack Nicholson with a paltry (by comparison) 12 nominations. And finally, in addition to having the highest-grossing films of 2013 and 2014, Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Supporting Actress nod last year for “American Hustle” makes her the youngest three-time nominee in Oscar history.
  • The distinction between Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress is not always clear. With roles where it isn’t obvious which category it would fall into, oftentimes the studio will pursue whichever one it thinks an actor or actress has the best chances of winning. Take Samuel L. Jackson’s Best Supporting Actor nod in “Pulp Fiction,” for instance, which many still feel should have been classified as a leading role. Even screen time isn’t always a factor, though. Anthony Hopkins won the 1991 Best Actor award for his role as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” — an iconic performance that lasts all of 16 minutes.
  • Animated films have a long history of being overlooked. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” made history as the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture (it lost to “Silence of the Lambs”). Since then, only two other animated films have been nominated in the category — “Up” and “Toy Story 3.” But things could have been a lot different. According to Empire Online, in 1967, Gregory Peck, who was then serving as president of the Academy, actively campaigned among voters to have “The Jungle Book” nominated, but to no avail.
  • There have been six ties in Oscar history. Most recently, the 2012 award for Sound Editing went to both “Skyfall” and “Argo.” A related phenomenon, however, is the so-called “Marisa Tomei Effect”: When a category is so loaded that it splits the vote and allows an underdog to take home the gold, as many speculate is what happened at the 1993 Oscars where Tomei beat out four other seasoned actresses with a role in the lightweight mob comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” prompting persistent (and entirely false) rumors that the presenter, an elderly Jack Palance, had misread the name in the envelope.
  • The expression “hindsight is 20/20” is all the more true for awards shows. Some of the legendary names to never win an Oscar (lifetime achievement awards don’t count) include Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole and Sam Peckinpah. Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin won his only award for Best Music, and Stanley Kubrick for Best Visual Effects. This year, repeat snubbees including cinematographer Roger Deakins (12 nominations), composer Alexandre Desplat (eight nominations), director Paul Thomas Anderson (six nominations) and actress Julianne Moore (five nominations) all have a chance to break their losing streaks.

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