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History of Hollywood Ups and Downs

Associated Press, February 23, 2005

On the evening of May 16, 1929, some 300 film industry figures and their spouses gathered in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to dine on squab and lobster and hear Douglas Fairbanks Sr. announce the first awards of the fledgling Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

There was scant press coverage and zero suspense. The winners had been disclosed two months before.

On Sunday, 3,300 people will pack the Kodak Theatre, one block east of the Roosevelt, to witness the 77th Academy Awards. ABC and hundreds of journalists will spread the news worldwide. Suspense will be high, the results known only to the ballot-toting accountants.

How did the Oscars transform from Rotary-style achievement dinner to international extravaganza? Here's a look at the progress and potholes along Oscar's yellow brick road:


Fairbanks dispensed the statuettes in 1929 in 10 minutes. The ceremonies grew and grew, scoring a record 4 hours and 5 minutes in 1999. Part of the expansion is due to the increase in categories: 12 in 1929, 24 in 2005. Another reason: the thank-you factor. Early winners felt no need to thank everyone from their fitness coach to high school teacher.


Walter Seltzer, a publicist turned producer, recalls a meeting of the 60-member MGM publicity staff in 1939: "Our boss, Howard Strickling, announced that through the generosity of the studio, all of us as of now are members of the academy; he had enrolled everyone and paid the initiation fee. There was general jubilation and thanks, then he proceeded to tell us how we were to vote." Bloc voting was a bugaboo for the academy during its first two decades. Bosses proclaimed that employees should vote for the home product for the good of their studios. Bloc voting ended in the 1950s with the decline of the studio system.


In 1955, "Marty," a $289,000 no-star movie about a lovelorn butcher, played David to a quartet of Goliaths: "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "Mister Roberts," "Picnic" and "The Rose Tattoo." Walter Seltzer, publicity director for the company that made "Marty," and assistants Jerry Pam and Arthur Wilde devised an ad campaign to call attention to their modest film. "We ran it differently every day in the trade papers," says Pam. "We did the precursor of the screeners that academy voters get now," recalls Seltzer. "We offered to send a print of the picture, a projector and a projectionist to the home of anyone who would invite 20 academy members to a screening." The campaign cost $275,000, almost as much as the movie's budget, but a wise investment. "Marty" won four Oscars, including best picture, and encouraged other companies to campaign more vigorously for their Oscar hopefuls.


Chill Wills was a lanky hayseed character actor whose authentic Texas accent made him ideal as the voice of Francis, the Talking Mule. But he had also received good comments about his supporting role in John Wayne's "The Alamo" (1960) and decided to hire a press agent to promote himself for Oscar consideration. The result was a flurry of much criticized trade paper ads, culminating in a photo of "The Alamo" cast with the caption, "We of 'The Alamo' cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar...." Wayne was so furious that he fired off a heated letter to Daily Variety declaring that neither he nor his company had anything to do with the ad. Two years ago the academy, alarmed at the onslaught of advertising and negative campaigning, issued a manifesto outlining the dos and don'ts of the Oscar season. Excessive advertising was deplored, along with a "new and pernicious tactic" of circulating negative rumors to harm another candidate. Publicists have cleaned up their act, but "For Your Consideration" ads continue to consume acres of newsprint.


For the first 15 years the awards themselves were a party. The Hollywood elite gathered in hotel ballrooms to feast, drink, dance and applaud the winners. Such ostentation appeared unseemly during wartime, and from 1944 on, the ceremonies have been held in theaters. At first the parties afterward were casual affairs sponsored by studios. But in 1958, the academy began the Governors Ball, held after the awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Since the show took place downtown, ball attendees were faced with a crosstown drive. "After a few years, we decided that the ball would be held at the same location as the awards," says academy executive director Bruce Davis. Attendance at the ball has been challenged in recent years by lavish private parties held by Vanity Fair magazine, Elton John's AIDS benefit and others. "But everybody makes a stop at the Governors Ball, " says academy spokesman John Pavlik.


A photo from the mid-1950s illustrates the kind of star power the awards attracted in those years. A quartet of participants sit chatting at an awards rehearsal: Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, David Niven. It's a different story in today's movie world. Just ask Gil Cates, who's producing Sunday's show. He cites the years when studios would call the academy and offer 10 major stars to appear on the show. "Now stars won't go on unless it will do them some good, promote some project they have," Cates comments. "It's the Me-Me-Me Generation."

2005 Associated Press

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