Oscar’s Real Name Is Emilio

Feature

Friday, February 21, 2014

At the Academy Awards, the Oscar statuette is as iconic as the gowns and the red carpet. With his square chest, broad shoulders, and tapered legs, Oscar is an art deco god. But, as familiar as he may be, it turns out we don’t know Oscar very well. 

For one, Oscar’s name isn’t Oscar.

Emilio Fernandez’s life reads like a Hollywood movie. Born in Coahuila, Mexico in 1904, Fernandez grew up during the bloody Mexican Revolution. He dropped out of high school to become an officer for the Huertista rebels. In 1925, Fernandez was captured and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But he escaped soon after and crossed the border to Los Angeles, where he lived in exile for the next decade.

It wasn’t long before Fernandez fell into extra work in Hollywood, where he was first called “El Indio” by the silent film star Dolores Del Rio. The nickname wasn’t exactly a compliment, but Del Rio would eventually help Fernandez become the most famous man in Hollywood.

Del Rio was the wife of MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons. Shortly after the Academy was founded in 1927, Gibbons was tasked with designing an award statuette. He’d sketched a figure of a knight holding a sword and standing on a reel of film and was looking for a suitable life model. Del Rio suggested Fernandez. She asked, he agreed.

Emilio Fernandez in the 1934 movie Janitzio (Luis Marquez Romay) Emilio Fernandez in the 1934 movie Janitzio (Luis Marquez Romay)

Fernandez went on to become one of the most celebrated directors in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. The Oscar origin story lives somewhere between legend and history. Dolores Tierney, a film professor at the University of Sussex says he was known for telling stories about his life, but that the Oscar tale rings true. “There are a lot of things that point to its veracity” she says, including Fernandez’s physique, his relationship with Dolores Del Rio, and the plot of his award-winning magnum opus, Maria Candelaria

Thousands of gold Emilios have been handed out since his Academy Awards debut. But after a 50 year career in the business, Fernandez never took one home.


Thanks to Betto Arcos, who provided translation and voiceover for this story. 
Clayton Conn contributed reporting from Mexico City.

    Music Playlist
  1. Maria Candelaria
    Album: Music from the motion picture Maria Candelaria (1944)
    Label: Grupo Nuevo Imagen
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. The Gold Rush
    Album: Music from the motion picture The Gold Rush (1925)
    Label: Criterion Collection
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Ramona
    Artist: Dolores Del Rio
    Album: Music from the motion picture Ramona (1928)
    Label: United Artist
  4. Fanfare for Oscar
    Composer: Jerry Goldsmith

Contributors:

Posey Gruener

Comments [4]

Zulma Aguiar from Waikiki, Hawaii

My mother, told me that it is common knowledge in Mexico that Emilio, a super famous, mexican filmmaker was gay, also that he slept with the sculptor. This is just a rumor, and I wrote it into wikipedia decades ago and I think more and more people have researched it and here you go, the dates and facts definitely match up.

Mar. 02 2014 06:06 AM
Emiliano

To Chris Stanley's comment: While your grandpa could have sculpted the statue, it was really Cedric Gibbons who designed the looks of it. And it is a fact that Mr. Gibbons (then the art director and founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) knew Emilio Fernandez through his then wife Dolores Del Rio. The sculptor--in this case your grandfather--would have followed the design given to him by the Art Director and maybe never even suspected that a beautiful Mexican (and a very talented and successful too!) had been used as the inspiration for the Oscar statue. Why the Oscar statue is not called Emilio is only a shame.

Mar. 01 2014 01:18 PM
Chris Stanley from Bainbridge Island Washington

What a bunch of poppycock. My grandfather was George Stanley the man who sculpted the Oscar. The Oscar looks like it does because that is the nature of the way my grandfather sculpted. My grandfather died in 1970, but 20 years later my grandmother would be interviewed for the first oral history project for the Academy of motion picture sciences. At some point in the late 1980s frustrated with the copyright battles that were going on around the Oscar I contacted the lawyer with the Academy, made some suggestions as to what text I thought their legal argument should take, and told him my grandmother was still alive. Sometime later the Academy contacted my grandmother to be the first volume in their oral history of the Academy. At the time she was the last living attendee of the first academy awards banquet. I have just finished rereading the oral history and my grandmother states that she didn't believe there was a model involved. Furthermore Barbara Hall the interviewer States that she read an interview of George where he stated he did not use a model. So you had an interesting story, but like many stories about the Oscar you didn't look very hard for the facts. The bittersweet story of my grandfathers own life would make an interesting story for your program. He was a very talented man, soft-spoken, and very good friend to those people who got to know him.
Chris Stanley

Feb. 24 2014 12:23 AM

Long ago I heard a plausible explanation of the source of the name "Oscar" for the Ac. Awd. statuette. So, for what it's worth:

Around 60 years ago (I'm now 75) as the awards were approaching, I heard a lady being interviewed on the radio; she held some administrative position with the Academy.
They asked her about the name, and she said that years before, the first year the statuettes were to be presented. the first ones arrived at the Academy office; the lady wasn't in on the design and so she had no idea what they looked like. But she was curious. She and her secretary opened a box and took one out. The secretary exclaimed "It looks just like my Uncle Oscar!!!".

Sorry, but I don't remember any particulars, such as the lady's name or position, the program on which she was interviewed, the interviewer -- nada!

Gerry Cechony (pr. sa-COE-nee)

Feb. 22 2014 10:57 AM

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