Apr 21, 2021
On Sunday, April 25, millions of people will likely watch the Academy Awards just like they do every year. Due to the ongoing pandemic, though, the 93rd Oscars will look decidedly unlike any that have preceded it. With strict precautions in place, attendees will be limited to nominees, their guests, and the presenters. The main location for the awards will be downtown LA’s Union Station, a working transit hub. There will also be satellite locations for the nominees unable to travel and performances will broadcast from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. What usually seems like the entertainment industry’s most exclusive annual party might instead play as a more modest event focused on celebrating the resolve of a storied industry in an age of turmoil. However non-traditional this year’s Oscars might appear to viewers the ceremony has actually been reimagined for different eras throughout its history.
ASU Library holds the Jimmy Starr Papers (MS SC STR) in its Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection. Starr worked as a screenwriter and press agent in Hollywood during its “golden age” but he is best remembered for working as an entertainment journalist during those years. From 1930 until 1962, Starr had a daily column covering the film industry for the Los Angeles Harold Express. He later moved to Phoenix and worked in public relations. The Starr Papers include his correspondence, press files, newspaper columns, and film-related ephemera.
In 1931, Starr was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—four years after the Academy was founded. The Starr Papers include a trove of material related to the Academy, including correspondence, Oscar voting guides, and some programs for the years he attended. The programs in particular give some clues as to how the event changed over the years.
To learn more about the history of the Academy Awards and specifically the years in which Starr attended, I spoke with Warren Sherk, Associate Director of Special Collections at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking at the program booklet for the 1931 Oscars it looks like a very dry, almost ‘trade association’-esque affair. The name of the event was “Awards Banquet and Annual Meeting.” When did the prestige factor of the awards and media fascination with the event really come into being?
W.S. The annual Academy Awards began as formal dinners and in the early years the annual meeting and awards banquet were one and the same. The suspense was taken out of the proceedings the first year due to the fact that winners were notified in advance, and then from 1930 to 1940, the Academy released the list of winners to the press late on the evening of the ceremony. The Academy has used sealed envelopes to reveal the winners since 1941. Prior to the first televised broadcast in 1953, the Academy Awards ceremony could be heard on the radio.
By the time the Academy Awards were broadcast live internationally (beyond the United States and Canada) in 1969, the Academy Awards were already considered the most prestigious of the prizes awarded in the entertainment industry. Once the show was broadcast around the world, the annual ceremony became the cultural phenomenon that it remains today, with the Oscars red carpet and its attendant glitz and glamour receiving particular attention in both the domestic and international press.
I’m struck by the Academy Awards program for 1944, which features really bold graphics that make sense for the wartime era in which they appeared. From looking at the program itinerary it’s clear that there was a strong patriotic theme that year. Did the film industry feel compelled to offer a more subdued event with greater focus on the war effort than the films of that year?
W.S. The entertainment industry was profoundly affected by the Second World War, as was the entire country, and, indeed, the world. We believe there was a concerted effort to present a more subdued event, with special mention of our armed forces, and a radio broadcast of the show sent to the military deployed overseas, with Jack Benny as master of ceremonies. The Greek actress and Best Supporting Actress recipient Katina Paxinou (FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS), in her acceptance speech, voices the mood of the evening:
“[. . .] I would like to thank also the voters and the committee of the Academy Award for giving me, besides this honor, the opportunity to send through the air my, my deep love and admiration to the heroic boys, to the heroic soldiers of your great nation, the American boys who are fighting with their allies all over the world for liberty, justice, and human dignity. Thank you again.”
Jimmy Starr was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1931. Although he worked as a screenwriter during his career Starr was primarily known as a movie columnist for the Los Angeles Evening Harold and Express. Considering how early in the Academy’s history it was when he was invited I wonder if the rules were being made up as they went along at that point? Are people working as journalists still invited to join the Academy?
W.S. Membership requirements have been revised and reviewed throughout our history and currently there are seventeen branches of the Academy. Two categories, Members-at-Large and Associates, accommodate individuals who work in motion picture production but do not fit into one of the branches. In order to become a member of the Academy, one must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate would belong, with the exception of Oscar nominees who are not yet members; those individuals are considered automatically. Each branch reviews its own nominations, and then sends approved candidates to the Academy’s Board of Governors for a final decision.
This year the Oscars telecast was originally scheduled for February 28 but was delayed as a result of the global pandemic. Are there precedents in Oscar history for this situation?
W.S. The adage “the show must go on” applies to the Oscars—there are only three other instances in the 92 years of the Academy Awards in which the ceremony was postponed: in 1938, when flooding in Los Angeles delayed the proceedings by a week; in 1968, when the show was postponed from April 8 to April 10, out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose funeral took place on April 9; and in 1981, when the show was postponed for one day due to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Does the annual Oscars telecast help fund the Academy’s library and educational initiatives?
W.S. The recognition of excellence in motion pictures in the form of an annual awards ceremony financially supports the Margaret Herrick Library’s year-round activities of collecting, preserving and making accessible materials documenting the art, science and industry of motion pictures.
To learn more about the Jimmy Starr Papers and other film-related collections at ASU Library please use Ask an Archivist to contact us.
To learn more about the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library and their collections please visit their main page.
Matt Messbarger, Library Information Specialist Lead - Specialized Collections