Background guide to the Oscars

This weekend, all eyes will be turned on Hollywood, for this year’s Academy Awards. It had been feared that the show would have to be pared down if the writers’ strike hadn’t been resolved, but happily we can now be bitchy about the dresses, hide during the over-the-top speeches and boo if our favourites don’t win. Hurrah! (And we can watch this marathon in the comfort of our own homes, in comfortable clothes and make frequent bathroom breaks unlike the poor stars who’re starved and squeezed into tight dresses.)

Ironically, in the year of the 60th anniversary, the writers were on strike too, and it was decided that instead of an actor or director, the host should be a comedian so that they could deliver off-the-cuff comments.

This year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (to give it its full name) celebrates 80 years of its awards ceremony. Although the first event took place on May 16, 1929, at the Hotel Roosevelt, the awards honour the films of the previous year. At that first lunch, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and William C. DeMille, 270 guests attended and tickets cost $5. All of the awards went to men, aside from Best Actress.

Here’s our guide to the history of the Oscars and the best and the worst of the awards.

* How do you become a member of the Academy? It’s strictly controlled and by invitation only, limited to those who have ‘achieved distinction’. You should have a substantial body of work, and winning an Academy Award is not an automatic guarantee of an invitation. There are currently about 6,000 members.

* Who can vote? Each member is entitled to vote in his or her area of expertise. All members can vote for Best Picture. In order to be eligible, a film must have been shown on an LA screen before December 31 of the year preceding the awards ceremony. This often leads to a rush of private screenings to ensure films make the deadline. They must also be longer than 40 minutes and exist as a print or digital film print.

* Who knows who’s won? Since 1941, the identity of the winners has been a closely guarded secret – before that, the newspapers got the results before the event. Votes are tabulated and certified by PricewaterhouseCoopers as they have been for the past 72 ceremonies. The nominees really don’t know in advance.

* ‘Hello, gorgeous’ You can’t argue with Barbra Streisand’s exclamation on getting her award. Each Academy Award of Merit (or Oscar) is mde of gold-plated britannium on a black metal base. It’s 13.5in tall, weighs 8.5lb and depicts an Art Deco-style knight holding a crusader’s sword, standing on a reel of film with five spokes. Each of these corresponds to one of the original branches of the Academy (actors, writers, directors, producers and technicians).

* It was designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, and modelled on Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernandez. Sculptor George Stanley translated Gibbons’ design into clay and Alex Smith cast it. Some 40 Oscars are made each year in Chicago by R. S. Owens. If they fail to meet strict quality-control standards, they’re cut in half and melted down.

* As of 2007, a total of 2,658 Oscars has been awarded, with 290 different actors winning an acting award.

* In 1999, 53 of the figures went missing, presumed stolen. They were found days before they were due to be presented, but duplicates had been hastily prepared just in case.

* Why Oscar? No-one knows for sure, but there are two competing stories. The more widely accepted one is that Academy librarian Margaret Herrick said the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar and the nickname stuck. However, one biography of Bette Davis claims she named it after her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. The name was first used in print to describe the first of Katharine Hepburn’s wins in 1934.

* Do winners own their Oscars? Since 1950, winners have had to sign an agreement that neither they nor their heirs will be able to sell their awards without first offering them to the Academy for $1. If they refuse, the Academy keeps the statuette.

* Awards not covered by this limitation often change hands for six-figure sums, although the new owners then often give them to the Academy. In 1999, Michael Jackson paid $1.54 million for David O. Selsnick’s Oscar for Gone With the Wind.

* Where will the awards be held? In 2002, the Kodak Theater became the first permanent home of the Oscars.

Want to know more about Oscar’s winners and losers? Read our guide to the Academy’s chosen few

* And if all that’s not enough, for everything Oscar, visit

The official Academy site

The official ceremony site

Who won what when

The most complete site out there!