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How have the Oscars changed over the years?

BY James Oliver

6th Mar 2024 Film & TV

5 min read

How have the Oscars changed over the years?
The Academy Awards have a long, celebrated (and sometimes troubled) history, but one with some surprises too. Here’s everything you need to know about the Oscars—past, present and possible future
They're 34 cm high, weigh 4kg and they're one of the most recognisable objects in the entire world.
"They:, of course, are the Oscar statuettes, and it's almost time for them to be handed out once more, to another batch of no-doubt thoroughly deserving winners.
While we wait for the red carpet to be rolled out and the envelopes to be opened, let us cast a backward glance over the history of the Academy Awards. It is far more surprising than you might expect...

Beginnings of the Academy and the Oscars

Poster for the film Wings
The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was established in 1927, but not for the purposes of recognising talent. That came later.
As imagined by its founding fathers (who, not coincidentally, ran the major studios), AMPAS was to be a way of keeping the unions out of the film business, by creating a forum where labour relations could be handled in house. Only belatedly was it decided an awards ceremony might be a nice cherry on top.
The first was held in 1929. Wings was named Best Picture, Janet Gaynor was Best Actress and Emil Jannings, Best Actor. The whole thing took 15 minutes.

The early years of the Oscars

It's fair to say the awards proved more enduring than the attempts to circumvent employment law (long story short? The workers noticed the bosses were trying to stiff them and unionised anyway).
"It was genuinely newsworthy when 'Gone With the Wind' nearly swept the board"
Films were a global obsession then, so it was probably inevitable that the Oscars, as they were soon known, would attract attention: no matter that these were, essentially, just glorified Employee of the Year awards, it was genuinely newsworthy when It Happened One Night lifted all five major awards (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Actor and Screenplay) or Gone With the Wind nearly swept the board.

Oscar himself

Cedric Gibbons in 1936
The statuettes were designed by Cedric Gibbons, pre-eminent art director of his time, and they've remained unchanged since then.
There are several competing theories as to how they got the name “Oscar”; the one most widely believed is that Margaret Herrick, librarian for the Academy, saw the first and said “Why! He looks just like my Uncle Oscar!”

The closed shop

If you weren't in the club, you weren't going to get noticed. Sorry, foreign filmmakers: the early Oscars were Hollywood talking to Hollywood.
A breakthrough came in 1934 when a foreign film was recognised for the first time: The Private Life of Henry VIII from the UK. Its star, Charles Laughton, even won Best Actor.
But the real fun came in 1949 when a foreign film had the actual temerity to win Best Picture. This was Laurence Olivier's Hamlet—truly some weird, alien intruder in the otherwise wholesome American cinemas, at least if some industry bigwigs were to be believed. The storm passed, but not before some significant movie-business figures talked seriously about ending the awards.
(By contrast, three of this year's ten Best Picture nominees are in a language other than English.)

When everything was swell

Grace Kelly arriving at the 1956 Academy Awards
The early Oscars were broadcast on the radio, with clips seen in newsreels. But when TV came along, and ordinary people could actually see proceedings for the first time, the ceremony grew into something even bigger. Much of the US tuned in for songs, dancing and Bob Hope—the longest serving (and definitive) master of ceremonies.
"While ascetic film fans may deplore the spectacle, the spectacle is why normal people watch it"
The coming of television also meant that fashions—no, let's be honest, women's fashions—could be beheld, scrutinised and judged, a tradition that's probably more important than most of the technical awards (put together); while ascetic film fans may deplore the flummery and spectacle, the flummery and spectacle is why normal people watch it.

The times they are a-changing

Saul Zaentz, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Michael Douglas posing with their Oscars at the 1976 Academy Awards on March 30, 1976
The Oscars were no more immune from the tumult of the 1960s than anyone else. In fact, they offer a slow-motion demonstration of radical change. In 1966, the safe-as-houses The Sound of Music took home Best Picture; four years later that honour fell to Midnight Cowboy, a very different kettle of fish.
Then-Academy president Gregory Peck deserves much credit for recognising this, resolving to shake up the staid institution; he brought in new, younger and more diverse voting members while pensioning off some of the old guard. This left the Oscars in good shape for the 1970s, when films like The Godfather, The French Connection and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest ruled the roost.


The 1980s were the zenith of the Oscars, with the ceremony grabbing huge ratings and the show—and the frocks—becoming ever more elaborate.
"1998 saw 'Titanic' clean up and James Cameron declare himself 'king of the world'"
It couldn't last. Come the 1990s, an upstart entity called Miramax began campaigning aggressively for films it had produced, ignoring the gentlemanly conventions that had previously been accepted. It worked: films like The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love all won famous victories. Honesty box: the man behind this was Harvey Weinstein. Now let us say no more about him.
Still, traditional Hollywood still had its successes: one of the Oscars' biggest ever nights was the ceremony of 1998 when over 50 million Americans tuned in to watch Titanic clean up, and James Cameron declare himself “king of the world”.

Decline and...?

Oppenheimer film poster
In response to the #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, which impugned the Academy's record of acknowledging Black talent, AMPAS brought in new blood to their membership. This made itself felt quite quickly; witness how the underdog Moonlight triumphed over expected favourite La La Land. Or Parasite became the first foreign language film to take Best Picture.
The trouble is, for many, the Academy Awards have never felt less relevant. Certainly, far fewer are watching, and some have blamed this on the more obscure/less traditional films being nominated, especially as the Oscars don't exactly care for superhero films.
"This year's Oscars are the most important in quite some time"
This year's Oscars are the most important in quite some time. There are big, recognisable movies in the mix (Barbie and Oppenheimer); if they can't bring in more viewers then there will be panic—and the first mutterings that the most famous awards ceremony in the entire world has had its day.

The overlooked

How important are the Oscars anyway? Quite apart from all the foreign filmmakers the Academy have neglected, they've managed to miss out on quite a few of their own. Fritz Lang? Never even nominated. Marlene Dietrich? Nada. Barbara Stanwyck? Just a belated “oops-sorry-we-missed-you-please-accept-this-honorary-award”.
But everyone knows the Oscars aren't based on merit, that they reflect fads and fashions, that there are sympathy votes (and prejudices...) and that the films they pick are often quickly forgotten.
That doesn't stop so many of us following them devotedly though.
Banner photo: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Melissa Leo and Colin Firth with their Oscars at the 2011 Academy Awards. Credit: Staff Sgt. Carlos Lazo

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