Why Are The Oscars Called “Oscars”?
Ever wonder why the Academy Awards are called the Oscars? Like most narratives in Hollywood, it’s a story lost to lore. The name credit primarily has been given to three assignors: Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, journalist Sidney Skolsky, and actress Bette Davis. The Academy officially adopted the nickname in 1939 making Oscar part of history.
Oscar was originally called the much more formal “The Academy Award of Merit,” which doesn’t quite have the personality that “Oscar” does. One of the academy’s founding members, MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, designed the original statuette: a sword-wielding crusader for the arts, standing on a film reel. He would go on to garner twenty-eight nominations and take home eleven awards. His collaborator, sculptor George Stanley reportedly modeled the statue after a Mexican model and actor Emilio “El Indio” Fernández.
Upon seeing the bronze and gold image of that familiar crusader holding a sword, Academy Librarian Margaret Herrick reportedly remarked that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. She would later become the Executive Director of the Academy until 1971 and would get her own Oscars namesake with the Academy’s Library – now called the Margaret Herrick Library.
Success – however – is said to have many fathers. LA writer Sidney Skolsky also claimed to be the originator of the famous nickname. A peer and contemporary of gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, Skolsky pioneered other Hollywood mainstays: He would help Marilyn Monroe find footing in her career, stoke the legend that Lana Turner was discovered at Schwab’s Drugstore, and wrote an annual Oscar Predictions column until his death.
According to Sklosky, his moniker for Oscar was much more sneering than Herrick’s account. Feeling the self-importance of the 1934 Academy Awards – he derided the ceremony and wanted to deflate its pomposity and grandiosity (a criticism that seems to be as old as the Oscars). In this telling, “Oscar” is a reference to Oscar Hammerstein Sr. (his son would go on to write the lyrics for Showboat, Oklahoma!, The King & I, and The Sound of Music). As a theater owner on Broadway, the senior Hammerstein would sometimes be the butt of a joke from vaudeville comedians; the punchline always being: “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” Skolsky managed to slip the reference into his reporting. In his memoir ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood’, Sklosky filed his story and included a sentence: “Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for her performance as Eva Lovelace in ‘Morning Glory’, her third Hollywood film.”
TIME Magazine gave the credit to Skolsky in a column announcing his move to the New York Post:
This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards)… – TIME Magazine; September 11, 1939
Finally, two time best actress winner Bette Davis claims that she named the Academy Award. After winning the award for Dangerous in 1936, she remarked that the statue’s naked butt reminded her of her husband’s – Harmon Oscar Nelson Jr, after getting out of the shower.
Searching through the Variety Archives, Tim Gray ( Awards Editor and Senior Vice President of Variety) and I found the first three mentions of the term “Oscar” in the eminent Hollywood trade in March of 1936. Indeed, one reference is to Bette Davis, as she speaks lovingly of her “little Oscar”. However, that date would place her claim behind Herrick and Sklosky. Two other headlines referred to the statuettes as “Oscar”; one specifically noted that songwriters were making a miniature Oscar that singer Wini Shaw could wear on her bracelet. By 1939, the name had become so associated with the awards that it was officially adopted by the academy.
It seems appropriate that in Hollywood – a town where millions of stories are created – that there’s not just one narrative for the naming of Tinseltown’s most prestigious award. Whichever story you choose to believe, Oscar himself has become part of Hollywood history and the industry standard for quality. In a town rife with rivalries, competitions, and antagonism, Oscar remains one of the most universally beloved names in the business.
John Matsuya is an SEO and writer. You can read more of his freelance writing at matsuyacreative.com.