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How Oscar Became Hollywood’s Most Recognizable Leading Man

And he just got a makeover, too

Face-lifts are nothing new in Hollywood, but the one that made the news last week caused a stir nevertheless. The 88-year-old in question still had a strong jawline. His pecs were still pretty firm, too. But sooner or later, every leading man needs a little nip and tuck.

Photo: ©A.M.P.A.S.®

 

This time, it was Oscar's turn.

He's 13½ inches tall, weighs 8½ pounds, and sports a coat of 24-karat gold. There are 2,947 of him out there so far—and countless more industry folk who wish they had one. But no numbers can fully explain the allure of this legendary trophy, maybe because the Oscar was never just a trophy in the first place.

The significance of the statue, explained Hollywood historian Laurie Jacobson, has always existed on two levels. "For the lucky winners, it is the physical manifestation of the blood and sweat and hope and guts it takes to rise to the top of an industry," Jacobson said. And for the rest of us? "It is the most recognizable prize in the world—the very symbol of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] brand."

And therein lay the deeper mystique of the Oscar—a thing that transcends movies and the actors who star in them. "Its brand power comes from concentric circles," said Chris Raih, founder and CEO of Zambezi, an L.A.-based communications firm rooted in the entertainment industry. "Most would say Hollywood cinema is the center of the entertainment world. Well, Oscar is the center of the cinema world. The celebrities we obsess over … obsess over Oscar."

That's why we do, too. Which brings us back to Oscar's face-lift—or, rather, his most recent face-lift. Though the statue has looked roughly the same since he was first handed out in 1929 (a sword-bearing knight designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons), Oscar's look has changed over the decades. His features have softened while his body went from bronze to plaster (during the WWII metals shortage) to, finally, a tin-based alloy called britannium.

Last week, the academy announced it had retained the firm of Polich Tallix to resurrect Gibbons' original 1920s design and again cast the statues in solid bronze via the lost-wax method. It's a process so painstaking that the New York foundry is taking three weeks just to make 50 statues. And the cost? Well, we ordinary people don't get to know that.

But for the academy, the move is a significant investment in the award's heritage—something that, at a time when viewership of awards shows continues to slip, seems a wise thing to invest in. After all, such is the mystique behind this statue that it long ago overpowered the name of the event itself.

"We don't refer to the Tour de France as the 'Yellow Shirt Cycling Race,'" Raih pointed out. "But we do call the Academy Awards 'The Oscars.'"

Dipping: Dorith Mous/ ©A.M.P.A.S.®; Gibbons: Courtesy of A.M.P.A.S.; Statuette: ©A.M.P.A.S.®

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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