Last night, along with about a million montages (“remember movies???”), we saw a couple dozen golden Oscar statuettes handed out ceremoniously to this year’s Academy Awards winners. There’s always talk of history at the Oscars, but one element of film history received not a single mention: who is the Oscar statuette modeled after?
The Oscar statuette dates back to 1928, designed in an angular Art Deco style by one Cedric Gibbons, at the time the art director for movie studio MGM. The design, which is kind of hard to see, is of a knight holding an enormous sword, standing on a reel of film. It’s been largely unchanged for nearly a century, weighing about 8.5 pounds and standing 13.5 inches tall. The official history of the statue contains no mention of any model for the statue, and the official Academy Awards library in Los Angeles refused to comment on whether there actually was a model.
But popular legend has decided on one story, which appears everywhere from Wikipedia to major news outlets. That story: Gibbons was at the time involved with one Dolores del Río, a famous and famously beautiful Mexican actress who would eventually become his wife. Dolores del Río was a huge, desired star in the tail end of the silent film era and even beyond; she dated Orson Welles for years, and was with him during the filming of Citizen Kane. But she also served as a sort of muse for a Mexican director named Emilio Fernández.
Emilio Fernández started out as an extra in Hollywood productions after he was exiled from Mexico for serving in Adolfo de la Huerta’s revolutionary uprising. His mother was a Kickapoo Indian, which earned him the not-entirely-okay nickname “El Indio.” After some time in Hollywood, he came back to Mexico and began acting in larger roles, but moved to the production side as a screenwriter and, soon, director. His most famous movie, María Candelaria, won the grand prize at the 1943 Cannes film festival–the first film from a Latin country to do so. That movie starred Dolores del Río.
Back in 1928, Emilio Fernández was a young and handsome film director on the upswing of his career, and Dolores del Río a young and beautiful actress. Gibbons, charged with designing the Oscar statuette, spoke to his girlfriend about the task. Dolores suggested her friend Emilio as the perfect model for the statue. According to the legend, Emilio was at first resistant, but eventually gave in and modeled nude for Gibbons, who then crafted the statue, exaggerating his already ruggedly handsome appearance.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this legend is that it really wasn’t very long ago, and it involved some of the most famous and well-documented people of that era, and yet it is somehow impossible to verify that any of this actually happened. The Oscar statuette sort of resembles Fernández, but it could just as easily resemble any movie star with a chiseled jaw and lean physique. It’s stated as fact all over the place, but the Academy itself won’t verify it. “One librarian there said there’s zero proof any of that happened. She seemed annoyed by the question; they’ve been getting it a lot lately,” according to NPR. And there’s no documentation of either del Río’s recommendation or Fernández’s modeling. So it remains a mystery!