UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Newsletter, March 2012 Director’s Message
Last week amid the pre-Oscars hoopla, I kept noticing postings on Facebook about the Mexican origins of the Oscar statuette, created in 1928. Apparently, the statuette was modeled on a nude study of Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, the renowned Mexican actor, screenwriter, and director, who was working in Hollywood at the time. Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, also working in Hollywood, recommended her friend Fernández to the award designer (and her husband from 1930-41), MGM art director Cedric Gibbons. The award was first presented in 1929 and soon thereafter began to be called “Oscar,” a name that was made official in 1939. Why Oscar? Some say the award was named after BettyDavis’s husband, or Margaret Herrick’s cousin, or, because Louis B. Mayer’s executive secretary was Norwegian American, King Oscar II. Indeed, there are several explanations, but they all share one feature: the nude statuette reminded white women in Hollywood of a male relation or countryman. In this way, through an earlier era’s social network, El Indio became The European.
I find this history fascinating not for the way it ends, but for all its wonderful contradictions from the start. The mestizo Fernández, nicknamed El Indio for his indigenous features and whose directorial work would exemplify mexicanidad (Mexicanness), not only started his career in Hollywood — his naked body became the basis for the industry’s icon and its most coveted recognition. Those in Hollywood could not help but look for a way to identify with this new award, to take it into the family, so to speak, and call it by a familiar name: Oscar. Such desire crosses boundaries and tries to deny the fact of them, too. Last Sunday, Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer provided an alternative expression of desire when she accepted her Oscar: “Thank you, Academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room. I share this with everybody.”