Why The “Mexican Oscar” Story Might Just Be Another Hollywood Myth

We all did it, even us. Sharing the news that the inspiration behind the iconic Academy Award statue was the famed Mexican actor and director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. NPR called it a symbol of “Latin Pride” (huh?), while Colorlines said Fernández was an undocumented immigrant in a piece this week. That claim was updated this morning, with the following text: “Emilio Fernández fled Mexico in 1925 and landed in Los Angeles. We do not know for sure that he was undocumented. We’ve changed the headline to reflect what we know for sure.”

We don’t understand why the “undocumented immigrant” label was added this year (unnecessary, in our opinion), and we are glad that Colorlines changed its headline. Nonetheless, is the whole “Mexican Oscar” story just Hollywood legend? The story has been circulating online for a few years, but no one has really been able to fully prove that this story was 100% true.

EmilioFernandez

A story from for one Mexican outlet published two days ago says that the statuette story was just a figment of Fernández’s imagination. Here is what the article says is the myth part of the story (translation ours):

[Actress Dolores del Río] was married to Cedric Gibbons, art director of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer and one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. Gibbons was commissioned to design the piece for the first awards ceremony to be held in May 1929, and since he needed a model, asked “El Indio,” who was fit from swimming and dancing, to pose naked to make a sketch.

The article claims that part is the myth, but then it writes this:

What is documented is this: that the art director gave a drawing to sculptor George Stanley so that Stanley could create the statue.

“It’s actually a myth that El Indio himself concocted,” said Mexican cinema researcher Rafael Avina. “Emilio Fernández, like Orson Welles, was a pathological liar. He invented many things, some inspired by real events, but so far there is nothing to confirm that that this statue was based on the body of El Indio.

The nasal features look very similar, no?

emilio_indio_fernandez

Still, Fernández’s career was illustrious, and that is a story that should get told more often.

The official Oscars page about the awards’s origins makes no mention of the Fernández story:

Agreeing to institute an annual award, the group turned its attention to creating a suitably majestic trophy. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons designed a statuette of a knight standing on a reel of film gripping a crusader’s sword. The Academy tapped Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley to realize the design in three dimensions – and the world-renowned statuette was born.

It also mention this:

Officially named the Academy Award of Merit, the statuette is better known by its nickname, Oscar. While the origins of the moniker aren’t clear, a popular story has it that upon seeing the trophy for the first time, Academy librarian (and eventual executive director) Margaret Herrick remarked that it resembled her Uncle Oscar. The Academy didn’t adopt the nickname officially until 1939, but it was widely known enough by 1934 that Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky used it in a piece referring to Katharine Hepburn’s first Best Actress win.

In the comments section of a February 21 Studio 360 article, Stanley’s grandson chimed in:

Chris Stanley from Bainbridge Island Washington

What a bunch of poppycock. My grandfather was George Stanley the man who sculpted the Oscar. The Oscar looks like it does because that is the nature of the way my grandfather sculpted. My grandfather died in 1970, but 20 years later my grandmother would be interviewed for the first oral history project for the Academy of motion picture sciences. At some point in the late 1980s frustrated with the copyright battles that were going on around the Oscar I contacted the lawyer with the Academy, made some suggestions as to what text I thought their legal argument should take, and told him my grandmother was still alive. Sometime later the Academy contacted my grandmother to be the first volume in their oral history of the Academy. At the time she was the last living attendee of the first academy awards banquet. I have just finished rereading the oral history and my grandmother states that she didn’t believe there was a model involved. Furthermore Barbara Hall the interviewer States that she read an interview of George where he stated he did not use a model. So you had an interesting story, but like many stories about the Oscar you didn’t look very hard for the facts. The bittersweet story of my grandfathers own life would make an interesting story for your program. He was a very talented man, soft-spoken, and very good friend to those people who got to know him.

Chris Stanley
Feb. 24 2014 12:23 AM

The NPR “Latin Pride” piece (double ugh) reports other doubts:

The Academy Awards library in LA, wouldn’t do an interview for this story, but 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.

The piece also included this:

Laura Isabel Serna, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the experience of Mexicans in Hollywood in the 20s, says there’s probably no hard evidence to back the story, but wouldn’t mind if there was.

“I think it would be wonderful if it were true, because it would be another bit of evidence of the involvement of Mexicans in particular, and Latinos more generally, in American cinema during its most formative years,” she says.

Professor Serna’s words do indeed ring true. Was “El Indio” the model for the Oscar? It’s possible, but in the end, since Hollywood is all about legend, myths and lore, it might have made more sense to give the story a more context before reporting it as verifiable proof. However, the idea of a Mexican as the model for the Oscar is still deliciously ironic for our 21st century attitudes. Stories like Fernández’s rarely get told, so if it takes the Internet to shed more light on that time, good.

But while all the Oscar/Emilio talk continues, another Oscar-related story is being overlooked. R.S.Owens & Company, the official manufacturer of the Oscar statuettes, has been in labor disputes with their workers since 2012, when it laid off workers.

This is what a pro-labor site published this week:

Oscar statuette makers face anti-labor assault

Workers who manufacture the gold Oscar statuettes for Hollywood’s Academy Awards have been in a dispute with their employer, R.S.Owens & Company in Chicago since late in 2012. At that time the company was acquired by Canadian company St. Regis Crystal. Shortly afterward, 251 workers, members of Teamsters Local 743, were laid off by the new owners. Then, 80 percent of the fired workers were rehired by St. Regis.

Emma Moreno, a representative of Local 743 said that St. Regis has since refused to recognize workers’ seniority rights or benefits under contract before the acquisition. Also, $120,000 in vacation pay is under threat. St. Regis is seeking to operate under an open shop agreement, according to Moreno, calling the company’s actions a “direct attack” on the entire American labor movement.

A demonstration was planned outside R.S.Owens’ facility for February 17. The union called it off after talks last Thursday between the Teamsters Local and St. Regis. Another meeting was scheduled for March 6, 4 days after the Academy Awards.

Moreno said she was hoping to elicit a public show of support from this year’s Oscar nominees.

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