What does everyone’s favourite movie have to do with everyone’s favourite trophy?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere with no phones, mobile network or wireless Internet, you’ve probably heard of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Just when it seemed that the whole world had exhausted its supply of gleeful fanatic adoration of Barack Obama, there comes along this movie that most people love and a few people—including Amitabh Bachchan, we hear—had issues with.
By now you’ve probably seen the movie already. And tweeted your opinion about it, even before you left the multiplex.
Boyle’s masterpiece has already won those Golden Globes and several other lesser prizes at film festivals. The movie has also garnered a stunning 10 Oscar nominations, including nods for best movie, best director, best music, best song and best adapted screenplay. And, going by that Aravind Adiga-esque feeling in the gut, we should be seeing Boyle and company walk away with at least a couple of golden statuettes—perhaps even one of the important ones.
Swordsman: The statuette was modelled after a little-known Mexican actor.
Which nicely brings us to the trivial pursuit of this fortnight’s column.
Surely you know that the statuette given away each year at the Oscars is known as the Academy Award for Merit? It is made of an alloy called Britannium, plated with gold, and weighs a hefty 3.85kg.
The imagery of the naked man with the strategically held sword in front is one of the most iconic in the world. Film professionals work their entire lives to get one of those art deco statues. People like us wake up early in the morning and sit in front of our TVs to see them win the trophy and then cry, holler or even rant like Michael Moore.
Film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s art director Cedric Gibbons created the Oscar statue around 1928. Gibbons, a trendsetting art director, was an original member of the academy, and so was a natural choice to design the prize. When he was hunting for a suitable male model for the prize, Gibbons’ wife told him to try using Mexican actor Emilio Fernandez (quite how Mrs Gibbons knew how Fernandez looked naked is worth mulling over).
Fernandez reluctantly agreed to model naked and the rest is film history. Gibbons, incidentally, would win 11 Oscars himself. Only Walt Disney has won more.
While there is no discounting his achievements as an art director and designer, Gibbons was not without his foibles. For some odd reason, some believe he fabricated the fact that he was born in Dublin, Ireland. He also tried to pass himself off as an architectural engineer when, in fact, he wasn’t one.
These details, of course, would have no bearing on his performance as an art director. He was a very good one and he knew it. So much so that his contract with MGM in 1924 insisted that every movie MGM released in the US credit him as the art director, even if he didn’t do any work at all (which explains the 1,500 or so movies credited to him).
But when he did work on movies, he was outstanding. He won an Oscar for almost one in every 15 movies he was personally involved in. By the time he retired in 1956, Gibbons was considered one of the fathers of art direction.
And even in the year he retired, Gibbons is credited with 18 projects, including Lust For Life, which was nominated for an Oscar. Another one of those 18 was the musical High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
High Society received positive reviews and did well at the box office. The soundtrack came in for great praise and was a success on both sides of the Atlantic. It was composed entirely by Cole Porter and had great performances by Kelly, Crosby and, of course, Sinatra.
The particular track we are interested in was performed by Sinatra and Celeste Holm. The song that celebrates the pleasures of a simple life was called Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
In 1998, when producers were looking for a name for a novel quiz show format with just one contestant featured at a time, they decided to pick the name of the song from High Society.
So will Boyle’s movie, based on the quiz show named after a song from a movie designed by Gibbons, win a statuette? We will know in about three weeks.
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