Studio head Louis B. Mayer, the final M in M-G-M, is responsible for creating the Academy Awards, all because he wanted to build a beach house. It would be easy he thought, just hire a small group of the studio’s production team. After consulting with MGM’s head of design Cedric Gibbons and production manager Joe Cohn, the blueprints were finalized with a schedule set for just six weeks. That is, until Mayer was handed the expected bill. Distressed by the price of contracting the now-unionized production team, he invited a group of Hollywood big shots over for dinner – Conrad Nagel, Fred Niblo, and Fred Beetson – to discuss the future of the industry. More specifically, how they were going to halt the rest of The Business from unionizing. What came out of that meal though was an event that would clean up Hollywood’s scandalous image, acknowledge its player’s achievements, and foster studio-wide collaboration.
The first ceremony took place in 1929 and celebrated the works of 1927-1928. It featured half of the 24 categories recognized today and focused almost entirely on acting, directing, writing, and best picture, with the exception of Best Title Writing, which didn’t make it past that year. It took until 1934 before the Academy added Best Song and Best Film Editing, known today as Achievement in Film Editing. The Best Supporting category was introduced in 1936, though not everyone was excited about it. In Charlton Heston’s opinion, A-list actors should be excluded from it. A closer look at the category’s history shows that the Academy may or may not have felt similarly. For its first seven years, winners received plaques instead of statues.
Technological advances and demand for well-deserved recognition have affected the categories. For years color film separated Cinematography and Art Direction, making it possible for filmmakers to be nominated twice. Genre divided Shorts and Best Original Score. Funnily enough, the Best Original Score category continues to be separated by Score and Song Score, the latter just hasn’t had enough submissions. The last to win the award for Song Score was Prince in 1985 for Purple Rain.
One of the more nontraditional categories to have been created may be the Best Assistant Director, which was active from 1933 to 1937. Its first year had 17 nominees, five of which won the award and all of whom were selected for their overall contributions instead of one film. But that approach only lasted one year. Its following four years were shortened to no more than five nominees based on an individual film and ending with one winner. Dance Direction was another category implemented during this time, but had a shorter run. In the 1930s, as silent film transitioned to sound, the musical genre skyrocketed and in 1935, with the birth of the Dance Direction category, it looked like choreographers like Hermes Pan, Busby Berkeley, Dave Gould, and Seymour Felix were going to get the recognition they deserved. But the category was nixed just two years later in 1937.
Of course every category has its own unique history – just look at the writing category, which went through a series of trial-and-errors before it finally landed on Original and Adapted – but three categories that have never come to fruition may be the most interesting: stunt coordination, title design, and casting. Every year, from 1991 to 2012, a proposal for a Best Stunt Coordination category has been submitted and subsequently rejected. Yet stunt coordinators can become Academy members under their Members-at-Large Branch. They did earn a nod when, at the 39th Oscars, stuntman Yakima Canutt - Clark Gable’s double in Gone with the Wind (1939) and John Wayne’s double in Stagecoach (1939) - was presented with an Honorary Award.
In 1999, casting directors and title designers submitted their respective categories for consideration, but like Best Stunt Coordination, were ultimately rejected. There isn’t too much information regarding title design’s inclusion, other than the fact that while title design is needed in every single movie, shorts and features, apparently it’s not an area with enough achievement to merit its own branch, let alone its own category.
Casting on the other hand earned the attention of the Academy in 2013 when it finally became an official branch and again in 2016 when, like Yakima Canutt, famous casting director Lynn Stalmaster was given an Honorary Award. Rightfully so when we consider that it’s the casting directors who are required to know the characters well enough to assign them accordingly. Where would we be without Jane Feinberg and Mike Fenton who are responsible for films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Aliens(1986), and Blade Runner (1982)? Casting director Marci Liroff got her start with Fenton on films like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Poltergeist (1982) before leaping into a career of her own that’s included A Christmas Story (1983), Footloose (1984), and more recently Mean Girls (2004). Last summer, BMD’s Broad Cinema celebrated the work of Michelle Guish who got her start on Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) and from there went on to cast Oscar winning films like Sense & Sensibility (1995) and The English Patient (1996).
Over the last decade, casting has been picking up steam. Maybe sometime in the next ten years, we’ll see it acquire a category of its own. As for the future of the rest of the show, who knows what technological advances we’ll witness that may or may not affect how it's organized today.