Unlike what you might think, the golden, 8.5-pound statuette handed at the Academy Awards wasn’t inspired by a man named Oscar. Although there is no official story about the origins of its name, there are a few theories that have stuck in the collective imagination. One of them is that Margaret Herrick (former Executive Director of the Academy) mentioned the uncanny resemblance between the recently-designed statuette and her dear Uncle Oscar. The anecdote traveled through the academy until “the Oscars” became the unofficial name of the prestigious awards ceremony.
The other theory that has made the rounds for years is the one related to the man behind the design. According to this theory, Emilio “Indio” Fernández, a filmmaker and actor of Mexico’s golden age of cinema, was the sole inspiration for the golden man. How? After being involved in the Mexican Revolution, Fernández fled Mexico and went into exile in the US. One of the jobs he got to survive was as a builder at a studio in Hollywood. Soon, he started working as an extra and a double.
By that time, he became acquainted with the silent-film star Dolores del Río, who was dating MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons, who was working on the design of the famous statuette. According to the story, Gibbons had some ideas, but they weren’t very memorable or iconic, so Del Río suggested using a real-life model. In addition, she also advocated for her new friend Emilio to pose naked for the project.
Of course, like with Herrick’s anecdote, there’s no evidence of this. However, the myth has grown stronger and stronger, not only because it would mean that one of the most important foundations of Western cinema could be represented in the Latino community, but also because of the importance his cinematography reached. His work wasn’t only important in Mexico and Latin America: it transcended language frontiers in his time and still does to this day. So, if you want to see why it’s not that far-fetched to think this man inspired one of the most iconic awards, take a look at some of his most important films.
Flor Silvestre (Wild Flower) 
A rich, young man marries secretly the love of his life, a beautiful, peasant woman. When his father discovers that he hasn’t only married outside his class, but that he’s become a supporter of the Revolution, he disowns him. With an amazing cinematography work by Gabriel Figueroa (with whom he collaborated almost all his life), this movie has become one of the pillars of Mexican cinema.
María Candelaria (Portrait of Maria) 
Starring Dolores Del Río and Pedro Armendáriz again, María Candelaria tells the story of a young woman who is shunned by her community for being the daughter of a prostitute. Though she’s a good and honest woman, things don’t seem to work well for her or her lover Lorenzo. Then, after a series of tragedies, Maria agrees to pose for a painting to make some money, but her community will see it as a huge offense, and it leads to a terrible fate for her. This movie, though extremely dramatic, was a major, international hit that earned “El Indio” his and Latin America’s first Palme d’Or.
Las Abandonadas (The Abandoned) 
After eloping with her boyfriend, Margarita decides to go back to her town to face his father. However, there’s someone expecting her there: her husband’s real wife. Because it was the time of the Revolution in the 1920s, her father sends her away without caring that she’s pregnant. The years go by, and Margarita decides to work at a brothel where she meets a general she falls for. A bit of a spoiler alert: the general ends up being the leader of a gang.
Enamorada (In Love) 
José Juan Reyes is a tough and committed revolutionary soldier who decides to lead his army to the city of Cholula to force wealthy people to contribute to the Revolution efforts. Despite how tough and devoted he is to the cause, he finds himself in love with the daughter of the richest man in town, which complicates his mission and makes him lose focus. Beatriz, portrayed by the iconic actress María Félix, is a stubborn and strong woman who manages to tame the macho soldier. The movie is considered one of the best Mexican films of all times.
La Perla (The Pearl) 
Based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of a fisherman and his wife, who are looking desperately for a cure for their son, who was stung by a scorpion. To save him, they decide to steal a highly valuable pearl, but instead of helping their son, they’ll put him in greater danger. This film was highly acclaimed, giving Emilio Fernández multiple awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Gabriel Figueroa a Golden Globe for his cinematography work.
Pueblerina (Small Town Girl) 
Aurelio returns to his hometown after serving some years in jail for avenging the rape of his lover. Upon his return, he finds out his mother is dead and that his beloved Paloma lives out of town with her son, product of the rape. Aurelio is willing to start over with her and give her the life she deserves, but his enemies won’t let that happen that easily.
Emilio “El Indio” Fernández is definitely one of the best filmmakers in the history of Mexican cinema. His movies, which can be seen as homages to his roots, are also universal and rich in quality. Had he worked today, he would probably be one of the most renowned filmmakers, receiving tons of statuettes with his own image.
Write for us:
If you’re a film buff and wish to introduce us to unknown, forgotten, or new films, click on this link and learn how you can become a writer for Cultura Colectiva.
Here’s more on Oscar history:
15 Firsts In Academy Award History That Everyone Needs To Know About
10 Forgotten Oscar Winning Movies You Should Really Rewatch
10 Foreign Language Films That Have Contended For Best Picture At The Oscars