Day 6

This Mexican actor claimed he modelled for the famed Oscar statuette

The Mexican film star and director Emilio Fernández, known for his "larger than life personality," long claimed he had modelled for the gilded statuette. But librarians at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences say it's based on an "abstract sketch."

'He likes to tell the story ... but he's also a notorious mythomaniac,' says historian Dolores Tierney

Mexican film actor and director Emilio Fernández pictured in a scene from the 1935 film Janitzio, directed by Carlos Navarro. (Luis Márquez Romay/Fundación Televisa Archivo División Fílmica)

If Emilio Fernández is to be believed, the Academy Award should bear his name.

The Mexican film star and director, known for his "larger than life personality," long claimed he had modelled for the gilded statuette.

And according to film historian Dolores Tierney, there is reason to believe him.

"He had very much a kind of V-shaped body, broad shoulders, slim hips, and I've got some pictures that kind of corroborate that physically," she told Day 6.

"He very much resembles the Oscar statuette."

Described in a 1929 Academy Awards brochure as "an idealized male figure standing on a representation of motion picture film," the legendary prize, designed by Hollywood art director Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by artist George Stanley, has been known as Oscar for decades. 

The Oscar statuette was designed by famed art director Cedric Gibbons in 1928. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

The name was bestowed on the statuette in the award's early days by a librarian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who said it resembled her uncle Oscar.

But while Emilio Fernández may have looked the part, he wasn't the most reliable source. 

"He was known for telling tall tales," said Tierney, author of Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins.

'A notorious mythomaniac'

Fernández, who grew up during the Mexican Revolution, claimed to have killed his mother and her lover at the age of nine before leaving to fight in the revolution. However, his mother was discovered years later alive and well in San Antonio, Texas, said Tierney.

Fernández also claimed to have taught Italian silent film star Rudolph Valentino how to tango, and that he was a background dancer in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Flying Down To Rio.

"He likes to tell the story that he was the model for the Oscar statuette, but he's also a notorious mythomaniac, like a lot of directors."

As the story of how he became the Academy Award goes, Fernández "bumps" into Mexican actress Delores del Rio on the set of the 1928 film Ramona, explained Tierney. He had recently begun his film career in the United States.

Del Rio then introduced the actor to designer Gibbons, who she would go on to marry, and he invited Fernández to model for the statuette.

Librarians at the Academy don't buy it, however.

"They are saying the sculptor made it based on no model and that it was just an abstract drawing," Tierney said.

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Some stories, dates match up

Aside from the physical resemblance, Tierney says that given some of Fernández's other "tall tales" and the timeline hold up to scrutiny, the Academy Award tale seems plausible.

"A lot of these stories seem quite far-fetched, but then you do see stories of child soldiers during the Mexican Revolution," she said. 

It's also true that Fernández, who is "a great dancer," performed in Flying Down To Rio and that he met Delores del Rio, Tierney adds.

That doesn't mean she will be referring to film's biggest night as the Emilios any time soon, but she notes that the story is remarkable given the Anglo-centric history of the awards.

"Particularly in this present moment when we're talking about #OscarsSoWhite, it would be so incredibly ironic that the award would be modelled on a Mexican actor who is biracial," she said, noting Fernández is white and Indigenous.

"It's just a really, kind of potent image: this Oscar statuette and all the different ways we could think about how it symbolizes the contemporary industry and things like that."

Written by Jason Vermes. Segment produced by Annie Bender.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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