Years ago, when Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon were getting divorced, a perhaps apocryphal story appeared in the scandal sheets: As an extreme example of Grant’s supposed irrationality, Cannon cited to the judge Cary’s yearly habit of sitting in front of his television during the Academy Award ceremonies and sardonically abusing all the participants.

This item, true or not, must have amused nearly everyone in Hollywood, since nearly everyone in Hollywood does pretty much the same thing. In fact, for those who avoid going to the actual telecast itself, having a TV dinner with friends while lacerating the presenters, winners and losers on the tube has become an almost eagerly awaited ritual.

The funny thing is that from all accounts, when the Academy Awards began in 1929, they were conducted in a similar spirit of irreverence, something that has practically disappeared from the event itself.

“They used to have it down at the old Cocoanut Grove,” Jimmy Stewart told me in the late seventies. “You’d have dinner and alawta drinks — the whole thing was … it was just … it was a party. Nobody took it all that seriously. I mean, it was swell if ya won because your friends were givin’ it to you, but it didn’t mean this big deal at the bawx office or anything. It was … it was just alawta friends getting’ together and tellin’ some jokes and getting’ loaded and givin’ out some little prizes — the things they handed out were a lot smaller in those days. My gawsh, it was … there was no pressure or anything like that.”

Cary Grant corroborated this to me: “It was a private affair, you see — no television, of course, no radios even — just a group of friends giving each other a par-ty. Because, you know, there is something a little embarrassing about all these wealthy people publicly congratulating each other. When it began, we kidded ourselves: ‘All right, Freddie March,’ we’d say, ‘we know you’re making a million dollars — now come on up and get your little medal for it!'”

The alleged origin of the award’s now official nickname in itself indicates a certain inebriated lightness. Supposedly, the rear end of the statuette (for some reason it’s a naked gent with a sword) reminded Bette Davis of the one on a boyfriend named Oscar, and she didn’t mind loudly mentioning the resemblance. It was hard, therefore, to be entirely serious about a prize named after somebody’s ass.

A lot of frivolous things have been turned into money, however, so the award that first went to the German star Emil Jannings (received for his performances in two silent films, “The Way of All Flesh” and “The Last Command”) has evolved into something not only treasured but deeply coveted.

Actually, by the end of World War II, Jannings himself valued it more than when he received it. Having returned to Germany with the coming of sound in 1929, Jannings decided to stay there as part of Hitler’s cultural scene. Evidently, when the Americans marched into Berlin, they encountered a rotund and pathetic figure meekly moving toward them down a bombed-out boulevard, clutching a brass statuette, holding it out to be recognized. “Please,” he said, pointing to it desperately, “don’t shoot — I vin Oscar.”

From “Who The Hell’s In It: Portraits and Conversations,” just published by Knopf.

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