As Hollywood’s best and brightest head home clutching their golden statuettes this week, many are blissfully unaware that they’re holding more than a golden representation of accolades for career accomplishments: they’re also carrying pieces of film history. Long ago and far away, someone had to model for the classic art deco Oscar statue, and the identity of that person might surprise you. He was, as far as we can tell, a Mexican exile who was working as an extra in Hollywood at the time, though he later rose to prominence as an actor and director. Meet Emilio Fernandáz, the alleged face of the Oscar.
Fernandáz’ story is a fascinating one. Born in Mexico to an Indigenous mother, he later became a revolutionary, fleeing Mexico in exile in 1925 when he made his way to the United States. It’s possible he may have been an undocumented immigrant, since he was crossing the border to avoid a prison sentence, but it’s been difficult to categorically prove this claim. During his time in the United States, he started working as an extra, acquiring the nickname “El Indio,” a slur referring to his Kickapo Indian origins.
When Cedric Gibbons was called upon to design the Oscar statue, he roughed out a sketch, but he wanted a real-live model, and his wife, Dolores Del Rio, suggested Fernandáz. He was initially reluctant to model, but eventually agreed to do it, and the rest, as they say, is history. The revolutionary-turned-extra posed for a statue that’s now become world-famous, allowing his distinctive high cheekbones and solid build to become enshrined in history as the face of the Academy Awards. He went on to build a notable career in film before returning to his native Mexico to live out the rest of his life, and he’s an iconic and important figure in Mexican and American film history, though many people are not familiar with his work.
Notably, some pieces of this story have been put together from evidence. The Academy hasn’t confirmed that Emilio was used as the model for the Oscar (and it may not be possible to do so, depending on recordkeeping practices in the 1920s and other concerns). There’s strong evidentiary support for the claim, including his known friendship with Del Rio, the Oscar’s similarity to his own build, and the timing of events, but it’s also possible that the story isn’t true — at least, so say those who hate romance.
Sadly, Fernandáz never won an Oscar himself, and though his face is iconic, Latinos like him haven’t done so well at the Academy Awards. Of the thousands that have been handed out over the years to stars of film and television along with technical crews, only a handful have gone to Latino talent. Someday, perhaps, the Oscar will be renamed the Emilio, and some of the next generation of Latino and Latina filmmakers, actors, and other Hollywood talent will be recognized with the award — given California and Hollywood’s close connections with Mexico, it seems only natural to acknowledge the contributions of Latinos to the film industry.
Photo credit: prayitno.