At the Academy Awards, the Oscar statuette is as iconic as the gowns and the red carpet. With his square shoulders, tapered legs, and strong features, Oscar looks like an art deco god. But, as familiar as he may be, it turns out we don’t know Oscar very well.
For one, Oscar’s name isn’t Oscar.
Those broad shoulders belonged to Emilio Fernandez — a.k.a. “El Indio.” He was an actor in dozens of Hollywood films, one of Mexico's greatest directors. Fernandez worked on Night of the Iguana, acted in The Wild Bunch, and directed dozens of films. But his own life was the real adventure movie.
Fernandez was born in Coahuila, Mexico in 1904. His father was a soldier, his mother a Kickapoo Indian. He grew up during the bloody revolution of 1910-17, was a teenager when Pancho Villa was killed, and dropped out of high school in the fall of 1923 to become an officer for the Huertista rebels. The following spring, after the rebellion was quashed, Fernandez was captured and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He escaped soon after (thanks to some dynamite) and crossed the border to Los Angeles, where he lived in exile for the next decade.
It was there, while working as a bus boy, that Fernandez got his break in the movie business. Some crew from The Thief of Baghdad were eating lunch at his restaurant and, desperate to come up with an opening sequence, pulled Fernandez over. He offered a simple idea, they took it, and the next day, the studio sent Fernandez a new Ford. His career in Hollywood had begun.
But Fernandez owes his tribute in gold to the silent film star Dolores Del Rio. She was his muse, his unrequited love... and MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons’ wife. In 1927, shortly after the Academy was founded, Gibbons was tasked with designing an award statuette. He’d sketched a figure of a knight holding a sword and standing on a reel of film. He was looking for a suitable life model and Del Rio suggested that Fernandez would be perfect. She asked, he agreed. He stood for hours in the nude while they shaped the statue. And the rest, as they say…
The very first Oscar was handed out on May 16, 1929. In the years that followed, Emilio Fernandez received amnesty for his role in the Huertista rebellion and returned to Mexico to direct films. In all, he directed over 40 movies. His most famous, Maria Candelaria, won the Grand Prix at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival. He died in 1986.
And no, he never did win an Oscar. Or, perhaps we should say, an Emilio.