The auction sale of late US film director, writer and actor Orson Welles’ best screenplay Oscar statuette for Citizen Kane for US$861,542 is an intriguing insight into the strange, occult world of Oscar fetishism and the Oscar “black market.” It might also open an old wound in the movie world.
Oscar statuettes are the nearest things secular showbiz has to icons or relics: a gold-standard of prestige (gold-plated, anyway). German actor Emil Jannings became the first winner of the best actor Oscar in 1928.
In the ruins of Berlin in 1945, terrified by advancing Allied troops, Jannings is said to have held it up in the street and pleadingly shouted to them: “I have Oscar!” believing the statuette would placate trigger-happy GIs.
Holding one up actually isn’t easy. At 3.8kg, they are hefty objects.
British producer Simon Eagan, winner of a best film Oscar for The King’s Speech, gave his to his 15-month-old daughter Lara to hold on live TV. She dropped it on the ground where it was badly damaged.
Since 1950, Oscar recipients have had to sign an agreement swearing that they or their legal heirs will not sell the statuette, other than back to the Academy for the notional price of US$1. So post-1950 Oscars are the “conflict diamonds” of the movie memorabilia world.
The Academy believes shady collectors pay big sums on the quiet for these gold statuettes, which they then lock away or sell on to others. This is said to be the fate of Whoopi Goldberg’s best supporting actress Oscar for Ghost; it was stolen after being sent out for cleaning.
In theory, Beatrice Welles had every right to sell her father Orson’s Oscar, won in 1942. Yet there were legal rows. It was once believed lost. Then cinematographer Gary Craver attempted to put it up for auction in 1994, claiming Welles had given it to him. Beatrice embarked on a mighty legal tussle both with Craver and the Academy itself, which disputed her action.
There may be a few film historians out there who believe it would be a nice gesture now for Beatrice to take some of her US$861,542 Oscar-sale jackpot and give it to the relatives of Herman Mankiewicz, Welles’s co-screenwriter and, indeed, co-winner.
The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once wrote an essay suggesting the Oscar-winning Citizen Kane script was effectively Mankiewicz’s achievement, an article that infuriated her rival critic Andrew Sarris, who believed Welles had sole status as the film’s creator.
My guess is that smart Los Angeles lawyers are tracking down Mankiewicz’s heirs with a proposition in mind. The strange story of Orson Welles’s Oscar isn’t over yet.