Code Switch
3:37 pm
Sun March 2, 2014

Latin Pride Swells For Mystery Model Behind Oscar Statuette

Originally published on Sun March 2, 2014 8:23 pm

The 8-pound, 24-carat-gold-plated statuette that will be handed out at the Academy Awards Sunday night is said to be modeled after a real man.

That man's name is not Oscar.

It might be Emilio, Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez. He was a famous Mexican director and actor who used to live in Hollywood in the 1920s. His nickname, "The Indian," came from the Kickapoo side of his family.

Ask old folks in Mexico City about him, and they'll tell you they love his movies. Especially Maria Candelaria, the movie Fernandez wrote and directed that won the top prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and put Mexican films on the world stage.

Ask them about Fernandez's stint as a model for the Oscar statuette and the answers vary.

In Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, Connie Navarro and Tere Vargas stop sipping their coffee to say it's true — he was the model.

"Si, es cierto," they say in unison, "it's true!"

But, at the park nearby, 82-year-old Marin De Lotereri says there's no way that's true. "The Oscar is thin, well shaped, elegant," he says. "And as for him, elegance? None!"

But the story of Fernandez modeling for the Oscar statue is well-known. You'll find it on Wikipedia, hear it on public radio and read it in textbooks.

Charles Ramirez Berg, professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says the first time he saw the story was in a book by a Mexican film historian named Emilio Garcia Riera. He says there was a community of Mexicans working in Hollywood in the 1920s around the same time the Academy Awards began.

"There was a number of them," Ramirez Berg says. "Dolores Del Rio was there, her cousin Ramon Navarro, they were both big stars, and among them was Emilio Fernandez."

Fernandez was an extra at the time, and Ramirez Berg says when MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons was designing the statuette for the Academy Awards, his wife, Dolores Del Rio, gave him an idea.

"The story is that Dolores Del Rio referred him to Emilio Fernandez and said you should use Emilio for the model," Ramirez Berg says. "He had a very athletic build, I mean, he looked just like Oscar. All of this could have happened."

The Academy Awards library in LA, wouldn't do an interview for this story, but one librarian there said there's zero proof any of that happened. She seemed annoyed by the question; they've been getting it a lot lately.

Laura Isabel Serna, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the experience of Mexicans in Hollywood in the 20s, says there's probably no hard evidence to back the story, but wouldn't mind if there was.

"I think it would be wonderful if it were true, because it would be another bit of evidence of the involvement of Mexicans in particular, and Latinos more generally, in American cinema during its most formative years," she says.

Serna says she thinks the legend persists because Latinos want to know they're a part of American history — a part of Hollywood history. They want to know they played a critical role.

"And that story hasn't been told," Serna says. "Emilio 'El Indio' Fernandez is part of that story."

At this year's academy awards, Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón has been nominated for best director for Gravity. If he wins, maybe he'll thank the man who introduced Mexican filmmaking to the world — and just might have posed for that golden statuette.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The eight-pound, 24-carat-gold-plated statuette that will be handed out at the Academy Awards tonight is said to be modeled after a real man. That man's name is not Oscar. It might be Emilio - Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, a famous Mexican director and actor who lived in Hollywood in the 1920s. Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team has the story, which could be an urban legend.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Ask old folks in Mexico City about Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez - by the way, he's half Kickapoo. That's where he got the nickname El Indio - The Indian. Anyway, ask old folks in Mexico City about him, and they'll tell you they love his movies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MERAJI: Especially "Maria Candelaria," the movie Fernandez wrote and directed that won the top prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and put Mexican films on the world stage. Now ask them about Fernandez's stint as a model for the Oscar statuette and the answers vary.

CONNIE NAVARRO: (Foreign language spoken)

TERE VARGAS: (Foreign language spoken)

MERAJI: Connie Navarro and Tere Vargas are having coffee in Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, and they say, yes, it's true. He was the model.

MARIN DE LOTERERI: (Foreign language spoken)

MERAJI: But at the park nearby, 82-year-old Marin De Lotereri says no way.

MARIN DE LOTERERI: (Foreign language spoken)

MERAJI: De Lotereri says the Oscar statue is thin with a good shape, elegant. He says the Fernandez he remembers wasn't. But Emilio Fernandez was older when he lived in Mexico City and paunchier. And the story about him modeling for the Oscar statue, you'll find it on Wikipedia, hear it on public radio...

CHARLES RAMIREZ BERG: Those pecks, those thighs, those shoulders, they came from a real guy.

MERAJI: You can read it in legit books.

BERG: I first saw it in a history book by a Mexican film historian named Emilio Garcia Riera.

MERAJI: That's Charles Ramirez Berg, professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He says there was a community of Mexicans working in Hollywood in the 1920s, around the same time the Academy Awards began.

BERG: And there was a number of them. Dolores Del Rio was there, her cousin Ramon Navarro, and they were both big stars. And among them was Emilio Fernandez.

MERAJI: Fernandez was an extra at the time, and Ramirez Berg says when MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons was designing the statuette for the Academy Awards, his wife, Dolores Del Rio, had an idea.

BERG: And the story is that Dolores Del Rio referred him to Emilio Fernandez and said, oh, you should use Emilio for the model. He had this very athletic build, I mean, he looked just like Oscar. All of this could have happened.

MERAJI: I called up the Academy Awards Library here in L.A. They wouldn't give me an interview. But the librarian I spoke with said there's zero proof any of that happened. And she seemed pretty annoyed by the question. They've been getting it a lot lately. Laura Isabel Serna is a professor at USC and has studied Mexicans who worked in Hollywood in the '20s. She says, yeah, there's probably no hard evidence to back the story but...

LAURA ISABEL SERNA: I think it would be wonderful if it were true because it would be another bit of evidence of the involvement of Mexicans in particular, and Latinos more generally, in American cinema during its most formative years.

MERAJI: Serna says she thinks the legend persists because Latinos want to know they're a part of American history, a part of Hollywood history, that they played a critical role.

SERNA: And that story really hasn't been told. And Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez is part of that story.

MERAJI: At this year's Academy Awards, Mexico's Alfonso Cuaron has been nominated for Best Director and Best Picture for "Gravity." If he wins, I wonder if he'll thank the man who introduced Mexican filmmaking to the world and maybe even posed for that golden statuette. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.