Oscar: Award and Power Elite–Presidents, Senators, Politicians

From the beginning, it was important to bestow prestige on the event by including dignitaries from the literary and political milieus. The guests of honor in the first show were stage actor Sir Gilbert Parker and novelist Fannie Hurst, whose books were adapted to the screen, including numerous versions of Back Street.

In that show, the link between Hollywood and Washington’s power elite became established when MGM’s Louis B. Mayer singled out President Herbert Hoover for a life dedicated to service. “Life without service isn’t worth living,” said Mayer by way of explaining the goal of the Academy Awards–“give flowers to the living, don’t wait until they’re dead.” The Hollywood-Washington connection proved to be mutually beneficial, and, as noted, the Oscars have received the formal endorsement of several presidents.

For the November 10, 1931 banquet, Louis B. Mayer invited the Governor of California, a former assistant. U.S. attorney general, Will Hays, and leaders of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, which was holding its convention in Los Angeles at the same time. Mayer’s greatest celeb was Herbert Hoover’s Vice President, Charles Curtis, who arrived with his sister, society lady Dolly Gann. Mayer’s other guest, the admiral, paid tribute to democracy, and California’s Governor saluted the movie industry and Louis B. as a man “beloved in the halls of Congress.” Curtis was later criticized for his “dull Republican” speech, but his presence helped put the Academy Awards into the national spotlight. In the same show, Conrad Nagel, one of the Academy’s founders, paid tribute to Thomas Edison, the recipient of the previous year’s Lifetime Membership, who had just died.

In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to address the motion picture industry via radio. Three years earlier, his son, Hollywood producer James Roosevelt, presented the Best Picture to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You. President Harry S. Truman followed in Roosevelt’s footsteps, when he sent a congratulatory message to the Academy in 1949.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood Bactor and past SAG president, participated in the proceedings via a pre’taped oneminute greeting. “I’ve been trapped in some film forever myself,” Reagan said, “It’ surely no state secret that Nancy and I share your interest in the results of this year.”