On Oscar night in 1929, movie legend Mary Pickford -- with her bob hairdo and strapless beaded evening gown -- posed for photos after accepting the Academy Awards’ first best actress award for a talking movie.
It was a big night for Pickford, who had become “America’s sweetheart” as a silent film star and with the melodrama “Coquette” was making the leap into talkies.
Almost 80 years later, Pickford’s prized statuette is now at the center of another kind of drama.
Three people who inherited the Oscar now want to auction it to the highest bidder. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which Pickford helped found, insists that she agreed to return it for a nominal sum rather than sell it. The deal binds her heirs, academy lawyers have argued.
A tawdry auction would tarnish the significance of the bronze-and-gold Oscar, according to the academy, which has gone to court to try to stop the sale.
“We have no problem with Oscars being scattered around the world in the hands of people who love them -- who have won them, or who have inherited them as family heirlooms,” said Bruce Davis, the academy’s executive director. “There should be a few things in the world, though, that you have to earn rather than purchase, and we’d like Oscars to be one of them.”
Pickford’s godson, Keith Lawrence, who heads the Mary Pickford Institute, which promotes filmmaking, agreed, saying the Oscar should be “shared with the public.”
“To sell it to the highest bidder and have it sit in someone’s home and never be seen again, that just doesn’t make any sense,” Lawrence said.
Pickford’s best actress Oscar -- along with an honorary Oscar she received in 1975 -- is now owned by three heirs of the second wife of actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who was married to Pickford when she died in 1979.
At issue is the validity of Pickford’s written promise to give the academy the right of first refusal to her Oscars. The academy cites a contract with Pickford under which it can buy both statuettes for $10 each.
In court papers, the heirs questioned the authenticity of Pickford’s signature on the agreement calling for the restrictions. They also contend the academy offered them $50,000 for the “Coquette” statuette -- far below the appraised value of $300,000 that they obtained.
Once or twice a year a statuette goes up for sale. The best picture Oscar for “How Green Was My Valley” sold at Christie’s in 2004 for $95,600. In 1999, Michael Jackson set the record for most money ever paid: $1.54 million for the best picture Oscar for “Gone With the Wind.”
“Mary Pickford’s Oscar, my God, that could be really invaluable,” said Rudy Cole, a Hollywood historian and former Beverly Hills commissioner. “She was one of the pioneers of our city and of our industry.”
But Cole faulted the academy for failing to pay fair market value for the golden idol.
“Instead of trying to prevent people from selling, they ought to find a way to treasure these Oscars, to compensate the owners and to make them available to the public,” Cole said.
On Friday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denied a request by the heirs to transfer the case to Riverside County, where the last owner died.
In the lawsuit, filed last summer, the academy said it offered “substantially” more than $20 for the two statuettes, but asserts that one of the heirs demanded $500,000. Lawyers for the heirs did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment Friday.
Toronto-born Gladys Smith, a child actress who became known as Mary Pickford, started at American Biograph Co. in 1909 at $40 a week. By 1916, Adolph Zukor was paying her $10,000 a week, plus a $300,000 bonus. That makes Pickford possibly the highest-paid actress ever, when the salary is adjusted for inflation.
Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1920, creating Hollywood’s first power couple. Cole said the couple had extensive real estate holdings and helped shape the modern city. Their legendary mansion, “Pickfair,” is still a Beverly Hills landmark.
Film historians say Pickford became a powerful force in Hollywood when she helped found United Artists in 1919 with Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. She was also a founding member of the academy.
In 1937, she married actor/singer Rogers, whose screen credits include “Wings,” a 1927 silent film which was the first to win a best picture Oscar.
Rogers inherited Pickford’s statuettes upon her death in 1979. He died in 1999, and the Oscars went to his second wife, Beverly Rogers. She died earlier this year in Rancho Mirage, and the Oscars are now in the hands of her heirs. The academy’s lawsuit named heirs Kim Boyer, Virginia Casey and Marian Stahl. They could not be reached for comment.
Since 1950, Oscar recipients have been required to sign an agreement under which they give the academy the right to buy the statuette if it is placed on the market. Pickford signed the agreement when she was given the honorary Oscar, which also covered the 1929 best actress honor, according to the lawsuit.
“By remaining academy members after 1950, Ms. Pickford and Mr. Rogers consented to the application of the bylaw provision to them,” according to the lawsuit.
But the terms of Rogers’ will questioned the validity of Pickford’s signature on the Oscar statuette sales agreement, according to the academy lawsuit.
“We don’t have to go to court to enforce our rights very often,” Davis, the academy chief, said Friday.
The academy has both trademark and copyright interests in the Oscar statuette, and has always restricted its use, he said.
“You can’t hold it making TV commercials for used car lots,” he said.
The academy has about 150 Oscars that have been returned and hopes to display them at a museum now being planned for Hollywood. The current models are brittania metal alloy coated with copper, silver and gold. The original, like the one Pickford received for “Coquette,” was bronze coated with gold on a marble base. Each weighs about 8 pounds, Davis said.
Most of the returned Oscars had been willed to the academy. Davis said older statuettes offered at auction have sometimes been bought by Hollywood figures -- actor Kevin Spacey, producer Steven Spielberg and movie mogul Lew Wasserman -- and donated to the academy.
“This shouldn’t even be an issue,” said Lawrence, of the Pickford Institute. He said Pickford had no relationship with Rogers’ second wife. “The Rogers estate never should have gotten the Oscars in the first place. When Buddy Rogers died, they should have been sent back to the academy,” he said.
In 2009, a traveling exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of Pickford’s first film will open in the United States and is set to travel to Canada, England and Germany.
“Mary Pickford has a lot of meaning to a lot of people,” Lawrence said. “We have a chance to share this with the public. We should honor that. She gave her whole life to establish this industry.”