The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award is voted by the Academy’s Board of Governors and is presented to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”
The award is a solid bronze head of Irving Thalberg, resting on a black marble base. It weighs 10 and 3/4 pounds and is nine inches tall. The Thalberg bust in use today (there were two earlier versions) was sculpted by Gualberto Rocchi in 1957 and was first used in 1966 when William Wyler received the award at the 38th Academy Awards.
It was named in honor of the man who became head of production at the Universal Film Manufacturing Co. at the age of 20 and three years later was vice president and head of production for Louis B. Mayer. A year later, Mayer's studio became part of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) with Thalberg assuming the position of vice president and supervisor of production. Over the next eight years MGM became Hollywood's most prestigious film studio, with Thalberg personally supervising the studio's top productions. Thalberg died of pneumonia in 1936 at the age of 37. The following year, the Academy instituted the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
The Thalberg Award is not given each year. In earlier years, some individuals were honored more than once; but for the 1962 (35th) Awards (and continuing to present day), the Board voted that “no individual shall be eligible to receive the Thalberg Award more than once.”
As with other awards presented at the Academy Awards ceremony, the year listed here is the awards year. The Thalberg Award to Dino De Laurentiis, for example, was presented at the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, held on March 25, 2001.
THE THREE FACES OF THALBERG
THE ACADEMY'S "OTHER" STATUETTE HAS A QUIRKY HISTORY
The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, presented periodically to creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production, was named for the “boy wonder” vice president and supervisor of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1920s and ’30s. He personally supervised the studio’s top productions until his death from pneumonia in 1936 at the age of 37.
Shortly after Thalberg died, the Academy established its first named testimonial award in his honor. The first recipient was Darryl F. Zanuck at the 1937 Academy Awards ceremony (held in 1938). The award featured a small and somewhat delicate Thalberg “head,” designed by sculptor Bernard Sopher, resting on an attractive column of green marble. Three other honorees subsequently received that design between 1939 and 1942: Hal B. Wallis, David O. Selznick and Walt Disney.
But Thalberg’s widow, the actress Norma Shearer, evidently had objections to this rendering of her husband’s head, so she commissioned a new sculpture at her own expense. She went so far as to send the new version to all the previous winners – which explains why, in 1995, the Academy received three Thalberg Awards from the Hal Wallis estate, though he had been voted the award only twice. Wallis had two different versions of the 1939 trophy. His third trophy was the one he had received in 1944, when he became the second “official” Academy recipient of “Norma’s design.” (Rules have since changed so that an individual can receive the Thalberg Award only once.)
The Shearer-commissioned design, executed by a sculptor whose name at this point has been lost to history, had a somewhat larger head fixed on two rectangular solids of black marble. Ceremony photos indicate that the Academy used this design until 1966, when William Wyler became the first recipient of a third version of the Thalberg Award.
This time around, Thalberg’s head was rendered more flamboyantly, and with a higher gloss. The trophy was also considerably heavier. The head alone weighed seven pounds, making the award top-heavy – as Steven Spielberg learned when his threatened to topple over on the podium at the 59th awards ceremony.
For many years, the origins of that third design were a mystery to current Academy staff members, although there were clues – including file photographs of the clay model in which the mark “57 Rocchi” was visible at the back of the neck. The photos were in an envelope addressed to 1955–1958 Academy President George Seaton from Norma Shearer Arrougé, but there was no indication as to whether she had initiated yet another redesign, or had simply been allowed to review the new model as a matter of courtesy.
In 2002 some historical gaps were filled in unexpectedly when a letter arrived from Gualberto Rocchi, still very much alive four decades after sculpting the third design. He had come across the Academy’s web site, and was dismayed to find his work credited to Bernard Sopher. Executive Director Bruce Davis called to assure Rocchi that the Academy knew better, leading the artist to explain how the third design came about.
Rocchi’s work included sculpted portraits of many European and Middle Eastern royalty as well as Hollywood celebrities and political figures, nearly all sculpted from life. Thalberg, apparently, was an exception. Norma Shearer had commissioned Rocchi to do a life-sized head of her husband for the lobby of the MGM Thalberg Building in Culver City (now part of the Sony Pictures Studios lot). When Rocchi delivered it, Shearer liked it so much that she asked him to produce another rendering, identical but small enough to serve as the Thalberg Award. This time around though, she apparently did not feel obligated to send the newest version to all the previous Thalberg recipients.
It’s still unclear why the third design was not used until 1966, when the clay model had been crafted by Rocchi in 1957. Perhaps the Academy simply wanted to exhaust an existing inventory of awards.
Although the Rocchi design has been in use since 1966, there were several variations over the next three decades. The heads range in color from coppery to an almost Oscar-like gold, and the bases sometimes consist of two blocks of black marble, sometimes only one. These inconsistencies are thought to have been simply at the whim of the trophy company used at the time.
In 1998, the Academy turned production of the Thalberg Award over to R.S. Owens, manufacturers of the Oscar statuettes, so that the same company now handles both of the Academy’s major awards. Their version has the Rocchi-designed head in solid bronze resting on a larger black marble base to cure the top-heaviness, and features a more elegant flange attaching the head to its base (rather than a connecting rod). It’s still heavy – a whopping 10 ¾ pounds. That makes it heavier than an Oscar statuette (8 ½ pounds), but not as tall (9 inches to Oscar’s 13 ½).