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Folk belief holds that if you have won one Oscar, your odds of ever winning a second are greatly diminished by the dreaded Oscar Jinx

The three-time winning Meryl Streep (above at the 2017 Academy Awards) with 21 nominations under her belt appears to be a rare exception to the Oscar Jinx.

Folklorists look for patterns. Maybe not the patterns in the Vera Wang gowns that so many glamorous stars will wear at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday night in Hollywood. But certainly, the patterns in the ritual event itselfthe customs, beliefs, traditions and formulas, which we collectively call folklorethat are repeated year after year.

The first Academy Awards were presented on May 16, 1929, at a private dinner in a Hollywood hotel ballroom for 270 guests, hosted by theAcademy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which had been established in early 1927. In attendance was much of Hollywood royalty: the god-like stars whose faces were larger than life on the silver screen. We know relatively little about the 1929 event or its rituals, other than the names of the winners, because it was not broadcast in any form.

The 1930 Academy Awards were the first to be broadcast on radio. Television began its live broadcasts on March 19, 1953, which has profoundly affected the nature of the eventnow bringing it to an estimated 30 to 40 million viewers each year.

Much folklore exists in different versions, known to folklorists as variants, because there is rarely a single source considered definitive or authoritative. For instance, several variants exist to explain why the Academy Awards are known as Oscars. One variant cites actressBette Davis(winner of two Academy Awards), who allegedly said that thesvelte gold-plated statuettereminded her of Harmon Oscar Nelson (her husband at the time) because both had shallow backsides. Another variant traces the name toOscar Wilde, the Irish playwright and poet, who, after receiving the Newdigate Prize for Poetry, told reporters that every year some man gets the Newdigate, but not every year does Newdigate get an Oscar. That sounds intriguing, except that Wilde made this statement in January 1882. The most widely accepted variant traces the origin toMargaret Herrick, the first librarian and subsequently executive director of AMPAS, who supposedly claimed that the statuette was reminiscent of her Uncle Oscar. Skeptics note that Oscar Pierce was her second cousin, not her uncle.

Fortune and luckas well as misfortune and bad luckoften appear in folk beliefs and customs. For instance, we believe that four-leaf clovers and horseshoes will bring good luck. Walking under ladders and black cats crossing our path are omens of bad luck. For those in the film industry, there is one belief that even uttering the word Oscarcould spoil your chances of winning one. ActorSaoirse Ronansupposedly avoided saying the word Oscar for one month before the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, when her performance inBrooklyn(2015) put her in the running for Best Actressalbeit unsuccessfully.

Another folk belief holds that if you have won one Oscar, your odds of ever winning a second are greatly diminished by the dreadedOscar Jinx.In this category areTimothy Hutton, who at age 20 became the youngest ever winner of Best Supporting Actor for his performance inOrdinary People(1980), but he has since failed to find comparable success. Similarly,F. Murray Abrahamreceived the award for Best Actor for his performance inAmadeus(1984), and has appeared in some 50 theatrical films since then, but without even earning another Oscar nomination.

One variant on this jinx, known as theOscar Love Curse,holds that female winners of an Academy Award may suffer misfortune in their love lives after taking home the Oscar. In this category of those affected by break-ups, separations and divorces are Halle Berry, Hilary Swank and several others. Of course, there are many exceptions to these jinxesMeryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis, among othersbut (in folk belief) the exceptions usually receive less attention than the victims.

Any discussion of folklore and the Oscars must include the customs practiced by viewers at home, who eagerly tune in each year to watch what hostJohnny Carsonin 1979 jokingly called two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show.

Like all folk rituals, watching the star-studded ceremonies involves moments that we anticipate, if not almost demand. There will betruly embarrassing acceptance speeches. Someonewill be attiredin ways that we cant stop talking about the next morning. And there may even be moments that we cant stop talking about for yearsfrom the disastrousSnow Whiteappearance in 1989 to thebewildering confusionin 2017 when the award for Best Picture was mistakenly given toLa La Landinstead ofMoonlightcorrected only after the producers of the former were halfway through their acceptance speeches.

Folklore serves several functions, including amusement, education and the reinforcement of beliefs and conduct. But its foremost function is to help maintain the stability, solidarity, cohesiveness and continuity of different groups within the larger mass culture. By producing the Oscars each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is able to maintain its cohesiveness and solidary even while its members compete against each other.

And for the viewers at home, the ceremonial rituals confirm our beliefs inand sometimes our hopes forthe glamor of Hollywood royalty. We might take some pleasure in a nominees misfortuneas in that lovely German wordschadenfreude. But we almost always delight in the spectacle of the red carpet, which, according toone interpretation, is akin to the crimson path upon which gods and goddesses walk when they return to earth. Once upon a time.

Aversion of this articleoriginally appeared on the digital magazine of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

James Deutsch is a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where he has helped develop exhibitions on the Peace Corps, China and World War II, among others. In addition, he serves as an adjunct professorteaching courses on American film history and folklorein the American Studies Department at George Washington University.

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