Oscar Hammerstein II is the only person named Oscar to ever win an Oscar
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In 94 years, only twice has an Oscar been awarded to someone named Oscar — and both times Oscar Hammerstein II claimed that fame.
The acclaimed lyricist, who is best known as half of legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, was best known for his stage work — but he also holds a distinction as one of the most unique pieces of Oscar trivia.
He first won in 1942 with composer Jerome Kern for the song "The Last Time I Saw Paris." But that tune holds a dubious place in Academy Awards history, as it was not actually written for Ann Sothern to sing in the divorce comedy Lady Be Good.
As Hammerstein revealed before an appearance on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, the song's origins came from a much darker place: "When Hitler's army entered Paris on June 14, 1940, I kept thinking of the silly and frivolous side of Paris. All these things seemed ridiculous and pathetic and touching when you realized that at this moment, the heavy boots of the enemy were stamping down these streets. Then, my mind switched from the nightlife of Paris to the less-advertised, but much more important day life; the beauty of her buildings, the trees and lawns in her parks, the stimulating confusion of her happy streets. Pretty soon, I found myself writing a song about these things. I didn't know if I would ever see Paris again. I was afraid that I wouldn't, and I tried to sketch a little picture of the city as I had known it, so I could preserve the memory for myself and for anyone else who cared about it as I did."
The song — which was one of the very few songs in his entire career Hammerstein wrote that wasn't, as he put it, "written to order" for a musical or film — went on to become a best-selling single and piece of sheet music. Kate Smith first introduced it on her radio show in October 1940.
"He wasn't being paid to write it," explains Bruce Pomahac, the former Director of Music for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. "He was moved. Very rarely did any of those composers write that way. Richard Rodgers always said, 'I was never inspired. I had a job.' So, 'The Last Time I Saw Paris' was very personal."
By the time it was placed in the film Lady Be Good, it had been entirely divorced from Hammerstein's original meaning. When Ann Sothern sings it, it's at an industry event where her character, Dixie, and her ex-husband Eddie (Robert Young) are being honored. Then, it went on to win the Academy Award, despite not being written for the film.
In spite of, or maybe because of, his personal connection to the song, Hammerstein and composer Kern were concerned about winning Best Original Song for a song that wasn't, well, original. Instead of declining the award, they successfully petitioned the Academy for a rule change, which declared henceforth "a nominated song has to be written specifically for the motion picture in which it is performed."
Hammerstein not only made history with his name's tie-in to the award, but he helped make a permanent change in Academy Awards rules and voting.
He won again in 1946 for State Fair's "It Might As Well Be Spring," but ironically, his push to correct the category virtually eliminated him from future contention. Despite much of his work, including The Sound of Music and The King and I, being developed into memorable, Academy Award-winning films, he wasn't eligible in the Best Song category by virtue of the songs being first written for the stage. Pomahac says it didn't bother Hammerstein or Rodgers though, purely because they so vastly preferred working in the theater to Hollywood.
So, the only Oscar to win an Oscar holds another — and perhaps even more significant — place in Oscar history.
Now we wait to see if Oscar Isaac will ever crash this (Oscar) party.