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From The Duke to The Departed: Writers Share Memories of the Academy Awards

Oscar Statues


My favorite Oscar memory has nothing to do with a specific show or award. When I was a barefoot boy with cheek of tan, I was already obsessed with movies and naturally wanted to watch the show. Alas, at a certain point, I was confronted with the ugly reality that it was a school night and my bedtime would occur long before the end of the show. As a compromise, my mother would take out a legal pad, write down every single winner and leave it out so when I woke up the next morning—or crept out in the middle of the night like a kid at Christmas—I would be able to see exactly who won and how close I was with my guesses. Sure, staying up for the whole thing while doing snarky live-blogging is fun but I kind of miss how it used to be for me.

Beyond that, it would probably be a tie between Bob Dylan's acceptance speech when he won for "Things Have Changed" and the dress that Ashley Judd wore that one year—you know the one…


I covered the Oscars for a decade as the film critic for The Associated Press, from 2004–2013. It's an honor and a blast and a rush to be in the trenches on that night—the AP sends an army of people, from writers in the press room to photographers on the red carpet and various spots in between. Here's how it works: The Academy transforms a series of ballrooms at the Loews Hollywood Hotel next door to the Dolby Theater. I was always in the largest of these, where reporters, critics and broadcasters cram into table after table, furiously pounding away at their laptops. But it's a black-tie event, so we're all dressed in tuxes and gowns doing the work we'd ordinarily do from the couch in jammies and sweats. After they've babbled giddily and tearfully on stage, the winners first stop to pose and smile with their trophies in the photo room. ("Meryl! Meryl! Look over here!") Then they come to see us. After all these years, it's admittedly still a thrill to see these superstars up close—to see what they actually look like; whether they're shorter or skinnier than we expected, to admire the details on the women's designer dresses. Some of the bigger on-air personalities like to use this opportunity to ask a question in this very public setting which establishes they "know" the winner; that they're "pals." Often, the reporters asking questions are from countries around the world, resulting in some well-intentioned but amusing lost-in-translation moments. But the real perk of being backstage with the winners is getting the chance to let them expand on what they've said in a dizzying haze on live TV. They've had a glass of champagne, they've had a moment to take a breath, but the energy they radiate is inescapable. Sure, it an honor just to be nominated, but winning feels just a teeny bit better.


After years of sitting at my cluttered desk at USA TODAY on Oscar night and watching the events unfold on TV in between answering phones, typing madly and meeting deadlines, I was finally allowed to cover the event in person in 1999, the year that "Shakespeare in Love" triumphed over "Saving Private Ryan". It was my first time—and last.

Not that I sat in the cozy confines of the auditorium, however. Instead, I was on the red carpet jostling for space alongside German broadcasters with looming microphones that threatened to bang into my head, and dealing with Joan Rivers loudly beckoning stars with a giant container of Altoids as bait. And backstage, where a rather rotund journalist who was seated behind me kept me pinned to the cafeteria table, where I sat with my laptop for nearly three hours. And at the Governor’s Ball, an event that is almost impossible to report on since they discourage you from bothering the attendees. And at Elton John’s InStyle party until 2am with nary a refreshment in my hand, reduced to detailing on how the toilets had overflowed and the ice had run out that night.

It was the very definition of be careful what you wish for. Five memories that have been seared into my brain:

·  Being trapped in a bear hug by Sally Kirkland, a lovely lady who was a Best Actress nominee for 1987’s "Anna" but not exactly hot news at that moment, while the entire cast of "Saving Private Ryan" marched by me as I struggled to remove myself from her embrace. 

·  Asking Geoffrey Rush why so many British actors were nominated and he oh-so-gently breaking the news to me that he was Australian.

·  Wishing DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg good luck as he entered the venue and sensing from the uneasy look on his face that he suspected "Private Ryan" might not be the victor in the best picture category.

·  Spotting Warren Beatty and Annette Bening entering the Governor’s Ball and being told by Jeannie Williams, our newspaper’s answer to Hedda Hopper, that I should tackle Beatty while she handled Bening. As I asked him what he thought of the show, he slipped his arm around my shoulders and drew me nearer. Suddenly, I saw in that darkened hallway what all those other women had seen in him over the years. At least I managed to get a decent comment.

·  Doggedly pursuing a quote from Elton John at his InStyle party to raise money to fight AIDS. I enlisted a dear friend, Disney publicist Denise Greenawalt, to arrange for me to get close enough so we could actually talk. For several hours, I watched from afar as he schmoozed with the likes of Jim Carrey and Martina Navratilova. Finally, his longtime partner David Furnish offered to introduce me to him. However, instead of posing a question that would elicit a real response, I stupidly inquired, “May I ask you a question?” Sir Elton said: “No.” And that was that. 


From "Watching the Oscars with my Mom":

Oscar Night 1989: This was the last Oscar ceremony I watched with Mom. And I didn't even get to watch the entire thing with her. She gave up about 10 minutes into the show. Lover of trash that is I, I have a sincere fondness for the notorious Snow White-Rob Lowe Proud Mary duet. But Mom couldn't hack it. I don't know if it was Snow's voice or the destruction of Tina Turner's classic or that she just hadn't forgiven Oscar for dissing Oprah. All I know is that, mid-song, my mother got up and simply said "F**k this!" and left, never to return to the living room that evening.

The ironic thing is that, for the first time in all the years Mom and I watched the Academy Awards, the movie she was rooting for won Best Picture. I'll never know what her reaction would have been.


Most of my experiences of the Academy Awards—which ceremony I have never attended, and was only in Los Angeles for once—have involved some form of cognitive dissonance, which I have sometimes found pleasurable depending on the surrounding circumstances. But I guess the Oscar-watching evening during which I apprehended—with a youthful cynicism that I took at the time for a form of undeniable existential horror—the whole thing as a crock was in 1979, at the age of 19 going on 20, watching the 51st Annual ceremonies with some friends who were film-schoolers and such, whilst lightly buzzed.

If Laurence Olivier seemed dotty, the overstated "blew my mind" reaction shot of Jon Voight in the audience seemed dottier still. (It was later hilariously lampooned on an "SCTV" sketch.) And the spectacle of the dissipated, gravely ill John Wayne compelled to deliver a Best Picture award to "The Deer Hunter"—a movie that at the time I thought gobbed in the face of everything Wayne stood for—confirmed for me what I considered to be my vital punk-rock ethos. Wayne would be dead by the summer, and punk-rock me didn't give much of a damn, and found Drew Friedman's subsequent "Dawn of the Duke" cartoon ("When there's no more gooks in HELL the Duke will walk the EARTH!") side-splitting. Not just a crock but a feeble crock, I decided.

Looking at the clips now, of course they are extremely poignant, and of course one can't help but admire Wayne's professionalism, and of course my own perspective on Wayne, Bob Hope, et al has evolved considerably since. And yet there's still smarm, old-timey, fake-comfort-food smarm, in the mix there. What are you gonna do?


My best and oldest childhood friend, whom I met when I was three years old and her family moved next door to mine, is named Alicja. Our dads have known each other forever and we ended up growing up together pretty much as siblings, with Alicja as the younger sister I never had.

I love watching the Oscars, even though it wasn’t till 1998 that Polish TV did the very first live broadcast of it. The thrill of getting up in the middle of the night to watch it appealed to me and Alicja tremendously—the 9-hour time difference between Poland and California made the Oscars into a shining bowl of forbidden fruit.

We always planned the whole night ahead. We made tons of popcorn and even made our very own pizza together: as we watched "Titanic" triumph on my parents' tiny color TV (which seemed huge at the time), we truly felt as if Hollywood came one step closer to our little hometown of Tarnowskie Góry.

We repeated the ritual throughout high school (with one disastrous case of Alicja oversleeping and not showing up at all), and it's fair to say those nights we spent glued to the TV together stayed with us forever.

I still watch the show religiously, but there's really no substitute for staying up late at night with one’s best friend. The heavy eyelids we sported at school the morning after the show were like badges of honor: "Yes, we did watch the Oscars live from Hollywood last night!" Those were the days.


The Oscars bring out the worst in me. I don't get the same joy from them that I used to, though I readily admit that that's because I'm prematurely jaded. I'm stubborn/stupid enough to think that people should vote with their wallets. So a few years ago, I flattered myself into thinking that if I stopped watching and writing about the Oscars, I'd stop caring. Ignoring the Oscars was also my way of making a big show of my disdain. Don't like it? Don't patronize it. Don't comment on it, don't look at it, just pretend it's not there, la la la. Great plan, right?

This strategy sucks, mostly because I can't stop thinking about movies. There's always some Lucio Fulci film I've never seen, some goofy Woody Allen quote, some inappropriate and knowingly obscure reference to "Zardoz" I can use as a secret handshake (the gun, she is good, you know?). Half the time no one knows what I'm talking about, and the other half, people think I'm a goon. And I am, but that's...look, Oscars, right? Focus.

I think I dropped out of the Oscars when "Chicago" won Best Picture in 2002. I couldn't understand it: this mediocre adaptation? This, really, this? Since then, I've only become more finicky, and distraught whenever I'm reminded that my tastes are not shared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I'm sure this is something all cinephiles face, like a disillusioning Bar Mitzvah. Can you imagine: "Where were you when you realized you weren't normal in the sense that normalcy is determined by how much you agree with a group of people you'll probably never meet in real life?" That kinda thing. 

Gabriel Carras, my eighth grade English teacher, tried to teach me not to care too much about the Oscars. "It's only good for betting pools," he said. In time, I came to believe him, but I didn't immediately have much use for his advice. I wasn't a socially capable person until college, so I didn't bother with Oscars beyond semi-professional obligations. Now, social anxiety permitting, I like to attend to Oscar parties. It's fun to drink, and horse around with a claque of equally-snobby friends. I mean, that's my idea of fun. I guess. Sometimes.

But since I am so jaded, I do have one very fond memory of Oscar night: February 25, 2007. I was a sophomore in college, studying abroad in Florence, Italy. There was—and probably still is—only one movie theater that shows English-language films in "versione originale." I wouldn't have minded if I could watch popular Italian films with English subtitles, many of which you can't see outside of Italy. But there weren't any English subtitles, and my Italian was, how you say, not great.

So I used to contrive excuses to go to the Odeon, a beautiful old two-tiered movie theater. The Odeon was once an opera house, and its mezzanine level was always my favorite. I still dream of that theater: thin, black metal rails wrapped around a gaping white screen. I forced myself out of my myopic comfort zone, and watched everything I could there, including "The Painted Veil" and "The Pursuit of Happyness."

And on Oscar night, I ran to the Odeon to rewatch "The Departed." I hated the film when I first saw it, partly because I love "Infernal Affairs," the film "The Departed" is based on. But so many people I knew and respected liked the film, making me realize that I was being unfair. Also, since I was abroad, I felt very lonely. I was (Ha! Past tense...funny) addicted to Facebook and Twitter, and everyone was talking about the Oscars. So I had to get out.

Thankfully, I did enjoy the film more second time around. I still don't think it's great, but I did enjoy myself. And when I left the theater, I felt great. Everything I had read about the Oscars suggested that director Martin Scorsese was going to win Best Picture...and after rewatching the film, I didn't mind that. All the politicking, and the absurdity of the notion that "this is Scorsese's year"...none of that bothered me. As I came out of the theater, I bumped into my Italian Opera professor. Funny little guy, looked a bit like Count von Count, with a thick Italian accent. Really great teacher, and a nice guy. He was at the movie with his wife, and he loved it. And, I forget who it was that told me, but someone said that "The Departed" just won Best Picture. Right then, while we were watching the film. Did I mention it was snowing? Because it was snowing, too. 

And all of these things—my happy indifference, my love for the Odeon, my excitement at seeing a professor in a social setting, and that friggin' snow!—made it easy for me to stop worrying about the Oscars. I just don't need to care about how much I care. What a relief.


I have watched every Oscar telecast live with family or friends ever since I was old enough to care about the Oscar telecast (and probably before, though I have no memory of any show prior to the late 1970s). There has been only one gap in that personal history, and unfortunately it was one of the most dramatic and historically significant Oscar broadcasts ever: March 2002.

This was, of course, the first telecast after the attacks of 9/11. I was on location in New Jersey that night shooting a scene for a low-budget thriller titled "Tinsel Town," directed by a guy named Ken DelVecchio. This was my first professional movie as a producer. I was playing hooky from work, filing stories from the set when I wasn't talking to actors and crew, helping the director storyboard his shots, and directing second unit. On the night of the Oscars we were shooting a chase scene that involved a sedan, a police cruiser and an eighteen wheeler. 

The chase scene was shot entirely in an office park in Secaucus, starting at sundown and continuing until dawn the next day. The vehicles were just racing around and around in circles, treating the office park as a makeshift track. Every hour or so we changed camera angles; sometimes put cameras in the back seats or front seats of vehicles to get point-of-view shots. 

It was, in retrospect, incredibly dangerous and irresponsible, considering that nobody involved was a professional stunt person. The guys in the sedan were actors. They were improvising dialogue as they screeched and roared around the office park. The truck driver was a truck driver we'd hired at a gas station a few days earlier. I think we paid him $200, maybe. The police car was driven by an off-duty police officer; it was his vehicle, but state property. Nobody was going faster than about 45 or 50 mph, but the streets were wet, it was dark, and if anything had gone wrong somebody could have been killed, or driven through the wall of a warehouse or small business. So we were all fools for doing it; but we did it. Nobody thought to check the Oscars and see who'd won or what had happened. 

There was no wireless service in those days, indeed no Internet connection unless you were indoors in a room with proper connections. So it was effectively a news blackout, for us. I was proud of the entire crew, and perversely proud of myself for driving everyone like Captain Ahab to keep going and make sure we got as much footage as we could before the sun came up and ruined continuity. We toasted each other over coffee and breakfast sandwiches and started breaking down the lights and camera equipment around 6:30am At that point, one of the crew members came over and told us what had happened that night.

Halle Berry had won best actress for "Monster's Ball" and Denzel Washington had won best actor for "Training Day," the first time in history that actors of color had won the top performing awards in the same calendar year. That same night, pioneering actor Sidney Poitier had won a lifetime achievement award.  One of my favorite American musicians, Randy Newman, finally won an Oscar after years of being nominated and losing, for a song in "Monsters Inc.", and accepted with one of the great one-liners in Oscar history: "I don't want your pity." 

And of course Woody Allen, famous for snubbing the Oscars for years and years, made a surprise appearance to pay tribute to his beloved New York City, only a few months after the worst attack on the island since the draft riots of 1863.

Oh, well. You can't be everywhere at once. 

We'll be live-tweeting the Oscars Sunday night as each award is handed out. Follow the show Sunday on our Twitter account, @ebertvoices.

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