The Academy Awards Welcomes a New CEO
by JEFfrey Lyons
|Halle Berry was the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar|
|This year Billy Crystal returns to host the Oscars for the ninth time|
|Marlon Brando sent “Sacheen Littlefeather” (aka Maria Cruz) onstage to refuse his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather|
One afternoon in the winter of 1929, Emil Jannings was notified by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that he’d won its first award for Best Actor for The Way of All Flesh. He no doubt imagined the Cedric Gibbons-designed statuette would be a nice keepsake, perhaps a conversation piece during parties. He was also surely grateful to have time to prepare remarks before the 270 guests gathered for the awards dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel.
Never in Jannings’s nor anyone else’s wildest dreams was it imagined the Academy Award would become the most coveted, revered artistic honor in the world. The Oscar telecast has evolved into an annual international event, rivaled only by the Super Bowl. Categories have come and gone, voting procedures have always been strict, and the winners’ names are now the best-kept secret this side of the code to launch nuclear Armageddon.
It’s been almost 18 years since Whoopi Goldberg became the first woman (and, incidentally, the first African-American) to host the awards show. But not until 2010 did Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win Best Director, for The Hurt Locker. And now another first has come regarding women and the Oscar: Last June, Dawn Hudson was named the Academy’s first CEO, a new position for the organization.
Hudson’s credentials are impeccable. She knows what it is to covet an Oscar because she’s a former actress. She’s also been a magazine editor and a Sundance Film Festival juror, is a Harvard University alum who did graduate work in France, and has been an industry leader of independent filmmakers in her former position as executive director of Film Independent. Dubbed “The Indie Queen,” she was the driving force behind the Independent Spirit Awards, one of the few non- Oscar awards garnering industry-wide respect. But above all, she’s an unabashed fan of the Oscars.
Like any fan of the prestigious ceremony, Hudson has favorite memories, especially one from 2002 when Halle Berry won Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, becoming the first African- American actress to earn the distinction. “Watching at home,” says Hudson, “you could sense the audience really felt the emotion and impact of her acceptance speech.” Hudson also admired how Berry put her win in perspective when she said, “This moment is so much bigger than me. It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” Recalls Hudson: “She made me cry.”
The Academy CEO is well aware of the awards’ unique hold on American culture. While fame can be fleeting, an Oscar is the entrée to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. “It’s true Oscar winners breathe a certain rarefied air,” she says, “but, more important, every time a winner stands at the podium, we are reminded of the power and reach of this form of storytelling.”
Even after more than 80 years of ceremonies, Oscar telecasts can go awry no matter how tightly scripted and timed. The show that aired March 27, 1973, for example, began after opening host Charlton Heston’s car had a flat tire on the freeway. Clint Eastwood—never known for his skills as an ad-libber—was quickly plucked from the audience and pushed onstage to read the teleprompter copy written for Heston. To everyone’s bewilderment, he thus “reminisced” about portraying Moses and Judah Ben-Hur. When Heston arrived, he strode onstage, didn’t acknowledge Eastwood, and, with the copy quickly restarted, began reading with no apology nor explanation for his tardy arrival.
But it got better—or worse. Heavily favored, Marlon Brando won for Best Actor in The Godfather that same year, but sent a starlet calling herself “Sacheen Littlefeather” (aka Maria Cruz), dressed in full Native American garb, onstage to refuse the Oscar. She’d earlier told producer Howard W. Koch about Brando’s 15-page statement decrying “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Koch responded by telling her she’d have 45 seconds, and if she went one second longer, he’d have her physically removed.
The very next year, when the late Robert Opel, wearing only a moustache, streaked across the stage behind suave cohost David Niven (an event some suspect was staged), the actor calmly referred to the interloper’s “shortcomings.”
Hudson takes such potential disasters in stride: “There is a bracing honesty to live television,” she says. “You can’t go back and fix the mistakes, which helps balance out the formality of the evening and definitely keeps people watching.”
Spontaneity is, without a doubt, part of the allure of Oscar night. The evening Judy Holliday won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1951 for Born Yesterday, for instance, she held her statuette aloft and cried: “It’s crazy! The whole thing’s crazy!” Karl Malden lost his coat when he arose from his seat to accept the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Reportedly, Malden was seated next to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and asked Bogart to look after his coat when he went to the stage. When Malden met Bogart backstage later, all he could do was ask after his coat. Bogart’s reply: “Forget your coat, hold on to the goddamn Oscar.”
The night Red Buttons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Sayonara, fellow nominee Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese actor nominated for his portrayal of the cruel commandant of the POW camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai, was seated right behind him. When Buttons’s name was called, Hayakawa quickly leaned forward and whispered, “Tonight you die, Yankee dog!”
photograph by melissa valladares (opener); everett collection (chaplin); steve granitz/getty images (berry); ron galella/getty images (littlefeather); ap photo/files (field); barry king/getty images (Hackman); michael caulfield/getty images (crystal)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.