OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An ambitious production aide at the 1979 award show screws up not just once but twice. 2,528 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Karen was eager to please, maybe because she was overweight and, she’d told me without embarrassment, always had been. But she didn’t take any shit. Actually she didn’t use the word “overweight,” she said she was “fat.” She was funny, too, which I love in a woman. I was drawn to her the moment I met her.
I was low on the totem pole but Karen was lower, a temp secretary, or “personal assistant” as they’d just started calling them, chained to the desk of some associate producer in their offices over in West Hollywood. She was 25 and I was 23. I was done with film school because I’d decided not to bother getting the MFA. I was already working on the Oscars show, specifically the 51st Academy Awards in 1979. I was a member of the industry.
At that very moment I had just finished leading Lawrence Olivier onto the stage. “Call me Larry,” he’d urged me. I didn’t offer to shake his hand because Karen had warned me he was suffering from some painful bone disease but would be too polite to say so. Still, there was a bounce in his step the moment he set foot on the huge Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, even though it was only a dress rehearsal. (I think “Larry” was wearing a jumpsuit.) I’d handed him over to the stage manager and he’d taken center stage, gazing out over the house like he owned it – which he would the next day, when he received his Lifetime Achievement award.
Olivier might not even be the biggest star at the ceremony. There were whispers of an “extra-special presenter,” an even bigger legend that year for Best Picture, the final award of the night. Lots of people guessed Katharine Hepburn, who rarely made public appearances anymore. And Hepburn, Karen told me, had never shown up at an Oscars ceremony, even the four times she won. Karen quoted Hepburn by heart: “As for me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work.”
Karen figured the Mystery Legend would be John Wayne because of reports his lung cancer had returned.