America’s Sweetheart was truly the Iron Lady of the motion picture world. 2,242 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
1919 — Last year, Fairbanks and me did the War Bonds; now that’s over. Victory. I can’t believe I’m almost an old lady at 27. I remember 19 years old, 150 dollars a week. Like heaven, standing in front of the camera. Then $500 a week from Mr. Zukor when I was 21. I remember every year by money: how much I made. Almost more than a full-grown lady, though still an adolescent by his standards. But I let him consider me a child. “If it pays, it plays.” I didn’t mind calling him “Papa Zukor.” Tess Of The Storm Country is what he wanted me to make. After all, in 1914, it was just like playing myself in a boarding house at age 12, alone and battling to pay the rent. Stealing milk for a baby! What tripe for some, but for me almost a true story. I mean for Lottie and Jack, how we struggled. So many years since I shouted down Belasco on Broadway. I learned the word “thespian” from a British actor, a drunk. It sounded like a lisp. But when I found out it is the real word for Actor, I perked up, got all the craft out of the way, tried to read all I could.
I spoke to Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Well, we will stay united, “United Artists.” So we made up our minds to go into business together, and here we are, stuck together. since Feb. 5, 1919. If I hear one more person say “Lovable Little Tramp,” I’ll throw something. Little Mary Pickford is the only “Little” big star. Charlie has even horned in on my public. Little smallpox, more like it. The man is contagious, not a true actor. Just makes his pants fall down when his hat falls up. Oh the nerve of him.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Politically incorrect Tommy Dash reacts post-Oscars after trying out for Chris Rock’s Academy Awards writing team. 3,175 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
Am I too late to call the 2016 Oscars "Straight Outta Caucasia"? Was I the only one who thought Chris Rock wore the white tux so at some point some guy in a bomber jacket would walk up to him on stage, hand a key and say, "It’s the red Lexus…" By the way, none of my business, but couldn’t they come up with a more empowering word for black people not showing up than "boycott?" I don’t think they’ll solve Oscars’ diversity problem by next year. But they will come up with the technology so the Teleprompter cannot contain the phrase "Rihanna’s panties." How about that Red Carpet? I haven’t seen this much side boob since Christie stood next to Trump. I’m confused. Before he started Apple, Steve Jobs was the "Sprockets" guy? Abe Vigoda was left out of the "In Memoriam" montage. But, to be fair, he’d been in it for the last 15 years. Forget his message, let me say this about Joe Biden. Clearly, he learned from listening to Jay Leno rattle off upcoming dates at the end of The Tonight Show… You can never have too many plugs. Right about now, Pope Francis’ publicist, Howard Rubenstein, is calling him saying, "Hey, you got mentioned in the acceptance speech for Spotlight!"
This is somebody’s fault, but not necessarily mine.
I thought I was supposed to be here, working on the Oscars.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: What really happens after winning an Academy Award? 1,739 words. Story and illustrations by Mark Fearing.
The Oscar sits on my desk coldly staring at me. I don’t remember bringing it to my production office on the studio lot. But here I am and here it is. Oscar looks great no matter where it’s placed. What do interior designers advise – create a focus in a room? Well, this is the fucking focus.
I don’t remember much about the last three days. Just shreds from the Governors Ball, my speech on stage, walking past George, Brad, Leo, Meryl, Angie and that smug J.J. who’ll maybe return my calls now.
As a producer, nobody in the real world has any idea what you look like, who you are or what you do. But when you win Best Picture and it’s your film – it’s your prize. Granted, I had to share with two more-or-less managers and an actor who magically became a producer when he decided to do the film. He was up for Best Actor, too. Didn’t win. What does that tell you?
Lily buzzes past my open door, she stops, she opens her eyes wide and she rushes in. “Oh my God, Mr. D, I didn’t know you’d arrived yet. It’s here!” Lily has a folder of papers in one hand and her iPhone in the other. She multitasks like a cyborg. That’s what you want in an assistant or office manager or office supervisor… whatever the hell the PC term for what she does is called this week.
“Your speech was awesome. We were all freaking out!” she gushes.
I don’t remember my speech and I can’t find the paper it was written on but I knew enough to thank those that must be thanked. And you’d better write it down beforehand because, at that moment, you lose it. My heart was beating so hard I thought I was going to die. My tongue was stuck to the floor of my mouth.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: After a movie studio’s big awards night, the new boss plans changes. 1,442 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: All Employees of Persistent Pictures
FROM: Bradford “Buddy” Newborn, President
RE: Studio Philosophy and Production Slate
We’re all proud of the eight Oscars that Persistent Pictures won last night under Bob Cutner’s management. We hope he gets to use his taste and leadership at another company now that he’s suddenly moved on to make way for me.
Since arriving to head the studio, I’ve seen many of you in the hallways, in the valet parking lot, and as I walk through the commissary on the way to my private dining room. But this is the first chance I’ve had to introduce myself since my father, Bradford Newborn Sr., bought the studio.
To quell some of the rumors and wisecracks I’ve been hearing through our advanced monitoring system, I am well aware that moviemaking isn’t anything like the strappy sandal business. It just so happens that shoes are only one of the many manufacturing interests of Newborn International. We also make small home appliances (“Nothing larger than a toaster oven” is our motto), breath mints and lacrosse equipment. We also had a major investment in the Miami Majors, an ice hockey franchise that I was in charge of running until it folded last year. Let me speak frankly: the Majors died because of poor public support, not because of that lawsuit from 12-year-old Jimmy Brewin after a puck got sucked up into the Zamboni and shot out into the stands, taking with it half his face.
I can report that Little Jimmy is doing well, all things considered, and loves his new nose, mouth and mansion.
Now, for studio business.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A Best Actress nominee has the best and worst time of her life. 2,746 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first thing Lyla thought when she found the script for Circle Of Squares in her mailbox was, This has come to me by mistake.
She lived in a guest house on a property belonging to a beloved actress known for a series of “grumpy old lady” comedies that had touched a chord. Though claiming to be retired, the landlady was still very much interested in being courted by filmmakers. Way back in the day, Lyla occupied the same casting niche of supporting comic character even though she was two generations younger than her landlady. But the older actress snagged every part, cashing a nice little paycheck for a couple hours of work.
Lyla was used to delivery people dropping packages on her porch because it was accessible to the road and the landlady’s house was situated down a long driveway behind a tall security gate. But this screenplay had Lyla’s name on the envelope.
She began reading it and her first thought was, It doesn’t make any damn sense at all. It’s even more inexplicable than Cloud Atlas. Lyla had never understood the point of pointless movies.
But as Lyla finished the script, she knew it had Oscar bait written all over it.
The story and characters had everything the old farts in the Academy liked in an indie movie, she realized, beginning with the pretentious and never-explained title right through to the heavy-handed political message and depressing plot.
It was a bonus that the role she was being offered was the star.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: The producer of a film nominated for big awards fixates on what to wear. 7,054 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
He didn’t sleep the night before the Oscar nominations, which they announce on television about 5:30 am L.A. time in order to catch the prime morning audience on the East Coast at 8:30 am. He took an Ambien. Watched TCM, which played Hitchcock’s Marnie, not one of the director’s best. Charlie had met Hitchcock once, while working at Universal publicity. The old man was neither rude nor arrogant — like so many of the less talented directors now — just indifferent. His mind always seemed to be elsewhere. He was odd. He was intimidating. He was Hitchcock.
By 5 am, Charlie had his television on KNBC. There was a traffic tie-up on the 405 because of a minor car accident near the Getty. A liquor store robbery in Mar Vista. A seeing-eye dog missing in Griffith Park reunited with its tearful owner.
Charlie had lived in L.A. for 22 years. Why was local television so ridiculous here? His hands were shaking when he poured the coffee. On the TV there was some blather that people should bundle up because the temperature would stay at a chilly 63 degrees (arctic weather in L.A.). Meteorologists were predicting heavy rain by late afternoon in the Antelope Mountains then moving towards the Southland. They made it sound like a tsunami was coming. He put a drop of low-fat milk and a Splenda in the coffee cup.
He heard the trucks from the fire station a block away. On some evenings the noise woke him up but he was reassured when he heard the alarm bells. It was not a bad neighborhood. Only a few blocks from Abbot Kinney. But it wasn’t a great neighborhood, either. There was a gang stabbing in Venice a few weeks back. He wished he could move out of the apartment and live closer to Santa Monica or even in the Palisades.
He heard the two newspapers plunk against the door. He lived on the second floor. He had the Los Angeles Times delivered, though wasn’t sure why. It was a luxury to get The New York Times, but he still considered himself a New Yorker. He didn’t have too many luxuries. But getting The New York Times was one of them. He didn’t go to the door.
On the television now, two young actors appeared on the Academy stage with a grotesquely large Oscar statue behind them. The president of the Academy, who inexplicably got the job despite his years of failures as a producer, seemed nervous. He always wore suits like a banker, The trades always called him a "respected producer." Respected for what?
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A director and publicist battle over how to accept the Academy Award. 1,796 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: VICTOR SPOONER, VS-PR
FROM: Corliss “Corky” Monroe
RE: My Academy Award acceptance speech
Dear Vic, I’m writing an acceptance speech in case I get the directing Oscar® next week. You guided my nomination campaign brilliantly, but I thought I’d try my own hand at writing the payoff. Could you take a look at it to see if it does the job? Thanks. Corky.
“I want to thank the Academy more than I can say. As many of you know, I struggled for four years to get this picture made, including shitting out three zombie pictures for the same company. I consider this wonderful award to be in recognition of my perseverance and strong stomach. Making this film was a bitch. After they said yes, everybody fought me all along the way. You know who you are. You’re the vampires who suck the creative blood out of our art. For you, consider this Oscar a middle finger flipped cold and bold for the damage you do. But to those of us who bleed for our art, this Oscar is a glistening reminder that talent and justice always triumph in the end. Thank you.”
TO: CORKY MONROE
FROM: VICOR SPOONER
RE: Your acceptance speech
Very funny. I know you’re still bitter that you had to make the zombie trilogy in order to get a green light for The Keys Of Fate, but don’t you think this is a little over the top, even kidding around with me? Let me put it another way: if you say this, you’ll never work in this town again, not even as a ticket-taker at the Century City AMC multiplex. You’ll have plenty of time to get back at people privately, not on international TV, for crissakes. Just be gracious, thank your agent, your parents, and your producer (in that order) and get off the stage.
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.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A director and editor have a complex relationship that’s even more complicated by Oscar nominations. 3,556 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
NEWS BULLETIN (Hollywood, CA) – Oscar-winning film editor turned director Mona Hessman, whose initial helming effort Once Upon A Midnight earned her a Best Directing nomination this year, has vanished. Hessman has not been seen since the Academy nominees luncheon on February 6, though she was not officially reported missing until yesterday when she failed to show up for her Oscar gown fitting. Hessman’s cell phone was tracked to a dumpster where it was found inside a Prada purse containing her ID and credit cards.
Mona sat up the cold leather sofa. She had a pounding headache and, as she stroked the back of her head, felt the crusted blood in her tangled hair.
She knew exactly where she was. She’d napped on this sofa for the better part of twenty-five years and was familiar with every sag and indentation. The realization of where she was brought to mind the last words she’d heard before being knocked unconscious: “You’re dead. You’re fucking dead.”
How many times had she heard those words before? But this was the first time they’d been directed at her. And she was left to wonder whether, this time, Max Barton might actually go through with one of his heated threats.
Like several other preeminent directors, Max worked almost exclusively with a female editor. Mona was part of a select group that included Verna Fields, Dede Allen, Thelma Schoonmaker, Sally Menke, Anne V. Coates and Carol Littleton. Like her peers, past and present, she was good at what she did. Damn good; the custom-fitted glove on a great director’s hand. And Max was a great director. Inventive. Fearless.
At least when he was in the director’s chair.
When he stepped into the editing bay, he lap dissolved from Genghis Khan into Chicken Little. This was Mona’s signal to take over. As editor. As surrogate mother. As therapist, confidante, cheering section and, for two months at the very beginning of their twenty-five year collaboration, lover.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An unceremonious tale behind the history of Hollywood and the mob. 2,125 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
In a glass case at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there stands in silent solitude a lonely Oscar statuette. It carries no name plate. And its hollow eyes stare in gilded oblivion at the countless people who pass it every day without so much as a moment’s curiosity. The award belongs to screenwriter Harper Monroe Farrow, yet it’s never been claimed. That’s because there is no such person, male or female, living or dead. Of this I’m certain.
The Academy, in its unyielding discretion, has never spoken of the orphaned Oscar. New employees are told only that it must remain under lock and key because AMPAS rules dictate it can go only to the person who won it. And no one has ever proven to be Harper Morrow Farrow.
Speculation abounds why this is nobody’s Oscar. It’s clear to me that Harper Morrow Farrow is a pseudonym. Some believe it belongs to the prolific Ben Hecht, who famously wrote or rewrote some 100 films during his colorful career and reputedly maintained a cadre of apprentices to churn out first drafts that he would polish before attaching his name and sending an invoice. Others say it was any of a number of contract writers fed up with scripting crap for their studios but who couldn’t take credit for the winning screenplay because they would have been fired for moonlighting. A few spin that it’s a blacklisted writer who died without revealing his or her true identity. Still more insist it was a Hollywood insider who dared not claim authorship of such a truthful screenplay.
The fact is that Harper Monroe Farrow won the vote for Best Original Screenplay in 1939 for the movie Beyond Utopia. Official records, of course, show that Gone With The Wind, written by Sidney Howard (but rewritten by Ben Hecht and others) was announced as the winner. Not to take away from David O. Selznick’s crowning achievement, but Farrow’s script for Beyond Utopia was deemed better written that year.
No copy of the Beyond Utopia screenplay exists anywhere — not in the Academy’s library or at the Writers Guild. Nor is the film available either because all prints were destroyed. Finally, anyone connected with the production has long since died. Trust me, I’ve searched for anything and anyone connected to this film.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: At Oscars time in Hollywood there are only winners and losers. 2,884 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When I came back from New York a week later, Rebecca insisted on picking me up at the airport. The Los Angeles weather looked good on her. She was wearing a simple shift and sandals. Her muscular arms were tanned. Very obviously, her Oscars’ makeover had changed her.
"I have something to tell you," she said, as soon as I got into the car. She could have asked me how my business trip went, but no — she couldn’t wait to tell me what was going on with her. I waited. I could always tell her later about my boss and love interest Billy Ward finally asking me to join him for lunch on my second to last day at The W in Times Square. We ran into each other in the lobby. Billy had just checked in. I didn’t see him after that lunch, but I was sure I had made an impression.
“Shoot,” I said.
"Jaxson and I got married in Vegas." I was too flabbergasted to respond. "I know it’s a shock, but we drove out there and got a little tipsy, and before I knew it I was a married woman again." She held up her left hand to show me a slim gold band.
"You can get it annulled," I finally said.
“I don’t want to get it annulled."
"Are you in love with him?"
"Of course not." She moved her rental car into traffic carefully.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: You don’t have to win an Academy Award to have your life transform. 2,476 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
By the time my cousin Rebecca called to ask if she could spend February with me, I’d already planned a business trip right after the Oscars. She said she’d be fine staying in my house by herself. And who wouldn’t be? I have a condo in Venice with a view of the Pacific. It would be a great place to visit if I didn’t already live there and, since Rebecca lives in Vermont, I can see how it would appeal to her.
We are first cousins and were born only one month apart which is a problem when it comes to her visiting because I’ve been cutting seven years off my age since I arrived out here and Rebecca is likely to blow my cover. She doesn’t even dye her hair; that’s the least a woman can do. I went trophy-wife red five years ago. I’m a regular Rita Hayworth in a business suit.
I didn’t have the heart to refuse Rebecca who, at forty-three, was a widow. Five years ago, her husband, Harold Braddock III, was lost while climbing Annapurna. Rebecca has still not forgiven him even though he left her his enormous fortune.
Rebecca would be here for my boss’s Oscar Party. Billy Ward, the fearless leader at Spectacular Talent Agency, was holding it in the The Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Digging up a date each year for the Oscar party was a chore, especially this year since my sights were set on Billy Ward who was between wives. I’d been in love with Billy since my first day at STA. He had buckets of charisma and charm enough to land the whole entertainment industry at his feet.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Not everyone can win Academy Awards. But the few, the proud, the drafted will produce them. 2,152 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had been to the Academy Awards once in my life, for a film I produced because the writer and the supporting actress were nominated. My dearest friend, Graydon Carter — I’m kidding — did not invite us to mix with that crowd of actors and executives whose eyes always wander over your shoulder to make sure there wasn’t someone more important than you. After my nominees lost both our categories, I took them to the Beverly Hills Hotel and we all got drunk. The writer was only thirty-two but the terrific actress was no longer young and this was probably her last chance. She burst into tears. And, inexplicably, so did I.
The Academy Awards are the most boring and self-important awards show on TV. At least the Grammys and Tonys have music. And, in a weird way, those shows are more authentic. As for the Oscars, I have four words for you: Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. What is that? Humanitarian? Who’s kidding who? That’s why the Academy moved this farce off the broadcast and into the untelevised Governors Awards. As for the rest of the show, there were all those clunky dance numbers and awards for sound effect editing and set decoration? And… I could go on and on. Yawn.
My Academy odyssey began one morning in November. I went to the Soul Cycle class in Brentwood at 6 a.m. Only the hardcore show up at that time — the producers and agents and managers and studio executives who shower afterwards and flee in their Teslas and Maseratis to UTA or Paramount or NBC to start another happy day in Hollywood.
I drove to my office on Sunset which is in the same West Hollywood building as Soho House. Julie, my assistant, was already there drinking her green health food breakfast -– a thirty-five year old woman who seemed to work day and night and was more protective of me than my mother.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A new awards category is introduced with unexpected results. 2,245 words. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
It was a mild March evening in Los Angeles as the celebrities arrived by limousine and dirigible for the 29th Academy Awards held at the fabulous RKO Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in 1957. Most of the stars and lesser lights arrived at the street entrance to cheering fans and photographer flashbulbs. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO, invited the major nominees and key guests to the rooftop for a pre-ceremony soiree and arranged extra special Red Carpet treatment for those arriving via airship.
A handpicked RKO crew was carefully and selectively filming the arrivals with material to be made available to the television networks following the telecast. Truth be told, it might be several days before the footage was made public, if ever, since Hughes insisted on reviewing the material himself.
“It’s producer Mike Todd and his wife, the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor,” Variety’s Army Archerd told the camera. “Todd is nominated for Around The World In 80 Days, while Taylor appeared in Giant which received the most nominations with 10, though none for Best Actress.”
The cameraman pivoted to frame the next arrival. Archerd continued. “And one of the most interesting and unpredictable Oscar races this year is the first for Best Performance By A Robot.”
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A newbie NYC filmmaker visits L.A. after his documentary is shortlisted. 3,168 words. Art by Thomas Warming.
Rick was making $175,000 annually at a midsize law firm in New York City as a second-year associate with a bright future. He did corporate work and mostly real estate transactions. There wasn’t a lot of law involved, but he had to deal with an ever-changing cast of characters. It was about who had control, who had leverage, who had cash, who had financing. No two deals were alike, and it was Rick’s job to stand up for his clients when others were behaving badly and to smooth out issues when his clients were the ones behaving badly.
The truth was Rick didn’t feel that much commitment to his work. He he felt no personal stake in it. Much of what he did was accumulate files on his desk and make them disappear to somewhere else. What Rick most enjoyed was the process of property development by transforming the most prosaic piece of land or building into something new and different at its highest and best use.
As a second year associate, Rick was required to do a certain amount of pro-bono work (which theoretically meant “for the public good” but actually meant “for the good name of the firm.”) Rick’s contribution was helping his alma mater Columbia Law School raise scholarship funds. A worthy cause and, in the eyes of the firm, a great networking opportunity. For this year’s annual dinner, Rick had the idea to make a short documentary about Supreme Court Justice and Columbia Law grad Benjamin Cardozo.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A movie producer relentless at awards time is blindsided by rivals. 2,398 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Most independent producers who strike it big at least make an effort to distance themselves from their bottom-feeding beginnings. Not Herschel Wechsler. It wasn’t the expensive suits that hung on his doughy frame as though he’d slept in them. It didn’t matter that he sprayed spittle when he talked. Nobody even held his flyshit toupee against him. It was that he had the kind of face you just wanted to push into the front of a 1958 Buick.
Hollywood has known its share of ogres with good taste. Joseph E. Levine, Harvey Weinstein, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin, and Otto Preminger readily come to mind. Okay, maybe not Otto Preminger. But the others possessed that rare combination of passion, guts, showmanship, charisma, and intelligence that dignified them and their productions despite the controversy they sometimes courted.
Hershel Wechsler, however, was irredeemable. You didn’t even have to use his last name. Everybody just said “Herschel.” Sure, his pictures made money — and you’d think that would absolve him of the town’s enmity. Except he did it in the one way that Hollywood found unacceptable: at the expense of the motion picture industry’s dignity. As more than one of his competitors — they bristled if called his “colleagues” – remarked, Herschel always found a way to scrape underneath the bottom of the barrel.