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.
Julie was not happy. An actor’s agent had left a voicemail saying his client was dropping out of my buddy comedy picture that was to start in three weeks. In three weeks. I knew the stupid talentless fuck had been offered a Kate Winslet movie. Also on my phone sheet was an uncle in New Jersey who’d called again just to remind me that his son was graduating from Penn in June and looking for a job, any job, in Hollywood. A WME agent said he wanted to see me in the afternoon with his client who had just left rehab and was in perfect shape to do my dysfunctional family comedy with — hopefully – Ben Stiller. Unfortunately, the financing for the dysfunctional family comedy with Ben Stiller had fallen through and it was now out to some Malaysian investors.
Julie, still drinking that awful-looking green concoction, brewed my coffee and walked into my office with a bagel and cream cheese. She once told me that eating bagels would take five years off my life. Like everyone else who came into contact with her, I was both amused and terrified.
I had two films in the can — a Seth Rogen comedy, which received terrific scores at the test screening in the Valley, and a drama about a returning war veteran with Bradley Cooper. There was Oscar buzz about his performance. Two more movies I was producing were about to start filming. Cate Blanchett had agreed to do the remake of a French comedy about an older woman and a teenage boy. We were still looking for the kid. And a tepid script about a female spy in the Middle East. Since Homeland, screenplays about female spies have flooded every producer’s inbox.
As you can tell, I am successful — not modestly successful, not hugely successful, but successful enough to own a nice ocean-view condo in the Palisades, drive a two-year-old Porsche, pay the tuition for my daughter at Cornell and maintain a reasonably friendly relationship with my former wife who was remarried to a lawyer. My phone calls to agencies were answered within two hours. What more could a producer want?
Julie, who was now munching on a cookie that smelled like Ben-Gay, answered the ringing phone. "It’s the Academy," she said.
"What Academy?" I asked. For a second I thought, why is West Point calling me?
She rolled her eyes. "The Academy Awards!"
Some history: I had gone to NYU to major in nothing much. My uncle was an agent at the old William Morris, where the tenpercenters took care of their nephews. He told me to come out to Hollywood to "find yourself." I found myself with a low-level marketing job at Universal that eased the confusion of my life and, somehow, tapped into a talent I never realized before. I was good at marketing movies. And, because I was good, I got promoted. And promoted. I was deputy head of marketing. Until the studio was sold to some morons who fired just about everyone and wanted to start a "clean slate." Two years later the morons sold the company to some Dubai investors at a loss. In the meantime, those seven years of seven days a week at the studio had made me realize that, amid all the talented people in Hollywood, there also were a lot of con men, fakers, bullies and genuinely horrible people. What to do next?
A young actor who was smart and likable called me. He had just been cast in one of the Marvel comics movies, a talent who you knew was destined for success. He invited me to some inedible health food restaurant in Los Feliz. I could see he was a sweet kid. Notice I say "was.” He’s now turned into a greedy little prick.
He asked me to market a horror film he was producing about some high school kids who start disappearing. Not my kind of pic. It sounded cheesy. Hadn’t we all seen this before? But I said, sure, why not? He gave me a co-producer credit. We made the film with a bunch of unknowns, most of whom became television stars. It cost $2.9 million. We advertised online. We got about a two on Rotten Tomatoes. And the oh-so-important Los Angeles Times and The New York Times gave it to their pathetic third-string reviewers who dismissed it. Well, it grossed $80 million domestically and $129 million overseas. I was now a producer.
In real life, most of the phone calls I get are expected: the agents, the producers, my kid, my mother, a new woman I was seeing. Do I expect a call from President Trump? No.
Do I expect a call from the Academy? It’s not like I was producing Scorsese films.
The woman on the phone asked to meet me that day with an AMPAS colleague. The urgency in her voice baffled me.
We met at Soho House. Of the two honchos from the Academy, she was nervous and I liked her but he was smug and patronizing. An old-timer like most of the board members who hadn’t made a movie in fifteen years, he mentioned twice that he was a Sun Valley neighbor of Clint Eastwood’s.
To their amazement, I ordered a vodka martini on the rocks. No one in Hollywood drinks at lunch. I sensed, somehow, I needed it.
They came to the point quickly.
"We need a producer." she said.
"Of what?" I replied.
"The show," he said testily. Clearly, I was not classy enough for him.
I removed the green olive from my glass and sucked on it. Are they out of their minds? I loathe the Oscars.
The woman wasn’t eating. She seemed frazzled. "We need a producer!" she said more urgently.
Anticipating my question, she said that their first and second choices had suddenly bowed out under circumstances beyond their control. One was a Broadway producer who had planned ridiculous dance numbers from his shows-turned-movies. But his newest musical was in rehearsal and its star Nathan Lane had just broken his leg. He needed to sub another star, and quickly.
The situation with the second producer was more delicate. He was an Oscar winner, respected and well-liked. But the transgender surgery he had undergone was proceeding too slowly. He didn’t think it would be completed before the awards show. I rolled my eyes.
Every other producer in town was too busy, she said. Or they’d lied that they were too busy, I thought.
“Do you want to do it?" she asked.
"It’s not a job for the faint-hearted," her colleague warned, almost defiantly. I was into my second martini and gave him the stink eye. I loathed this pompous guy.
"First of all, only one Trump speech every fifteen minutes," I started, quickly thinking of everything I hated about the Oscars.
"People feel awfully strongly," she cautioned.
"Good," I said. "Let them do something about it. Everyone who has to say that their parents were refugees, and that America was the land of the free and the home of the brave, hurrah. But it’s all a little self-serving. If you don’t like Trump, then fly to D.C. and protest and get arrested instead of denouncing him in your $10,000 outfit in front of a Dolby Theatre audience with enough money to cure cancer.”
Now the Grey Goose was talking.
“The second thing I want to do is ban speeches where the winners look into the camera and say, “Josh and Amanda, my kids, it’s time for you go to bed.” I throw a pillow at the TV every time. The third thing I want to do is ban winners from clutching their hearts and claiming, `I’m so shocked. I can’t believe this. I haven’t prepared anything.’ Except over the last three weeks they wrote a carefully worded speech with their publicist. Cut the bullshit. The fourth thing is the musical numbers which are America’s chance to get up and go to the bathroom. They’re pointless.”
We sat in silence for a while. The pompous guy and the nervous woman hadn’t expected this. Then I saw the two of them eye each other for a brief second. What was that about? The woman said carefully, “We have to be as diverse as possible. You know that.”
I didn’t understand. There were two, perhaps three, first-class movies with African-American stars and supporting players sure to be nominated this year. But she began talking about an array of presenters who would be Asians, Latinos, natives of Third World countries. "We’re thinking India, Zimbabwe, Taiwan, Basque separatists."
Was she kidding? The ratings will plummet to below zero. “OK,” I said, “let me try.” I figured we could fight it out later.
I got the gig. They even arranged for me to have an office at the Academy. The next day I began calling agents and managers on what I assumed was the simplest task. Can your client present an Oscar? Before one billion people around the globe?
The first reply was half-polite, half-hostile. "Well, Goldie will not present the award for visual effects." Then another. “Do you really think Idris would do short animated films and not Best Documentary?” Then there was the actor over seventy, an Oscar winner who hadn’t worked in years. He’d do it but his agent said I couldn’t pair him with an actress over forty. I was annoyed. “You mean Meryl isn’t good enough?” I hung up before he could answer.
But soon I realized this was a ruse. To my amazement, no one wanted to present the Oscars if they weren’t nominated. Finally, a manager who had been a friend for years explained. "You know why? It takes two to three weeks for the women to get ready. The dresses. The jewelry. The hair. The make-up. The round-the-clock diets. And then what happens? The fashion police take over. Joan Rivers, bless her, is dead. But she has hundreds of acolytes on TV and the Internet and in the magazines and tabloids who list the Best-Dressed and the Worst-Dressed. The big secret is that all these women still think they’re pimply teenage girls. The guys are just as paranoid. They’re certain that photographers are focused on their expanding waists and thinning hair. Who wants to face the humiliation? So unless you have to go — you don’t.”
So, despite all the headaches and heartburn, I produced the Oscars. Why not? I managed to fill the podium with mostly television people and foreign actors you’ve never heard of. Surprisingly, the reviews weren’t terrible. “It’s nice to see different faces present the Oscars,” said the TV critic for Salon. The ratings weren’t rock bottom, either. And, at the Governors Ball, the nice woman from the Academy walked over to me and whispered, "Think about next year."
This story first posted here on February 17, 2017. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.