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.
Oscars coordinating producer Naomi Zaroff had hired me on the basis of a recommendation from my college friend Eric, plus I’d charmed her in my interview. Eric had been in Los Angeles only eight months – I’d been out here twice as long — but was already working as a production manager. This was Eric’s first Oscars, too. He’d do many more, working his way up to producer and doing hundreds of variety shows. I didn’t want his job — it was drudgery, schedules, rentals, budgeting, the type of things I’ve always hated. Why not just be a bus driver or a dentist?
As I said, I was a peon on this production, but my goal was to be a storyteller – writing, directing, above-the-line stuff, and in film, not TV. I was making $25 a day, which was awful pay even in 1979, but being a production assistant was a worthwhile foot in the door for me, a way to meet people who could help me get where I wanted to go. Naomi told me she thought I had a big future.
I was not going to screw this chance up. The week before when Naomi told me to pick up her pictures at the framing store and to make sure they were exactly right, I forced myself to give the woman there a rash of shit that the photo of Naomi with Warren Beatty was tilted up to the left and insisted she order her guy to put down his sandwich and fix it while I waited, now. A few days after the tech set-up when Naomi told me to bring sodas to the guys in the truck, I lugged a selection of every type of soda they had so everyone in that truck would be happy. I brought snacks, too, and juice, even though she didn’t tell me to. The director was grateful and I’m certain he said something about me to Naomi and that’s why she chose me over the other PAs to deliver script pages to the presenters at their homes the next day, 24 hours before dress. She couldn’t have someone doing that who’d go fanboy around world-famous actors and embarrass her and the Academy.
I executed the job in a business-like manner, didn’t ogle Ali MacGraw or Brooke Shields, didn’t make a big deal over Gregory Peck or Audrey Hepburn (Karen’s favorite, she was thrilled that I’d met her), even forced myself to look Natalie Wood in the eye when she showed up at her door wearing a transparent negligee with nothing on underneath. (Karen told me later I should have given Natalie a big wet kiss, then break into “Maria”).
I brought no pages to Katharine Hepburn or John Wayne. Or to Groucho Marx, whose hat Karen threw into the ring as an extra-extra special presenter since he’d been dead for two years.
Naomi bumped me up to meeting and greeting presenters on dress day, which is how I met Olivier. I also guided Mia Farrow, George Burns, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and a dozen others onto the stage after they passed screaming fans at the hall’s Artists’ Entrance. But it was the day before the show and the Mystery Legend was still a mystery. I figured I was ‘in’ enough with Naomi at this point to ask her who the presenter would be. She said she knew but if she told me she’d have to kill me. Then she put me in charge of seatfillers during the Oscars.
No one putting on a show likes empty seats. The Academy Awards people especially don’t like empty seats. The hall has to be jammed, crammed, packed, as befits Hollywood’s greatest night. Seatfillers are the attractive young people sitting in the seats of stars who’ve gotten up to perform or to present Oscars or accept them and then meet the press or, yes, to go to the bathroom. The seatfillers sit up front, next to the most famous actors and actresses in the world, literally rubbing elbows with them. They wear formal gowns or tuxedos. A billion people see them on TV. Naomi would bring them to me – fifteen or twenty of them – an hour before showtime for seat assignments. I’d tell them: keep your makeup and hair fresh, don’t talk to the star next to you, don’t pick your nose. Just sit up straight and smile and laugh and clap. When your star returns, jump out of that seat and meet me on the side of the hall for your next assignment.
Seatfillers are typically relatives or friends of the production honchos on the show or the people who run the Academy. I called Karen and told her I’d have a surprise for her after work. When I made it to her place that night, I asked if she had a formal gown. Sure she did — she’d just been to her cousin’s wedding. I told her she’d need it tomorrow afternoon to be a seatfiller at the 51st Academy Awards.
To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever made anyone else so happy. Karen hugged me. She cried. I insisted she model the dress for me. She looked fantastic. The gown was black and long, low-cut and sexy but tasteful. I told her it was perfect and she looked beautiful. She took off the dress and hung it up carefully and we jumped at each other and made love on the floor.
My call on show day wasn’t until 10 AM when Naomi would come in, but I showed up at 8. First I put up the signs I’d ordered for the doors of the two stars who had dressing rooms: Olivier and the host, Johnny Carson. Then I spent an hour or so hustling around and seeing if anyone needed anything. I brought the director what I knew by this time were be his favorite snacks. Naomi arrived early, just after 9:30, and called me aside.
She told me to hurry to the back parking lot to meet John Wayne. I was to tell no one that he was coming or that he was here. I would take him directly to Dressing Room 105 and leave. I would not put a sign on the door with John Wayne’s name on it. Naomi allowed herself a smile, rare for her. This was going to be a huge deal for everyone, she said, the production team, the industry, everyone watching on TV. Because this would almost certainly be the final public appearance of a true American icon.
I ran down the stairs and quickly found my way to the parking lot. Eight minutes later, the biggest motor home I’d ever seen pulled up right next to the rear entrance and, a few minutes after that, a large man in a suit, an aide or bodyguard, hopped out. He reached up and helped John Wayne painstakingly step down out of the RV. I hurried over to greet Mr. Wayne.
I’d seen that most actors look smaller in real life than they do on the screen. Not John Wayne. I’m six-one and he was two or three inches taller than me even though he wasn’t standing up straight. He did look a lot thinner than I expected, though, which I attributed to the cancer. I introduced myself and told him how happy we all were that he was here and that I would take him to his dressing room.
I wanted to watch him do the John Wayne walk, but I was leading the way so I couldn’t see him. In the absence of conversation I heard his slow, shuffling steps traverse the twenty or so feet into the building. I realized I didn’t know where the elevator was so I looked around for it. I couldn’t find it. I just couldn’t. So I stupidly – I still don’t know why I did this, other than blind panic – led John Wayne to the stairs.
I noted with horror – that’s the only word for it — that we’d have to climb two full flights to reach Dressing Room 105. After three or four steps, John Wayne’s pace became more sluggish. I slowed down so he could catch up to me. But John Wayne was leaning hard on the banister as he climbed. Halfway up the first flight his breath became a wheeze, then a wheeze with a kind of whistle, and he stopped. The aide turned to me and said severely, “Mr. Wayne doesn’t climb stairs.” Even through my panic I couldn’t help myself from thinking, "He does now." Still, the aide didn’t place his hand under John Wayne’s arm or around his waist to help him. I wanted to but didn’t dare touch the man.
Wayne continued his laborious and, I’m certain, painful trek up the stairs, wheezing loudly and whistling from deep down and pausing every few seconds. His steps grew slower, his pauses longer. He could barely breathe and I thought he was going to collapse and maybe die. I could see the screaming headline: “INEPT PRODUCTION ASSISTANT KILLS DUKE”,and below it in smaller letters, “LEGEND NEVER MADE IT TO STAGE FOR TRIUMPHANT OSCAR APPEARANCE”.
Finally we approached the door of 105, which I had left open in welcome. I stood back and watched John Wayne struggle to reach the dressing room. He made it inside and disappeared into the vast array of flowers and fruit Naomi had ordered. The aide shut the door behind them. That evening, without an introduction, John Wayne would skip down an elegant flight of stairs, swagger to the podium and present the Academy Award for Best Picture. He would live two months more.
I went to the bathroom and vomited, then found Naomi onstage and told her John Wayne was in his dressing room. She already knew that, and she knew how he’d gotten there, too. She told me that at this point I would still do seatfillers but if I fucked up again I could get a job serving doughnuts to the crew on The Wally George Show for the rest of my so-called showbiz career.
I found an empty office and called Karen. I was sweating and felt like I was going to pass out. I told her what had happened, knowing I could trust her not to say anything about John Wayne being on the show. I’m not sure how much sense I was making, and I think I scared her. She reassured me that it sounded like Wayne was okay and no harm had been done, that I should take some deep breaths and look forward to doing a great job during the show, and that I should be that person Naomi trusted so much and get back into her good graces.
After a couple of minutes on the phone with Karen, I calmed down. That was when I told Karen I loved her.
When the show started, I stood in my tuxedo in the side aisle with my sixteen very excited seatfillers. When Johnny Carson tossed to the first commercial break, a dozen stars rose from their seats and I quickly and decisively directed my people to replace them. I sent Karen to front row center next to Audrey Hepburn. I watched Karen smile at the actress but observe my sanction against addressing her. Audrey Hepburn beamed back at Karen before turning toward the stage. Karen and I, separated by half the width of the hall, looked at each other and shared the moment.
A stage manager shouted, “One minute back!”
A few seconds later, Naomi rushed to my side and asked, pointing to Karen, “Who is that?” I told her it was Karen from Peter’s office. “Karen from Peter’s office is fat,” Naomi said. “Are you insane? She’s in the front fucking row. Get her out now.”
“Thirty,” called the stage manager.
I thought about it for as long as I thought I could. I squeezed against Audrey Hepburn’s knee – she smiled at me graciously — and kneeled toward Karen. I whispered to her that she had to get up. She asked why but the stage manager was counting down from ten and I took Karen’s hand and quickly led her to the side aisle. She asked me again why I’d made her get up. I’d never lied to her before and I didn’t want to now so I told her it was because Naomi said she was overweight. “Fat, you mean,” Karen said, then ran out a side door.
I’ve directed a short film. I’ve written lots of screenplays including one that went into pre-production in 1989, and another which got cancelled in 2006 the day before filming was supposed to start. A couple of years after that, I found what I thought was Karen’s address. I wrote to her in Oregon, but I don’t know whether she ever got my note.
Karen, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want to talk to me, but my email address is email@example.com.
This story first posted here on January 6, 2016. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.