Friday, February 28, 2014

On the Campaign Bus:
Matthew McConaughey Had to Say "No" to Get the Work He Wanted

No one deserves the Best Actor Oscar more than Matthew McConaughey. Then, again, the same could be said about Bruce Dern, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Chewitel Ejiofor. All did outstanding work this year. All five men have enjoyed distinguished careers and can point to ample numbers of critically admired portrayals. What's an Academy Awards voter to do? We'll have to wait until Sunday to find out. In the meantime, here's what McConaughey, 44, had to say about his work in "Dallas Buyers Club" when he spoke to Dave Karger at a recent screening.

On McConaughey's relationship with the family of Ron Woodroof, the character he plays:

They opened their home to me. They opened every scrapbook they had... They did not sugarcoat who he was. The sister said he stole two of her cars twice, took all of her valuables. But then they said, you couldn’t help but love him. They were very honest about who he was... They said we have something we feel you should have, and then they gave me his diary, which was the diary he kept before he had HIV. That was really my secret weapon.

McConaughey explains what he means by "secret weapon":

As an actor you want to be seeing it from the inside. You want a secret. That [the diary] was my secret , the thing I had on my side. I ddidn’t share that with anyone else. There were certain excerpts that I would bring up to {director] Jean-Marc Vallee along the way that sometimes were added or improved, but it’s something that’s mine. And it was me and him. It was the thing that allowed me to be like, "There’s no way I could go wrong or tell and untruth in a scene," which is a great feeling to have when you’re going In to play a role.

On the difficulty of getting the film made:

It was around for 20 years. It got rejected 137 times… No way [it was going to get made, it's a] period piece, AIDS drama, with a bigoted hero. It’s not putting change in your pocket.. I wanted to do it. They said great, but no one’s going to finance it. A year went by, another year went by, and finally we set the date. People said again there’s no one to finance it. We said, "Fine, we’ll do it. We’ll get the money."

Jean-Marc comes on. We have the director, the lead, pieces are starting to come together. The producers didn’t flinch... We did believe that the film was real. We had a start date. We had locations. We had crew. And then at five weeks out the money fell out. It never went into escrow. I never asked if it was going to happen... At the time I didn’t have doubts. It’ll happen this fall, Nov. 1. There’s something about not pausing… We’re doing it in November.

Dining With the Stars:
Hollywood Salutes The Wrap's Fifth Anniversary

Give Them Five!

Whether Old School or new media, any publication that not only survives but flourishes for five years is doing everything right. That’s certainly the case with the movie business go-to web site “The Wrap.”

Former New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman launched the lively, tremendously informative site in 2009. It’s become one of Hollywood’s daily must reads, thanks to its smart reporting and analysis, complemented by its sharp, attractive design.

“We have been embraced by the insider Hollywood community for some time,” Waxman said, “and are now seeing that credibility scale into a broad consumer community that is savvy about
the entertainment business and eager for an intelligent, insider read.”
Sharon Waxman, Sony Classics' co-chief Tom Bernard
at The Wrap's fifth anniversary celebration

While acknowledging what she calls “those two intersecting communities,” Waxman declares that “no matter how big we get – and we grew 500% just last year – we will never lose sight of our core 
mission of serving the entertainment professional. That is the heart of our value as a news 

They Said It at the Oscars
"By the way, be sure to stay tuned for the whole show, because at the end of the night we are going to vote somebody out of show business.''

– Host Steve Martin, when the 2001 broadcast reached the 2 1/2 hour point

Thursday, February 27, 2014

On the Campaign Bus:
Steve Carell, Pharrell Williams, And Chris Meledandri
Prepare to Get Lucky

In mid-February, the star, composer and producer of the hilarious hit film "Despicable Me 2" – nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song (the infectious "Happy") – talked to Oscar voters and other guild members at the Directors Guild about their experiences making the movie. Here are a few of their comments in response to the moderator's questions.

Carell and friend at "Despicable Me 2" premiere
Q (for Steve Carrell): Did you identify with your character, his challenges as being a parent and having career [as a villain]?

SC: I’m exactly that character, especially the idea of being a new father who is discovering all of these things for the first time. It’s a universal feeling when you become a parent. You feel that part of your identity has been taken away and has been replaced with something else. That’s scary. You feel like you’re losing control of what had defined you up to that point. [He paused, then:] I can’t believe I’m talking like this about an animated film.

All hat and lots of talent: Pharrell Williams at the
Grammys with Daft Punk and Nigel Rogers
Q (for Pharrell Williams): Tell us about your process and how you interacted with the talent going through it.

PW: It’s been amazing... One of the things that I learned is that you don’t make your art just for you and your crew. That’s what I used to think… That doesn’t matter [to the audience or filmmakers]. I had to learn that… I learned that I needed to harmonize with the writers, Chris, the actors.

Williams on writing the Oscar-nominated song "Happy": Happy speaks to human beings, my other songs speak to people who want to look at booty… This allows me to rise to the occasion of working with humans. And I’ve never done that. This has been the most humbling of [not just] situations, opportunities, but moments of my life, period.
Williams was asked if he found it hard to write "Happy": No. [He then launched into a lengthy depiction of the difficulties of writing the song.]

Oscars Firsts:
The First Best Picture(s)

Most people believe the first Best Picture Oscar was awarded in 1929 to "Wings," William Wellman's thrilling WWI saga starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, and Richard Arlen.

That's only partly true. In its early years the Academy had two, not one, Best Picture categories, and neither of them included the word "best." The first Oscars were given to "Wings" in the Outstanding Picture category. Another Oscar went to "Sunrise" in a category the Academy called Unique and Artistic Picture.

First Oscar banquet at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
While all of the Academy's initial 300 or so members voted in the nominations phase, the ultimate winner was chosen by a panel of judges, one from each of the original five branches.

Louis B. Mayer, the powerful head of MGM and the singular force behind the founding of the Academy, played a significant role in selecting "Sunrise," from Fox, over MGM'S own, critically acclaimed, "The Crowd."

The Crowd: coulda, woulda, shoulda
Emanuel Levy, in his authoritative book All About Oscar, relates how this came about:

On February 15, 1929, the Central Board of Judges met all night. The board decided to honor "The Crowd" with the Artistic Quality of Production, and the even called on its director, King Vidor. But Mayer argued against "The Crowd" due to its downbeat tone. Instead he championed "Sunrise," by German director F.W. Murnau, who was a respected filmmaker. Additionally, "Sunrise" starred all-American Janet Gaynor, had a happy ending, and was made by Paramount. Mayer feared charges of favoritism since "The Crowd" was an MGM picture. Mayer prevailed and the voting results were published in the "Academy Bulletin," on February 16 with the winners announced right away.

Vidor may have been robbed, but at least Mayer escaped looking like a gonif!

They Said It at the Oscars"Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, ladies and gentlemen. I don't actually have a joke for them. I'm just contractually obligated to mention their names five times during the show."

– Hugh Jackman, 2009 Academy Awards broadcast

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hollywood Actually (Mostly) Loves British Films and Actors

From its earliest days to this year’s multiple nominations for “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena,” the Academy Awards have welcomed the Brits

“There will always be an England, even if it’s in Hollywood.”

That was just one of many barbs Bob Hope aimed at the British film industry during the Academy Awards broadcast for movies released in 1964, a year when English films, actors, and filmmakers dominated the presentation. The ceremonies took place at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (as they did during most of the 1960s) prompting Hope to open the show with: “Good evening and welcome to Santa Monica on the Thames.”
Nominees from the Old Country: veteran Dench, first-timer Ejiofor

This wasn’t the first time that England had figured prominently in the Oscars. The British Invasion of Hollywood began in 1930. George Arliss was the first of his countrymen to win a Best Actor Oscar for “Disraeli,” followed the next year by Charles Laughton for “The Private Life of Henry VIII.” Victor McLaglen, Vivien Leigh, and Robert Donat won Best Actor or Actress honors later in that decade.*

British stars enjoyed similar success in 1940s. Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Ray Milland, Ronald Coleman, Laurence Olivier earned Oscars. Olivia de Havilland won two (for “To Each His Own,” 1946, and “The Heiress,” 1949). (Curiously, until the late 1940s, the Academy reserved its praise for actors only. Up to that point, no Britons had been nominated for writing, directing, cinematography, Best Picture, or other categories.)

Chew(itel) on This!

As Academy campaigns go, this one is half-baked

We’ll find any justification for a good pun, but – seriously, folks – this ploy is pretty star-eyed. For the awards season, Manhattan Fruitier – purveyors of impressive gift baskets filled with gorgeous produce – is creating assortments of cookies bearing portraits in icing of the ten Best Actor and Best Actress nominees.

Yes, this really means you can dine not merely with, but in fact on Leo, Christian, Cate, Sandy, or Chewitel. For a modest $72 you’ll get 18 cookies in each batch, either all men or all women. You will have to spend $144 to to avoid being accused of gender bias. And, we presume you will want overnight shipping to get them in time for Sunday’s ceremonies.

Now, doesn’t this take the cake?

From the Oscar Trenches: Allison Jackson's First Time at the Oscars

One in a Series

In 1980, fresh out of college, I got my first job at Paramount Pictures working as assistant to Susan Pile, the head of publicity at the studio. We were having a big Oscar year, with multiple nominations for “Ordinary People, “The Elephant Man,” and “Ragtime.” 

We also had an Oscar-nominated documentary short called “The Dollar Bottom,” made by a Paramount film unit in London that was one of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s pet projects. I got to know the young French executive producer, because I was the only one in the department who talked to him on the phone. He was so excited about the nomination and ceremony, but tickets to the Oscars were not allocated to executive producers. We were having the same problem with one of the executive producers for “The Elephant Man.” 

A few days before the Oscar telecast the Academy’s wonderful Otto Spoerri – who had the impossible job of seating all of the nominees, stars, and VIPs – called to say that he had found some tickets in the balcony. My French filmmaker flew out to Los Angeles and, because he didn’t know anyone here, he invited me to go with him to the Oscar ceremonies. (Remember, I was just an assistant, a complete nobody).
Allison Jackson (right), Jasmine Madatian (left),
Sandy O'Neill at an Oscar party ca. 1990

When he came to our office at Paramount, he was more handsome than I ever could have imagined, and just as nice as he was one the phone. I was flat broke and sharing a barely furnished apartment with my sister, so I borrowed a dress to wear Oscar night. I felt just like Cinderella! 

We rode in a limo to the show with the film’s director and producer. We sat in the balcony next to Sissy Spacek’s mother and best friend. Sissy got the Best Actress Oscar for “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “The Dollar Bottom“ won, too, for Best Documentary Short Subject. 

I don’t know what others did after the show – they were probably at swanky A-List parties – but we celebrated long into the evening at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s, a now-forgotten Mexican bar and disco on Sunset Blvd. that was owned by Joan Rivers’ sister. It’s safe to say that we were the only Oscar winners there. 

The next day my Oscar date sent a dozen yellow roses to my office with a note: “It was a wonderful and memorable evening. Thank you for sharing it with me.” He was such a classy guy. All of the other assistants were envious. 

I loved every minute of it! 

Allison Jackson stayed at Paramount until 2006, rising to senior vice president of special events and philanthropy. Today she operates her own firm and is one of the top party and events planners in Hollywood.

Got an Oscar story you want to share? Write us at

They Said It at the Oscars
"I won and I get to scream and jump a little. But I got to go back to work tomorrow."

– Benicio del Toro, accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Traffic" at the 2001 show

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"12 Years a Slave" Screenwriter John Ridley Talks About
Faith, Hope, and Clarity

Writer John Ridley didn’t come up with the idea for “12 Years a Slave.” That came from the wife of director Steve McQueen. She brought Solomon Northrup’s memoir to their attention. But it was Ridley, 48, who toiled four years on the screenplay, even though he wasn’t being paid and the production company, Brad Pitt's Plan B, had no funding to make the film. “I had immense faith in the material and the director,” said Ridley. He also had enormous confidence in his own abilities, a wager that paid off handsomely with universal critical praise, nine Oscar nominations (including screenplay), and $49 million so far in domestic box-office plus another $79 million internationally.

Ridley spoke thoughtfully and graciously with Hollywood Is A Place Where from Texas where he is scouting locations for an ABC pilot called “American Crime.” He was exhausted, having just returned from a grueling two-day trip to London to attend the BAFTA awards. (While “12 Years” was named Best Film, he lost to “Philomena’s” Steve Coogan.)
John Ridley on the set of his next film, "All Is By My Side"

Q: How do you prepare yourself to write such hateful dialogue for such abhorrent characters?

A: In the memoir [by Solomon Northup] there were a lot of things that were put in perspective. I’ve never been visited by that kind of hatred, nothing like what these individuals went through, but there was a level in Solomon’s writing, like with Mistress Epps or Master Ford, where he would try to explain some of the complexities of humanity. That was interesting to me that it was not – no pun intended – black and white, that these folks were purely evil. I think that’s really important for the story.

Q: Did you struggle with having to write these characters?

A: It never bothered me because it was true; these things happened. It was huge education for me. You think you know about slavery, you think you know about that era. I found out that I was ignorant about a lot of things. If there were things I was learning chances are there were things for others to learn. I never felt bad about what I was writing, that it was difficult, that I shouldn’t go down this road, or that it was too toxic for me as a writer to tolerate. I was fascinated by the depth of a lot of the things that I learned.

From the Oscar Trenches:
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?"

One in a series

A veteran campaign consultant recalled this incident at the 1967 Academy Awards ceremony:

I worked on the campaign for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.” It got nominations in every category for which it was eligible, only the second film to achieve that. (“Cimarron” was the other.)

The anticipation was heavy on awards night, to say the least. All of the stars and filmmakers were present, except for Sandy Dennis, who played Honey, the fragile, neurotic wife of George Segal. She had stayed in New York and had arranged for Mike Nichols to accept her award should she win.

Of course, she won for Best Supporting Actress. Nichols took the Oscar, gave a brief 16-second acceptance speech on her behalf, then quickly walked off the stage. I was standing in the wings. As soon has he saw me, he thrust the statuette in my hands. “Here," he said. "Take this. It’s bad luck for me!”

And it was, for while the film won five Oscars that evening, the Best Director award went not to Nichols but to Fred Zinneman for “A Man for All Seasons.”

It turned out to be a temporary bump in the road for Mike. The very next year he won for "The Graduate,” his first and only Academy Award. 

Got an Oscar story you want to share? Write us at

Oscar's Golden Moments:
Mae West and Rock Hudson

Jerry Lewis hosted the 1957 Oscar show,
but Mae and Rock stole it 

It might have been cold outside, but it was steamy inside The Pantages in 1957 when screen legend Mae West and leading man Rock Hudson took the stage to sing Frank Loesser's Oscar-winning duet, first performed by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams in 1948's "Neptune's Daughter."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Welcome to Hollywood
Is A Place Where

Watch this space!

I'm a former movie studio executive and a longtime member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

My new blog covers the business of the Academy Awards from an opinionated, insider's perspective. Here you will find commentary, party coverage, interviews with nominees, previously unpublished anecdotes about the Oscars from other industry professionals, and more.

On the Campaign Bus: Bludgeoned to Death By Questions and Answers

So many stars, so many questions, same old answers

The celebrity Q&A has become one of the main devices (ploy or contrivance might be the better term) Oscar campaign managers rely on to sway Academy members. There have been so many this year in particular that voters can’t keep track of them. Perhaps this is the point. Studios want it to appear as if an endless groundswell of enthusiasm (called “buzz” in Movieland) surrounds their Oscar contenders, so that all of Hollywood will stand up and salute. (Leo and Marty have invited us to hear them speak again. That film must be important!)
Academy hustle: Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

Night after night from October through mid-February, the studios trot out their top-shelf stars, directors, producers, composers, writers and other creatives – sometimes adding a dessert reception or other blandishments – hoping to create a positive impression that will linger at least until the last ballot is cast. On some evenings, the casts of two or three films compete for attention (dueling Q&As!).

The roster of A-List stars on the circuit this season is impressive: Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Dern, Martin Scorcese, Alfonso Cuaron, David O. Russell, Amy Adams, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Carell, Joel and Ethan Coen all have turned up on multiple occasions, not only in Los Angeles, but also in New York, London, and, for a few, in Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and other posh communities where movie industry VIPs either reside or recreate.

Even pop star Taylor Swift appeared one night at the DGA “in conversation” for her song “Sweeter Than Fiction” from the British comedy “One Chance.” (It was not nominated.)

Because everyone is doing it, everyone has to do it. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a big star who hasn’t participated in at least one Q&A this year, other than Robert Redford who declined to do anything in support of his Oscar-worthy performance in “All Is Lost” and then, when he failed to get a nomination, famously groused to the press that the movie’s distributors did a poor job. Talk about chutzpah.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

From the Oscar Trenches:
The Offer Brando and Streisand Both Refused

One in a series

On the eve of the 1973 ceremonies, Marlon Brando announced that he would boycott the Academy Awards and send Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium to refuse his Oscar for “The Godfather,” should he win it. When the presenters, Liv Ullman and Roger Moore, read his name, Littlefeather calmly strolled onstage and concisely, yet respectfully protested the degrading depiction of Native Americans in movies and on television. She then exited to polite applause, leaving Ullman and Moore holding Brando’s statuette.

All of this has been much publicized. Less well known – or perhaps never publicly revealed, as there is no mention of it on the Internet – is the role Barbra Streisand almost played in this incident.

An industry insider who worked with Streisand at the time told us that after Brando proclaimed that he would decline the Oscar, the Motion Picture Academy asked Streisand to accept on his behalf. When Brando found out, he called Streisand to request that she not go ahead. He supposedly said, “I have something else in mind.

Oscar's Golden Moments: Jennifer Lawrence Answers Questions in the Press Room

They can't trip up this smart cookie 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

They Said It at the Oscars

"I guess this proves there are as many nuts in the Academy as anywhere else."

–Jack Nicholson on receiving the Best Actor Oscar (his first) for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," 1975