In the days leading up to 6:17 p.m. Sunday, Oscar-nominated director Lexi Alexander did everything Nicole Kidman did not.
She had her dress critiqued and fitted in front of 40 students at a local fashion school. She borrowed earrings from a downtown jeweler who had once done business with her ex-manager. She kickboxed. She greeted her producer who flew in from Portland, Ore. She met the star of her movie for a late lunch in a Hollywood diner where loud rock music dimmed the chatter.
In short, she experienced the thrill of Oscar anticipation among the obscure. Alexander's category -- best live-action short film -- is one of Oscar's stepchildren. It had come close to being eliminated a decade ago by forces who considered it irrelevant. Yet it survives, and continues to draw indie-minded idealists and low-budget scrappers, one of whom rises from anonymity, at least for a few moments, each year. Last week, Alexander -- 28, German-born, energetic, ambitious and probably the only Oscar nominee able to land a vicious kick to a mugger's head -- readied herself in case "Johnny Flynton," her 37-minute story of a young man crippled by his shyness and violence, got the call.
She had called in scores of favors to get her film made, and now she called in another. A friend, Tom Farrell, who teaches pattern-making at California Design College on Wilshire Boulevard a few miles west of downtown, had good-naturedly promised to make her gown if she were nominated. Now under the gun, Farrell came up with an idea, bounced it off his students, and Alexander found herself standing in front of them, wearing a coral '40s-bathing-suit-like top and an evening-gown bottom that showed an inch and a half of waist.
Farrell asked for a show of hands: Coral or switch to a chartreuse fabric? Chartreuse won. Yet problems remained. "The cups are collapsing here," he announced to the students, quickly adding to Alexander: "I'm sorry -- it's not you." A student suggested employing air-filled packets, which she noted were available at Nordstrom.
"Are the highlights [in Alexander's hair] going to change?" asked another student.
"The highlights just got in," Alexander said good-naturedly. "It cost me $200!"
"Wish me luck getting it sewn up in time and wish her good luck on Sunday night," Farrell told the class. They applauded, and Alexander was off to the seventh-floor downtown jewelry district office of Modern Design, which had agreed to loan her jewelry.
She savored the irony. "I'm not a very girlie girl," she said in accented English. "You can't find jewelry on me."
Raised in a village outside Heidelberg, Alexander began acting in plays as a young girl. She had too much energy for her own good, so her mother enrolled her in martial arts classes at 8 and she thrived. She gave up karate for kickboxing, where you could actually hit your opponent. She eventually toured Europe as a teenager and won European and international competitions, all the while continuing to dream of an acting career.
By the time she was 18, she was in Los Angeles, determined to stay. Compared to dour, bureaucratic Germany, this was heaven. "This is the country where if you have a certain idea, nobody even asks you if you went to school for that ... you can get off a bus here and do something great the very next day."
Let others flaunt Harry Winston; she became the first Oscar nominee to wear jewelry from Modern Design. Vice President Eric Seropyan brought out a few cases. Alexander had a request that felt awkward. She made it as tactful as possible: "I would not be offended to be taking something that is totally fake." Seropyan showed her a beautiful fake ring.
"Looks kind of like an engagement ring," she said straight-faced. "Sort of lets down my chances with George Clooney." She settled on that and a matching pair of real diamond earrings worth $5,000.
"By the way," Seropyan asked before she left, "what are you up for?"
Reunion with an actor
Now she had to meet her Oscar date, actor Dash Mihok, a tall, rugged 28-year-old actor with about a dozen film credits who portrayed the menacing Johnny Flynton. Into Coffee Shop 101 he strode with a bouquet of pink and red roses, an incongruity in a place whose best features are its '50s-diner-style Formica tables and brown leather booths. Mihok looked frazzled. He'd flown in from Montreal, where he'd been working, to get fitted for his tux. Tomorrow he would fly back to Montreal, then back to L.A. two days later for the Oscars. To his agent's concern, Mihok had worked three weeks with no pay for Alexander on "Johnny Flynton." Like almost everyone who said yes to her, he was wooed by her intensity.
Once in the U.S., Alexander supported herself largely with stunt double work and roles that often seemed to boil down to Russian spies. (She said she Americanized her name because it was often misspelled in credits and she was also plagued by a stalker from Germany.) During a directing exercise in acting class she got the bug and began trying to make her own movies. She started with a video short for $5,000, made a more elaborate one on film, got some extreme-sports commercial jobs from German clients, and then last year felt ready for "Johnny Flynton," a story rooted in her childhood.
The protagonist was modeled on a rebellious boxer who had once helped her move a heavy bag in a gym. "He looked down and winked at me, and two years later he was arrested for the murder of his son," which Alexander remains convinced was accidental. Johnny Flynton, a Southern boxer struggling to control his violent impulses, is estranged from society, able to communicate only with his wife -- whom he accidentally kills during a moment of elation at the film's end.
Alexander conceptualized the film with Alex Buono, a cinematographer who'd worked on her previous short and became her co-Oscar nominee. She talked an L.A. physician into underwriting the largest chunk of the film. She talked a production company in Birmingham, Ala., into providing the locations and much of the crew during the six-day shoot in exchange for co-producer credit.
"Johnny Flynton" was barely under the academy's 40-minute limit for short films. It was the only U.S.-produced short to be nominated, joining Martin Strange-Hansen's 29-minute film about Danish racism against immigrants, "This Charming Man"; Australian Steven Pasvolsky's 17-minute psychological drama, "Inja"; Belgian Dirk Beliën's seven-minute "Fait D'Hiver" and French director Philippe Orreindy's four-minute "I'll Wait for the Next One...." Voting for the short-film Oscar is limited to academy members who certify they have seen all five nominees. (Fairfax Cinemas is showing four of the nominees through Thursday -- but not Alexander's, due to a format problem.)
From the diner, Alexander drove to her apartment in the Hollywood Hills to receive disappointing news: The Oscar ceremonies were being scaled back in deference to the war -- no bleachers, no red carpet. She tried to joke: Why did I diet? (She'd stopped eating after 4 p.m.) I'm not going to get a chance to show off my biceps when I wave to the fans and the paparazzi.
In truth, the war had already weighed heavily on her. German reporters kept calling to ask her opinions -- did Americans hate the Germans for not supporting the war? She kept trying to make it plain that, as a green-card holder, she was a guest in this country, not a politician. She worried about her acceptance remarks: Could she still thank her mother with a few words in German?
Alexander had received a taste of living on Oscar's bottom rung at the nominees lunch a couple of weeks earlier. "I had a name tag, so photographers were saying, 'Lexi! Lexi! Look over here!' Then all of a sudden it's: 'Can you get out of the way?' 'Marty! Marty!' They're not even hiding the fact that someone more important is coming."
She laughed at that, as she laughed at most of the week's preparations. She was focused on the attention because of what it had already meant: More meetings with producers, coordinated by her agent, more chances to pitch her feature-film idea about evil videogamers who electronically control real-life extreme-sports athletes. She built small models of the athletes and the gamers to show to conceptually challenged film execs. ("Ridley Scott said in an article that when he wanted to do 'Gladiator,' he walked into the studio with a poster of the gladiator. If you're Ridley Scott and you can make a poster, I can make a model.")
Two days after the Oscars were scaled back, she went to the World Training Center in Sherman Oaks, where she tries to work out four times a week, usually sparring. On this day she trained with former kickboxing champ and aerobics guru Billy Blanks, who has known her since she was a teenager. "One thing I get from competitive sports is that I am fiercely ambitious. I focus every day on my career. There are a lot of short filmmakers who don't do this as a step into features. They do it as an artsy thing."
Two days after that, at 6:17 p.m. Sunday, with many of Alexander's childhood classmates and family watching at a predawn pub party in the German village of Frankenthal, presenter Jennifer Garner tore open an envelope and read the name of the winner in the live-action short-film category: " 'This Charming Man,' " Martin Strange-Hansen."
"That's OK," Alexander said 45 minutes later. "It's still a blast out here. It's just making me more ambitious. I feel like you do when you want to graduate to black belt. I gotta come back here with a feature. I'm gonna try to come back here in two or three years and play with the big boys."