During preparations for an Oscarcast in the mid-'70s, Howard W. Koch, the show's producer, became obsessed with luring Greta Garbo out of her then-30-year seclusion for a special appearance. He tried letters, telegrams, flowers and even personal envoys. Nothing worked. The world's most famous recluse decided to stand her ground.
As the Oscar telecast approached, Koch was desolate. So he hired a private detective to sneak into Garbo's Manhattan apartment building with a last-ditch plea written on Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stationery. The operative waited until Garbo's milk had been delivered and then gingerly placed the note between a quart of milk and a small carton of cottage cheese.
The emissary waited long enough to see a graceful hand emerge to collect the delivery. But the Oscar missive fell to the floor and stood in danger of being left there. Then the long fingers grasped it and pulled it inside.
But, alas, Garbo never replied.
This scenario is far from typical but it illustrates the glamour, hoopla and legend that has been generated by Oscar.
Before the envelopes are opened for the 59th time, beginning at 6 p.m. Monday from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, here are a few of tales which have largely been lost in the shuffle of time:
When Oscar voters pointedly ignored Cher for her heart-rending performance in 1985's "Mask," she dashed over to the studios of couturier Bob Mackie and gave him this instruction: "They didn't nominate me. Let's have fun."
Working from Cher's guidelines, Mackie erected a $12,000 gown topped by a fanciful Indian headdress of a thousand or more hackle feathers. These feathers, gathered by hand from rooster farmers in France, "practically denuded the entire crop of the rare plumes," according to Mackie. The remainder of the black gown was cut so sparingly that it revealed all of Cher's midriff. "She wanted to show them that she still had it," Mackie said. "I think we succeeded."
In 1979 the academy asked Kim Novak if she would come out of retirement to present an Oscar. It wasn't an easy decision for her. She had been off the screen for more than three years and hadn't appeared on an Oscarcast since the mid-'60s. She was also a trifle overweight.
When the Oscar brass offered her the services of couturier Ron Talsky, Novak relented. When Talsky appeared at Novak's retreat near Big Sur, the actress grabbed his arm and said, "This must be the most fabulous gown of my career--this is my comeback." Then she handed the designer a small sheet of paper with her measurements on it. Talsky blanched since Novak was slightly larger than the measurements she listed. "Oh don't worry about that," Novak said optimistically, "you just design that dress and I'll fit into it." Talsky provided a black satin dress cut on the bias to hug every curve: When the Big Night came, Kim fit into it down to the last quarter of an inch.
When it comes to politics, Oscar occasionally receives the bite of international publicity and, in some cases, courts danger. In 1972, Charlie Chaplin was summoned back to Hollywood from Switzerland to get a special Oscar, but pandemonium erupted even before his limo could whisk him from the airport to a bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel. By that time, 22 death threats had been received by the hotel, the police and the academy. It seems that the anger over his flirtation with communism in the '30s and his dozens of public love affairs was still smoldering. "I don't know how real the danger was," said Koch. "But Charlie was scared to death." Fortunately, it all went off without a hitch.
Tensions ran even higher in 1978 when Vanessa Redgrave flew in to collect a best supporting actress Oscar for "Julia." Redgrave was controversial because of her vocal and economic support of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The film's distributor, 20th Century Fox, assigned a phalanx of guards to shield her every move.
Still, as Redgrave heaped praise on the PLO as part of her acceptance speech, crowds outside became angrier and boos echoed through the audience. Later, at the Governors Ball, she was left all alone at a table for 12--flanked on each side by a uniformed guard. "She was ostracized," said Koch, producer of that show.
When George C. Scott turned down his nomination and his Oscar for "Patton" in 1971, the world was told that he shunned it because it was a horse race and that actors shouldn't stoop to that level. But the truth was far more poignant.
According to Scott's wife, actress Trish Van Devere, the real reason for her husband's phobia against the Academy Awards resulted from the humiliation and disappointment he felt when he didn't lost the best supporting actor prize his first time out for "Anatomy of a Murder" to Hugh Griffith for "Ben-Hur" in 1960. Scott had gone expecting to win, said Van Devere, and then realized that the Oscar race was undignified and perhaps was even bad for the industry. After turning down the "Patton" Oscar, Scott was nominated a year later for "Hospital," and made no comment at all. "I realized that it would go away if I said nothing," he said in an interview. "And it worked."
Like the bookmakers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the academy has to make its own predictions so the TV network airing the show knows where to put its cameras. The show's directors have two major camera groups in reserve for the person they expect to win and for their choice as runner-up. And the choices for runner-up in several recent races were titillating.
Last year, for instance, director Marty Pasetta had his "A" camera on Geraldine Paige and the "B" cameras not on Whoopie Goldberg, whom the world expected to win, but on Meryl Streep for "Out of Africa." Several years earlier when the big film was "Terms of Endearment," many handicappers felt that the film's stars Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger were fighting it out for the best actress prize. Pasetta had his main cameras on MacLaine but put his second bank on Meryl Streep for "Silkwood." It's rumored that Pasetta has never been wrong during the 14 times he has held the Oscar director's reigns. Asked about it, Pasetta said modestly, "Yep, that's right."
In 1940, Olivia de Havilland was the recipient of two Oscar shocks: The first was when "Gone With the Wind" producer David O. Selznick refused to let her be considered in the best actress category ("I don't want you hurting Vivien Leigh's chances to win as best actress.") And, later when she lost in the best supporting actress category to Hattie MacDaniel, who played Mammy in the same film.
As a dignified MacDaniel delivered her studio-prepared acceptance speech, De Havilland dissolved into tears and sobs. An embarrassed Irene Mayer Selznick, wife of David and daughter of Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, dragged the hysterical actress into the kitchen at the Cocoanut Grove. "He shook my shoulders and shook me again and again," said De Havilland, "telling me there would be plenty of Oscars in the future and then hugged me while I cried into a bowl of consomme."
Composers and lyricists represented by the 10 best song nominees in 1943 (for 1942 film songs) included Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, Burton Lane and Ralph Freed and Irving Berlin.
Presenter of the music awards that evening was Irving Berlin. "This goes to a nice guy. I've known him all my life," said Berlin, who then announced himself the winner for "White Christmas," thus becoming the only winner in academy history to receive an Oscar from himself.
Those in charge of the seating arrangements at the 15th annual awards, at the Cocoanut Grove, should have known better. When Oscar winner and academy founder Mary Pickford arrived with husband Buddy Rogers, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, she found they had been relegated to a table in the outer reaches of the famous Wilshire Boulevard nightclub.
Complaining that she had been "seated in Arizona" and that "the big studios buy up blocks of reservations and squeeze everybody else out," Pickford immediately resigned from the academy she had helped to found. It would be 10 years before Pickford and the academy would heal the rift: In 1952 she appeared on the academy's first network telecast, presenting the best picture award ("The Greatest Show on Earth").
The ceremony for the 1942 Oscars began promptly at 8:30 p.m. Four-and-a-half hours later, Joan Fontaine presented the final award of the evening--the best actress Oscar to Greer Garson for "Mrs. Miniver." Garson began her acceptance speech with: "I am practically unprepared . . . ." She then droned on for 5 1/2 minutes, prompting one observer to remark that her "acceptance speech was longer than her part."
Over the years, the length of Garson's speech became the object of conjecture, hyperbole and derision, with wags ascribing it variously as anywhere from as long as an hour to as short as 15 minutes. In retrospect, it would seem that it was the lateness of the hour, not the length of the speech, that gave Garson her "windbag" reputation.