Spotlight dims, not memories

Times Staff Writers

Jon Voight keeps his on his mantle at home, but for years his late mother had it in an empty fishbowl by the front door. Whenever guests arrived, she'd ask them if they wanted to hold it.

F. Murray Abraham carries his with him. "It's appeared in every single play I've done," he said. "I give it to the crew and they hide it on stage. It's appeared in London, all over England, all over Italy.... It's just having a good time."

Julie Andrews hid hers in the attic. "Then one day I suddenly realized, 'Oh dammit no, this is something I'm hugely proud of!' "

It's the Oscar, of course: the golden talisman that signals acceptance into one of the most elite fraternities on Earth -- the best actor/best actress club, with 81 surviving members. Some of them are expected to appear Sunday in Hollywood for a rare reunion at the 75th Academy Awards. Assembling such an array of star power and egos would be a delicate task at the best of times; with war looming over the ceremony, it has become even more difficult and unpredictable.

Whether they show up for the show, these actors and actresses share more than ownership of an 8-pound gold-plated statuette; they carry with them a collective memory of what it meant to be, however briefly, at the center of world attention, beacons of Hollywood's dream factory in good times and bad.

Returning to the spotlight

And -- war or no war -- some of them are ready for their close-up again.

Luise Rainer, 93, who won for best actress for 1936's "The Great Ziegfeld" and 1937's "The Good Earth," is expected to fly in from Europe. So is Olivia de Havilland, 86, who won for 1946's "To Each His Own" and 1949's "The Heiress." George Kennedy, 78, who won best supporting actor for 1967's "Cool Hand Luke," is driving from his home in Idaho. "The worst that can happen is, I come down there and the thing is called off and I turn around and come back [to Idaho]," Kennedy said. "In the meantime, I get to see a lot of my pals in L.A."

Kennedy was a journeyman character actor known principally for his "bad guy" roles when Oscar turned it around for him. His friends were so overjoyed at the win that he awoke the next morning to find his house had been toilet-papered as a prank. Hollywood took the win seriously, though. Overnight, he said, his salary went up tenfold and people were saying, "This guy can do more than growl."

Rainer's Oscar memories are less rosy. "They bring a big ballyhoo

She hopes to be onstage Sunday, but for her, it's too little, too late. "I'm upset," she said, because the academy has never singled her out for an honorary Oscar. "I should be honored even being as old as I am. And when I come out, they will be amazed how well I look and am." She also is perturbed by the arrangements that have been made to bring her back to L.A. "It's a sacrilege to mention this when there is a war and trouble, but I found out the academy does not even give us breakfast, which I think is so mean. They only give you bed.... I'm probably going on a hunger strike."

Still, she said, she has no intention of backing out. "It's not comfortable at the moment to come to the Oscars, but I have agreed to come," Rainer said. "Who am I in this world of murderous disorder to stand up and have fear?"

As for De Havilland, she is moved at the prospect of returning for Sunday's show, even though she left Hollywood for Paris almost 50 years ago. One of the grand dames of the Golden Age, she not only co-starred in "Gone With the Wind," but appeared in swashbucklers with Errol Flynn, dramas with Charles Boyer and Frank Sinatra and even romantic comedies.

"What is really marvelous is that the films I made are still being shown and still people enjoy them and write me wonderful letters about them," she said. "Have you heard about the theory that people who have won Oscars live forever? I seem to be doing that."

She remembers her first win as if it were yesterday.

Her gown that night, she recalled, "was a lovely pale sort of blue gauze fabric with a tight waist, a full skirt, no straps and a sweetheart neckline. Painted on it was an absolutely beautiful spray of flowers right down the side of the bust and onto the skirt to the floor -- quite good looking."

But she also remembers the near-disaster that befell the dress, when Madeira sauce from a Virginia ham served at a pre-ceremony dinner "flicked" over the gown. "There was a commotion at that table and every napkin was offered and scrubbing went on and all sorts of things. We got most of it off, and luckily, a great deal of the sauce fell on the garland so you couldn't see the splashes of Madeira."

The selling of celebrity

But it is a vastly different Hollywood and a vastly different Oscar ceremony that will greet her and other returning actors. Today's nominees are advertised like Pepsi and forced to run a gantlet of pre-event campaigning not unlike U.S. political primaries. Actresses are flooded with offers from world-famous designers and jewelers begging them to wear their latest creations and million-dollar gemstones so the designers can reap the PR bonanza through international exposure.

Julie Christie is one past winner who has begged off attending Sunday's reunion -- and it's not because of war. Christie said she is turned off by the growing commercialization of the Oscars (something tamped down a bit this year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decision to eliminate the red-carpet arrivals).

The 61-year-old British performer, who won best actress for 1965's "Darling" as an ambitious, miniskirted social climber in mod London, recalls how much simpler the Oscars seemed in those days. The nominees would get out of a car, walk past the news photographers, maybe answer a few questions, and then duck into the ceremony.

But when she was nominated five years ago for "Afterglow," she was horrified at what she found. "Everybody was milling around like dogs in a pen at a dog show and then we were being pulled out one by one to be sort of passed from one dog judge to another and all asked silly questions -- totally stupid questions. The whole thing had turned into a whole different ceremony. I just found it all so commercialized, so commodified."

Recalling butterflies

Whatever the outward changes, Oscar winners have a unique understanding of the inner turmoil that people such as Renee Zellweger, best actress nominee for "Chicago," or Adrien Brody, up for best actor in "The Pianist," may be experiencing Sunday.

Voight, nominated for his 1978 performance as an angry paraplegic Vietnam vet in "Coming Home," recalled sitting in the audience with butterflies in his stomach. He had lost out nine years earlier in the same category. Now he was the favorite, going up against Warren Beatty for "Heaven Can Wait," Gary Busey for "The Buddy Holly Story," Robert De Niro for "The Deer Hunter" and Sir Laurence Olivier for "Boys From Brazil."

"My heart is beating because I don't know what is going to happen that night," Voight recalled. "I know I'm the front-runner, yet if I don't win, I know I have to be grateful and it will be a surprise to people. It will be doubly testing. Do I have the strength to see if I have enough poise to get through that without feeling too bad? All the time, you're trying to psychoanalyze yourself."

Richard Dreyfuss, who said he has other plans and can't make the Oscar reunion, recalls being so numb that he wasn't aware of which stars came onstage to present awards the evening he won best actor as the struggling thespian in 1977's "The Goodbye Girl." When he got up to give his acceptance speech, "My tongue froze [and] I just kind of winged it," he said. "Unfortunately, I succeeded in forgetting a lot of people."

Abraham, 63, who also won't attend Sunday's show because of earlier commitments to appear in a play in New York, found the whole experience surreal. Two decades before he won for playing the conniving composer Salieri in 1984's "Amadeus," he had been a valet parking cars at the Academy Awards.

Abraham recalls how he stumbled around backstage after winning only to run into Gregory Peck, who introduced him to James Stewart, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. "These guys were icons and I was the most famous actor in the world -- for about 45 seconds," he said.

Last-minute dash

Maximilian Schell, 72, plans on coming this year, but he recalled how he nearly didn't make it when he won best actor for 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg." He had intended on driving down from a ski resort in the Alps to Munich to pick up his close friend and manager, but when he arrived, a maid told him she had just had surgery and couldn't accompany him.

"So, I said, 'OK, then I won't go either,' " Schell recalled. "I felt she needs me." By the next morning, he was persuaded to go and took a last-minute flight to L.A. via Toronto, arriving with only 20 minutes to spare. "I just sneaked in -- rushed in," he recalled. "I had no time to realize anything. I had nothing prepared, of course."

Later that night, he joined fellow nominee Paul Newman, who was considered the front-runner for "The Hustler," for drinks at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. "I said to Paul, 'I'm so sorry,' " Schell recalled. " 'I promise you, Paul, you will get [an Oscar] someday, too.' He said, 'I want it now.' We were like sweet schoolboys."

But at 78, Newman is still acting like the perennial schoolboy. The actor, who won the top honor for 1986's "The Color of Money," the sequel to "The Hustler," is nominated this year for supporting actor for "Road to Perdition." Instead of attending the ceremony, he's expected to be racing cars in Mexico.

Freelance writer Nancy Tartaglione in Paris contributed to this report.

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