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Michelle Obama on the Oscars: The behind-the-scenes story

On Feb. 14, a Hollywood delegation showed up at the White House. Motion Picture Academy President Hawk Koch, Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and film mogul Harvey Weinstein had come to explore a rather important matter (for them): They wanted to see if they could secretly work out the details for Michelle Obama to present best picture at the Oscars 10 days later.

Senior members of the first lady’s team met with the group, discussing a series of questions from the big to the picayune, according to a person present who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk about the meeting. For instance, would the Obama daughters be in the room as well? (No, as it would be nearly midnight, and there was school the next day.) Should the presentation happen in a White House screening room or a ceremonial space? (The latter; it had to feel presidential.)

The group spent hours scouting spaces at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and ironing out logistics. They left feeling confident the trick could be pulled off.

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The result of that meeting was one of the more unusual Academy Award presentations in history — done from 2,500 miles away by a well-known Washington face — and gave Sunday’s show both a jolt of surprise and, for the pundits who saw the move as an unbecoming publicity stunt, a degree of controversy.

“This has been an exciting year for movies,” the first lady said by satellite from the Diplomatic Reception Room on Sunday night, after taking the handoff from Jack Nicholson in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. “These nine [best picture nominees] took us back in time and all around the world. They made us laugh, they made us weep and they made us grip our arm rests just a little tighter.” She then opened the Oscar envelope and read “Argo’s” name for best picture.

The moment capped an awards season that had seen an atypical level of Washington involvement.

Just a few weeks before, Michelle Obama had hosted “Beasts of the Southern Wild” star and lead actress nominee Quvenezhané Wallis at a White House screening, offering praise for the film. Also at the White House, Vice President Joseph Biden had discussed mental health policy with “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper. Former President Jimmy Carter had endorsed “Argo;” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had condemned “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Nor were D.C. fixtures unfamiliar to awards show audiences this year: Six weeks ago, another film figure arranged for a presidential personality to appear at a Hollywood ceremony, when Steven Spielberg recruited Bill Clinton to introduce “Lincoln” at the Golden Globes.

But Clinton no longer occupies the world’s most famous residence. To land Michelle Obama, producers had to jump through a few extra hoops.

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Zadan and Meron had the idea several months ago for the first lady to appear -- even if the first lady would wind up being Anne Romney -- hoping it would add a different dimension to the best-picture presentation. They called on Weinstein, a major Obama donor, for help. The executive broached it to the first lady’s team when he attended the inauguration in January. At that point, “Argo” and “Lincoln” were considered favorites, and both films enjoyed a prominent D.C. connection, he noted to them. Weinstein himself had two best picture nominees, but neither was considered a front runner.

The original thought was to have the first lady Michelle Obama attend the ceremony on Feb. 24 and sneak away from her seat as a surprise best picture presenter, but a White House dinner with the nation’s governors that night made travel impossible. Plans for a satellite presentation were put in place.

Producers enacted a number of efforts to ensure secrecy. To reduce the risk of a leak, ABC News’ political bureau, rather than its entertainment division, was involved in the physical production.[Update, 12:58 pm: While Zadan and Meron initially said it was an ABC News political bureau instead of the entertainment unit overseeing the link-up, an ABC News spokesperson says it was the company’s Chief Technology Officer and vp of global network operations, and neither news nor entertainment, that oversaw the feed.]

Producers and the first lady’s office also found a room that wouldn’t be needed all weekend, since technicians needed to begin set-up on Saturday. The Diplomatic Reception Room — a space that has enjoyed myriad uses over the years, including the site for FDR’s fireside chats — fit the bill.

Zadan and Meron also kept all but the top executives out of the loop; Disney’s Robert Iger and Anne Sweeney were among the few not directly involved with the show who knew.

When it was time for a rehearsal with Obama last week, Zadan and Meron shut down all the monitors at the Dolby, told the crew they needed to attend an emergency meeting on one of the musical numbers and hustled out to a production truck outside, where they gave the first lady directions via a satellite hook-up.

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“They say you can’t keep a secret in Hollywood but I guess that’s not always true,” Meron said drolly in an interview Monday.

Over the weekend, an employee for PriceWaterhouseCoopers traveled to Washington with the best-picture envelope, in keeping with the academy’s policy of zealously guarding the names of winners. (Nicholson had a second envelope on stage in case the link-up didn’t go as planned.) Throughout the show, Zadan and Meron kept the White House in the loop via texts with the first lady’s office sent from backstage.

A spokesman for the academy did not reply to a request Monday seeking comment on the

The Obama moment brought a level of novelty to a ceremony that many thought flagging, and a degree of energy to a category whose winner was widely forecast. For the White House, it provided a platform at a show watched by more than 40 million people in this country and hundreds of millions more around the world.

But not everyone appreciated the effort.

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Conservative bloggers were quick to pounce on the appearance. On the Washington Post website, the right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin called the move “downright weird” and said it made the White House seem “small and grasping.” In a post on Breitbart.com, Joel Pollak labeled it “obscene.”

The criticism was met with a response from the liberal group Media Matters, which pointed out that both Ronald Reagan and Laura Bush had appeared on the telecast while they occupied the White House.

Not all the of the naysayers were conservative pundits. On the New Yorker web site, film critic David Denby wrote "[T]he notion of an officially crowned winner about a C.I.A. rescue operation in Iran makes me...queasy,” wrote Davind Denby on the New Yorker web site. “Not good, Academy. Please don’t do it again.”

Zadan said he didn’t think the attacks had much merit. “If there was a Republican in the White House and we had the first lady present, then the other side would have criticized us,” he said. “This is just par for the course.”

For its part, Obama’s office said that the first lady had little desire to make a statement as much as offer a general word of encouragement.

“The Academy Awards approached the First Lady about being a part of the ceremony,” Kristina Schake, communications director for Michelle Obama, said in a statement. “As a movie lover, she was honored to present the award and celebrate the artists who inspire us all — especially our young people — with their passion, skill and imagination.”

For those wondering if it’s a new trend, though, don’t count on it: At the moment, the fall 2013 roster of prestige movies doesn’t include many politically themed films.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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