Damien Bona dies at 56; co-wrote ‘Inside Oscar’ on Academy Awards

Damien Bona earned a law degree from New York University in 1980 but spent only two years practicing law.

As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “I had to choose between a job and an obsession. I chose the obsession.”

Bona’s obsession was the Academy Awards and all of the attendant hoopla, campaigning, gaffes and backstage controversies surrounding Hollywood’s annual Big Night, dating to the first Oscar ceremony — a banquet at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929.


Bona, coauthor of the 1986 book “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards” and sole author of a 2002 sequel, died Jan. 29 at a hospital in New York, 15 days after sudden cardiac arrest, said Neil Cohen, his brother-in-law. He was 56.

In 1982, Bona and his former Columbia University classmate Mason Wiley began doing their extensive research for “Inside Oscar,” an encyclopedic reference book that New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called “a giddy social history of our place and time.”

Bona and Wiley did much of their digging at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library in Beverly Hills, where they uncovered a treasure trove of Oscar facts.

Take the 1968 Oscar ceremony, which was delayed for two days because of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Academy that year, the authors wrote, “wasn’t completely joining the newer generation; glamour was too valuable a Hollywood asset to surrender to the latest fashion trends. Once again, a dress code was sent out to ceremony participants.”

“Women were asked to forget what a sensation Julie Christie had created last year in a miniskirt and dress in long gowns. Men were reminded that this was a white-tie affair and that turtleneck sweaters, beads, beards, and unkempt hair were frowned upon.”

When director Alfred Hitchcock stepped to the microphone to receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award — “the only Oscar he’d ever get,” the authors noted — his acceptance speech was brief: “Thank you … very much.”

To which emcee Bob Hope quipped, “He ad-libs a lot, doesn’t he?”

In the 1986 Times interview, Bona said he and Wiley “started out thinking we would do a funny book on the Oscars. We were going to do things like follow Sammy Davis Jr.'s history at the Oscars to show what the fashion fads were those years. We were going to reprint Greer Garson’s entire speech,” generally considered the longest ever, “from the 1942 awards.” But, Bona said, their publisher convinced them to take their research a little more seriously.

Continuing their digging, they sailed past their original target publication date of November 1982 and finally delivered their manuscript two years later. Then, to make the book as current as possible, they updated it with information on the 1985 ceremony.

“Inside Oscar” later was updated a number of times. And after Wiley died in 1994, Bona went on to write the sequel, “Inside Oscar 2,” which covered the awards from 1995 through 2000.

“He took movies very seriously but also had a good sense of fun about them,” Cohen said.

Indeed, Bona wrote two other books: “Opening Shots: The Unusual, Unexpected, Potentially Career Threatening First Roles That Launched the Careers of 70 Hollywood Stars” (1994) and “Starring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn: Hollywood’s All-Time Worst Casting Blunders” (1996).

Come Oscar time, Bona was often asked by the media to offer his perspective on the awards.

Writer-director Bill Condon, who won an Oscar in 1999 for his screenplay for “Gods and Monsters,” also tapped Bona as a consultant when Condon co-produced the 2009 Oscar ceremony.

“Damien simply knew more about the history of the awards than anybody I ever met,” said Condon, who was friends with Bona at Columbia University. “We’d bounce ideas for the show off him. He’d sometimes point out something similar had been done 28 years ago; he had that type of knowledge of it.”

Bona was born March 18, 1955, in Sharon, Conn., and grew up in New Milford. In 1977, he received a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University, where he served as film critic on the campus newspaper.

He practiced business law in Manhattan for two years before resigning and heading to Los Angeles to research the Oscars.

As Cohen said, “He wrote the book and never looked back.”

Bona is survived by his mother, Alma; his longtime companion, Ralph Peña; and his sister, Amy Bona.