A 'below-the-line' Oscar winner

Gene Allen's home on the Balboa Peninsula offers so much to delight the eye that it's easy to hide a small object inside it.

Even an Academy Award.

The longtime Newport Beach resident, who lives in a condo overlooking the Rhine Channel, doesn't make too much of his Hollywood past — at least in terms of decoration. His studio looks like that of any master painter, with canvases depicting his hometown and Catalina Island hung snugly along the walls.

If you visit Allen's abode hoping to see the Oscar, you won't find it on top of a shrine. Allen, who served two terms as Academy president and won best art direction-set decoration for "My Fair Lady" in 1964, keeps the prize in a living room cupboard where the sea breeze won't damage the metal. Packed alongside it is another nugget from the old days: a cigarette case etched with the words, "Dear Gene — Now I tell you, I have designs on you. Love, Marilyn."

Yes, that Marilyn. Allen, 94, mingled with a great many stars during his time in Hollywood. But through all those years, he remained what he is now when he sits down to paint in Balboa: a dedicated artist and craftsman, not a marquee name.

"They have what they call above-the-line and below-the-line budgets," he said last month in his studio, which boasts a chair Henry Fonda and James Stewart used in "The Cheyenne Social Club." "Below-the-line are all the technicians, cameramen, editors, art directors and other people, and so I've always been a below-the-line guy with everything. But I'm the only president of the Academy ever — now past president — who was a below-the-line thing."

Sunday morning, most likely, Allen will be in the middle of a painting. He works prolifically by his window, turning out portraits, landscapes and cityscapes that he mostly keeps or gives to private collections. Often he returns to favorite subjects; some of the pictures on his wall show the exact same scene painted at different times of the day, with his brush carefully capturing the light.

Sunday evening, though, Allen will take his place with Tinseltown royalty. Every year since 1955, he's attended the Oscars — that first visit coming when he was nominated for best art direction-set decoration for "A Star Is Born." It took three nominations for him to finally snag the gold, which he shared with Cecil Beaton and George James Hopkins.

After his win, Allen stepped away from on-set work to be executive director of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors, now known as the Art Directors Guild.

In addition to being at the Academy's helm twice — an undertaking he compared to "running a pretty big business" — he also served as secretary.

A short list, then, of all the things Allen has witnessed in person over the years: George C. Scott and Marlon Brando refusing the best actor Oscar. David Niven and the streaker. Roberto Benigni walking over chairs en route to the podium. Michael Moore's furious anti-Bush acceptance speech. Chris Rock dissing Jude Law. Plenty of film montages, plus Jon Stewart parodying film montages.

And then there was Allen's own Oscar win, which registers in his memory as a dazed trip to the podium. For "My Fair Lady," which won Oscars for best picture and seven other categories, Allen and his team had to recreate London circa 1910 — and the film's leading lady gave him a reference to fall back on when he faced millions of viewers.

"I hadn't thought of anything," Allen said. "I didn't write anything down. I just, on the way from my seat, I walked up the stairs and over to where they handed me the Oscar. I just said something like, 'It wasn't fair for the other art directors who were nominated because they didn't have an Audrey Hepburn to light up their set.' And I heard Audrey Hepburn go 'Whee-ee-ee!'"

At that time, Allen already had strong ties to Newport Beach — he spent Easter break in the city with his family growing up and he joined the Balboa Yacht Club in 1957. (He's still a member, though he's long retired his boat.) When he retired from the movie business a decade ago, the city was a natural place to move.

Allen is hardly the only Hollywood figure with a tie to his adopted hometown — John Wayne was its most famous resident for years, and Bette Davis had a hand in designing the Lido Theatre in 1938. Even now, Allen said, he gets envious reactions from others in the business when he tells them where he lives.

"You know, it's a big mecca," he said. "And I know, over the years, we've had a lot of motion picture people down here."


Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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