Charlton Heston recalls having an Oscar night epiphany when the 1959 film classic “Ben-Hur” he starred in swept the Oscars. “Something clicked audibly in my mind a full five seconds before Susan Hayward announced my name. I was looking at the wall to my left, and I suddenly thought, ‘I won!'”
Ben Kingsley remembers his win for the starring role in the 1982 biopic “Gandhi” when “the euphoria and ceremony of Oscar night just washed over me. It wasn’t until two months later, when the award actually arrived at my home in England, that I understood the implications of winning the most coveted acting award in the world.”
Winner or loser, every performer who has been in the Oscar race comes away from the annual Hollywood ritual with special memories. For some, it’s the nomination itself that they will cherish forever. For others, it’s the glory-or heartbreaking disappointment-of Oscar night that remains indelibly etched in their hearts and egos. For all, however, simply having been a contender justifies years of hard work and dedication to their chosen craft.
But, you ask, how’d they feel at the time? When the TV cameras were focused on their faces and the auditorium was packed with celebrities and the industry’s finest, what was it like?
David Paymer, nominated as best supporting actor in 1992 for “Mr. Saturday Night, ” recalls being, well, intimidated. “It was surreal,” he says. “Just hearing those legendary names read off: Pacino, Hackman, Nicholson… Paymer? It just didn’t compute.”
Paymer didn’t bring along any good-luck charms, but he did bring his divorced parents to the Oscar ceremony. “If your parents are divorced and you want them to sit next to each other, just get a nomination,” he jokes. As for losing, he cites a definite upside. “Valentino of Beverly Hills fitted me for a beautiful tuxedo and they let me keep it. I didn’t get the statue but I got the tuxedo.”
John Lithgow, nominated as best supporting actor in 1982 for “The World According to Garp” and in 1984 for “Terms of Endearment,” also found post-Oscar sartorial solace. “I bought an expensive pair of suspenders at Neiman-Marcus to wear with my tuxedo for the ‘ Garp’ night,” he recounts. “I didn’t win an Oscar, but whenever I’m nominated for something I put them on. I won an Emmy with those suspenders!”
Lithgow also recalls that he received the “Garp” nomination soon after he’d moved to L.A. from New York. “The nomination was like the ultimate welcome mat,” he says. But the welcome didn’t come without some angst. “I aged a year in the time it took to get to my name.”
For actress Sally Kirkland, the biggest thrill was just receiving the nomination. “Cinderella like” is how Kirkland describes her Oscar experience. Nominated as best actress in 1987 for “Anna, ” Kirkland realized a childhood dream.
“I’d been visualizing winning an Oscar since I was 8 years old,” she says. “I never stopped believing it would happen.”
Kirkland’s Oscar night date was controversial guru John Roger, and she reconciled her loss to Cher in fitting spiritual fashion. “It was the first year that the show was televised in China and Russia,” she recalls.
One of Heston’s fondest Oscar night memories involves fellow 1959 best actor nominee Jimmy Stewart. Heston arrived at the ceremony at the same time as Stewart, who had been nominated for his work in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder.” “We had finished posing together for the cameras and all that stuff,” he recalls. “And as we were going to our seats, Jimmy took hold of my arm and said, ‘ Chuck, I hope you win. I really mean it.'”
It’s a gesture that Heston still finds remarkable. “There is not an actor I have ever known who’d dream of saying anything like that, let alone mean it.”
Heston also remembers meeting “Ben-Hur” director William Wyler backstage. “I said, ‘ Congratulations, Willie, I guess this is old hat for you.’ And he said, ‘ Chuck, this never
gets old hat.'” After the awards, he recalls, “We drank champagne literally all night long, and I came home as the sun was coming up and sat on the front steps looking at the headlines in the Los Angeles Times. And I was stone cold sober.”
Kingsley, a strong contender for this year’s “Death and the Maiden, ” remembers that he was “quite wonderfully nervous” about the opening of “Betrayal” when his nomination as best actor for “Gandhi” was announced. And there was no time to let the news sink in. “Immediately after the nomination, I began rehearsals for a one man play about the life of actor Edmund Kean, ” he says. “Which was, ironically, about how great fame and sudden wealth killed him.”
Looking back, Kingsley recalls his triumphant Oscar night as “an island in the middle of rehearsing for the Kean play. Once again, just as when I was nominated, my nervous energy and attention was split.”
But Kingsley says his second Oscar nomination, as best supporting actor in 1992 for “Bugsy, ” was a different matter. “By then I had much more perspective about how politics and publicity campaigns determine who gets the award, which added to my astonishment and delight at having won the Oscar before.”
“A gut-wrenching relief is Bruce Davison’s description of his nomination as best supporting actor in 1990 for “Longtime Companion.” Davison, whose performance had already netted the Golden Globe and New York Film Critics awards, recalls being caught up in Oscar mania. “I told myself that I wasn’t going to get up at 5 a.m. to watch the announcements, but there I was, up at 4:30 and waiting.”
Davison says he tried to keep things in perspective. “Suddenly all the guys who used to push me out of the way wanted a picture. But I knew four or five weeks later they’d be pushing me out of the away again.” Recalling the big night, he says, “Lions and Christians come to mind. I have a slow-motion memory of Army Archerd with a mike at the end of a long red carpet and this behemoth crowd on the other side of the rope. I wondered which door the lions were going to come out of.”
Davison also remembers that winning didn’t seem quite as important as staying composed.
Rod Steiger, who won an Oscar as best actor in 1967 for “In the Heat of the Night, ” recalls his first two nominations and his award with mixed emotions.
In 1954, Steiger was nominated as best supporting actor for “On the Waterfront.” He remembers being “flattered and proud to be part of a picture that won eight awards. But I didn’t think I’d win, because I was a newcomer.” However, his nomination as best actor in 1965 for “The Pawnbroker” taught him something. “I’m fairly objective about my work, but I couldn’t see how anything could come near it. I was even practicing how I’d accept the award. I was halfway out of my chair when they announced the winner was Lee Marvin. I felt cheated, but it was a lesson to me and my ego about being too cocky.”
On the night he lost his sole Oscar bid, Terence Stamp, who was nominated as best supporting actor in 1962 for “Billy Budd, ” received some valuable career advice from Peter Ustinov.
“I was in London, and Peter, who had discovered me, took me out to supper at a popular restaurant on Curzon Street called the White Elephant, ” he recalls. “We stayed up very late, and he’d arranged for someone to call us from America when the award went off. I remember when we learned that I’d lost, he told me it would have been wonderful to have won, but in truth it may be a blessing in disguise. If you win an Oscar for your very first film it makes it very difficult to have somewhere to go from there. I really saw the sense of it. After all, I was only 21 and wet behind the ears, and it was difficult enough as it was to follow the nomination.”
Now older and more accomplished, Stamp says he does hope to attend his first Oscars this year. “It has been 32 years now, which I think is far longer than Peter envisaged. It is about time, don’t you think?”