Best picture. It’s moviedom’s Big Enchilada, Hollywood’s E ticket to a ride into film history books- not to mention a practically foolproof guarantee of a second-time-around box office bonanza. Little wonder that producers and directors whose films have been best picture contenders on Oscar night reflect on the experience with, well, mixed emotions.
“All I remember is that I had a blinding headache,” recalls director Robert Benton about the night “Kramer vs. Kramer” collected five Oscars, including 1979’s best picture and director. “Then the next thing I knew, I was walking away and the headache was gone and we had won.” Five years later, another Benton-helmed film, “Places in the Heart,” vied for best picture honors. Sally Field walked away with the best actress statuette for her performance, but “Places” lost the top award to “Amadeus.”
Still, Benton professes to be reconciled to the loss. “Being nominated, getting the recognition of your peers is the terrific thing,” he says. “Winning seems important for about 30 minutes, but afterwards it’s about being there as part of a community.”
Robert Evans, who produced 1974 best picture nominee “Chinatown,” remembers “going into the show like we were about to get the Hall of Fame award.” But as Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” piled up honors, Evans soon saw the handwriting on the wall for his picture, which had received 11 nominations. “From the moment Bobby De Niro won best supporting actor, we went south,” he says. “Jack (Nicholson) was sitting two seats away and he gave me a big smile that made up for losing. That night I got 10 big smiles from Jack.”
After the Oscars, Evans and his “Chinatown” cohorts commiserated together at the Governor’s Ball. “We called our table ‘The Loser’s Table,'” he says. “We laughed about it, though. We were just happy we didn’t bat zero for 11.” (Robert Towne won the original screenplay Oscar for “Chinatown.”) And Evans today says he’d gladly go through a losing night like that again: “It’s better than being up for nothing.”
The Rich button
As MGM/UA topper at the time, producer Lee Rich “pushed the button” on two best picture contenders, “Moonstruck” in 1987 and “Rain Man” in 1988.
About “Moonstruck,” he recalls, “We were up against some really tough competition and I didn’t think we’d win best picture, but I thought Cher’s performance was magnificent, and I was delighted that she won best actress.”
Rich carried a good-luck charm that Oscar night. “A friend from New York sent me a silver shamrock from Tiffany’s that I still carry with me,” he says. “It didn’t work that night, though.”
Curiously, Rich wasn’t carrying the silver shamrock a year later when “Rain Man” grabbed top honors, as well as best actor for Dustin Hoffman and best director for Barry Levinson. “There was no question in my mind that ‘Rain Man’ was going to walk away with it,” he says. “I guess I didn’t think I needed it.”
Producer Julia Phillips realizes the difference three years can make. “It was like yin and yang between the two experiences,” she says about being nominated for best picture in 1973 for “The Sting” and in 1976 for “Taxi Driver.”
“‘The Sting’ was the kind of movie everybody could feel good about,” she recalls. “There was the kind of support for it that you could just feel. We were confident going in that night that we had it won.”
But winning best picture for “The Sting” set Phillips up for disappointment three years later. “The year we won for ‘The Sting’ we were absolute nobodies,” she says. “But by the time we were nominated for ‘Taxi Driver,’ we were considered part of a rising establishment. It was as if we were more ‘important’ when we were nominated the second time, and so we had far less of a chance.” First-time pluck was replaced with resignation: “It was like, well, we’re just going to see the party.”
Phillips has a critical view of the entire Oscar process. “The ad campaigns, the tapes sent to your home, all that stuff, it’s insanity,” she says. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t care if winning an Oscar added to your grosses. We were in it for the honor.”
Winkler’s highs and lows
One of the industry’s all-time honored producers, Irwin Winkler, has fielded best picture contenders four times, and, as he puts it, “each one has its own story.” He recalls “feeling like the underdog” when “Rocky” went up against the critically acclaimed “Network” in 1976 for the top prize. “When the best picture award was announced, we jumped up and cheered and dragged Sylvester Stallone up to take the award with us,” he says.
When his 1983 best picture nominee “The Right Stuff picked up four Oscars in a row, says Winkler, “I figured, OK, here we go, we’ve got a sweep.” But “Terms of Endearment” won best picture that year; and a “surprised” Winkler remembers vividly how it felt. “You sit in the audience, and the camera is on you while you applaud the winner, and all you feel like is falling into a hole.”
But Winkler recalls the loss for 1980 best picture nominee “Raging Bull” as “the one that hurt the most. It really shocked us.
‘Ordinary People’ was a wonderful film, but I felt ‘Raging Bull’ was something the Academy should have favored.”
Nor did Winkler find it any easier when 1990 best picture nominee “GoodFellas” was bested by “Dances With Wolves.” “Jeez, we’d won almost every critics’ award, and we had nominees going down the list. It was another surprise,” he says.
Any lessons? “What can you do? I remember after ‘The Right Stuff’ my wife and kids and I were so crazed we went to Fatburger in the limo.”
Making Ruddy’s day
Al Ruddy, who produced 1972 best picture “The Godfather,” tells a wonderful Oscar-night story about Clint Eastwood and his pic’s win.
“Clint is an old friend of mine, and he calls me up to tell me that he’s agreed to present the best picture Oscar because he’s sure that I’m going to win,” recalls Ruddy. “So I tell him, ‘Clint, if I don’t win, when you open the envelope up, tear the son-of-a-bitch up, swallow it and say ‘The Godfather.’
“Well, I was suicidal that night. ‘Cabaret’ was winning left and right, and Marlon (Brando) didn’t show up for best actor. So, Clint gets up there and starts humming the music from ‘The Godfather’ and announces us as the winner. Now I swear, for a minute there I thought he was doing it because he was a friend of mine. I ran up and said, ‘Do I really have it?’ It was a marvelous moment.'”
For Lili Fini Zanuck, who produced 1989 best picture “Driving Miss Daisy,” along with husband Richard Zanuck, being nominated precipitated a spiritual rebirth. “I mean, there wasn’t a religion that I didn’t practice,” she says. “I prayed on my knees. I called a psychic in Texas. I did positive imaging. I did everything.”
And, while the nomination alone was a “memorable” thrill – “Even salesmen at stores would tell me that they were rooting for me” – Zanuck remembers her winning moment in almost transcendental terms. “It was like something out of ‘Ghostbusters,'” she says. “You are just pulled out of your seat and land on the stage somehow. I had no notes, because it seemed arrogant to think we’d win, but I stood there and had total clarity about who I was thankful to for helping us to get here. It was a pure moment.”