19 Hollywood A-Listers on Why the Oscars Still Matter (and One Who Says They Don't)

6:00 AM 2/22/2017

by THR Staff and Edited by Jeanie Pyun

Anger, fear, political upheaval — for many, it's tough to get emotional over who wins best supporting actor this year. But as artists, thinkers and public figures testify here, the Academy Awards can be an inspiration to a kid "seeing myself in this world" for everyone from moguls to Matt Damon to 'Hamilton' creator and first-time nominee (for 'Moana') Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shares his lifelong fascination with Hollywood's biggest night.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Liza Minnelli and Ryan Murphy
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Liza Minnelli and Ryan Murphy
Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images; Robin Marchant/WireImage; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Interviews by Seth Abramovitch, Scott Feinberg, Mia Galuppo, Marisa Guthrie, Kara Haar, Bill Higgins, Andy Lewis, Pamela McClintock, Michael O’Connell, Brian Porreca and Lacey Rose

 

  • Isabelle Huppert

    Oscar nominee for 'Elle'

    Joe Pugliese

    When I was little, I did not watch the Oscars. I started watching when I was more a grown-up because of course you have to stay awake all night [in France] when you watch them. As an actress, it's one of the most prestigious celebrations of movies. I am grateful that the Academy is bringing attention to a French-speaking actress like me. It doesn't happen very often, so it gives me even more pride.

    The Oscars are a very American celebration and sometimes welcome and bring attention to foreign films. Also, for quite a few years, cinema hasn't been exclusively entertaining. You expect some films to be like a window to the world, to make you think, to make you rebel. The Oscars cover so many different movies; they are the perfect example of that.

  • Donna Langley

    Chairman, Universal Pictures

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    Growing up on the Isle of Wight, a rural Island off the coast of England, my family and I would tune in to the Oscars every year. During my most formative years, I watched films like Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus and Out of Africa win best picture. True stories about extra­ordinary people doing extraordinary things helped shape my view of the world and made me fall in love with film.

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda

    Oscar nominee for 'Moana'

    Miller Mobley

    My brain is a compendium of Oscar moments: Tom Hanks' beautiful acceptance speech when he won best actor for Philadelphia in 1994. Roberto Benigni climbing over chairs and wanting to make love to everybody in the world when Life Is Beautiful won best foreign-language film in 1999. Kim Basinger presenting in 1990 and telling the audience that one of the best films of the year, Do the Right Thing, was not nominated. For her to take a stand, 25 years before #OscarsSoWhite, was incredible — and impressive because time has shown the prescience of that film.

    I expect we'll see more of that this year. It's a political time, so I imagine the Oscars will look exactly like your Twitter or Facebook feed. Why should we ignore for three hours what we're talking about 24 hours a day?

    The Oscars were always a family affair when I was a kid. One sort of unintentional tradition we had every year was during the "In Memoriam" part of the show. My family called it the "She died?" section because my dad, who is pop culture-oblivious, would always go, "She died? He died? She died?!" the whole time. So, it was very sad and yet also very funny watching my dad catch up.

    Read the full story here.

  • Jeffrey Katzenberg

    Founder, WndrCo

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    In 1974, I was 23, newly arrived from New York, living La Vida La-La. One day, I was driving my first black Mustang down Sunset Boulevard, top down, sun streaming in, and all around me were billboards for that year's Academy Award nominees: The Sting, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, Redford, Nicholson, Streisand, Joanne Woodward. Surrounded by all that greatness, the Oscar suddenly went from being a gold statue to a gold standard.

    Until that moment, it had been just a trophy handed out on a glitzy show, but now I saw it as an icon of excellence for the industry I was a part of. Sure, I was just a P.A. on the ladder's bottom rung, but those billboards inspired me to reach high. Four decades later, our industry may be obsessed with billion-dollar blockbusters, but the Oscars still remind me of what matters most. Which is why, given the choice in 1974 or in 2017 between a pot of gold or that golden statue, it would be Oscar every time. My hope is it would be the same for every other 23-year-old out there today.

  • Michael Ovitz

    Investor/philanthropist

    Getty Images

    I started in the business at 17. I've never missed an Oscars. It's one of the few times that you get to see everyone in one shot. It's an intimate look at celebrity, which this country always has been obsessed with. If you live in Europe, royalty is celebrity. If you live in the U.S., celebrity is royalty.

    Now do I agree with the way the movie business has gone? I feel horrible that the movie business makes it so difficult to get things made now. It wasn't like that when I was an agent in the '90s. We pretty much could tell our clients what we could get made, selling to seven studios, 35 movies a studio, and today … what are there, five or six studios? They make maybe 40 movies, and the rest are independent. But the Oscars are critical to the survival of the movie business. One of the greatest exports of this country is culture. We dominate at that — always have.

  • Ryan Murphy

    Executive producer, 'Feud' and 'American Crime Story'

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    Growing up in Indiana, the Oscars were religion in my house. It was a breath of fantasy and a way to imagine what life could be. I used to have slumber parties with all of my friends starting at age 7. We'd do an Oscar pool and all of that stuff. You have to remember there was no internet back then, which meant there was really no access to these directors and movie stars. They were almost like unicorns: You didn't see them very much, unlike now, when it's all very orchestrated. So when you watched the Academy Awards, it really was a great, special celebration of glamour, and you felt this national excitement around it.

    I still remember being 4 years old and watching Elizabeth Taylor come out to present best picture, and she was all tan and wearing this tremendous Chopard jewelry. It's a great thing that the show does in celebrating the movies and artistic talent in a big, glamorous way — more and more now in a socially conscious way.

    For me, it's the gay Super Bowl. And yes, I've lost many an Oscar pool. My most devastating loss was when "Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie lost the original song Oscar to the theme from Norma Rae. I'm still fuming about that one.

  • Mark Cuban

    Entrepreneur

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    Back in 2004, I got an email from a young director who said he had unique footage from inside of Enron. He wanted to do a documentary about the company's collapse. I immediately responded, asking how much the budget would be. I got an immediate response that it would be $770,000. I hit Alex Gibney right back, saying, "Yes, let's do this." The whole thing happened in 12 minutes. The result was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

    Making this movie wasn't about how much money we could make. The goal was to tell a true story about a company that destroyed the lives of so many. Being nominated for an Oscar was special. We didn't win, but it helped propel Alex to many more great accomplishments and eventually his own Oscar. That's what makes the Oscars so special. It introduces the world to amazing talents and helps propel them to even greater heights.

  • Olivia de Havilland

    Two-time Oscar winner

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    The Oscar symbolizes excellence, and for an artist to receive this statuette is the highest of honors.

  • Liza Minnelli

    Oscar winner for 'Cabaret'

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    I grew up in the industry town, and the annual celebration was the Academy Awards, so you'd better believe I watched them as a kid! And they certainly meant something to me because both of my parents had won, so when I was first nominated for The Sterile Cuckoo [in 1969], it felt like I was following in their footsteps. I wanted to make my parents proud. I still do!

    I didn't win for The Sterile Cuckoo, and from the moment the nominations were announced the next time [Minnelli was nominated three years later in 1972 for Cabaret], I thought Diana Ross was going to win because she was so marvelous in Lady Sings the Blues. I loved her performance in that film, and it holds up wonderfully. But on the night of the Oscars, I saw her get up during the show and change her dress right before they announced our category, so I thought, "Well, that's it! She's most definitely going to win."

    I had gone to the awards with my father, who was truly the sweetest man I've ever known. And when they said my name, my father screamed so loudly in my ear that I still have tinnitus.

  • Stacey Snider

    Chairman and CEO, 20th Century Fox Film

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    Even though I was in pajamas instead of a gown, the glamour of the Oscars required my childhood self to treat the telecast with a reverence that echoed the pomp and circumstance of the movie stars inside our television. The family assembled in our den and watched attentively (enthusiastic exclamations were permitted, talking over the show was not); and as the evening proceeded to best picture, so did my proximity to our family's sole TV set. By the time the final presenter said, "And the award goes to …" I was almost physically inside the TV.

    My feelings about the Oscars haven't changed. If you see me sitting in the Dolby Theatre on that amazing night, you'll see me leaning forward, soaking up every bit of pomp until best picture is handed out — but I admit I sometimes miss being able to watch in my pajamas!

  • Matt Damon

    Oscar winner, actor-producer

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    My favorite Oscar memory is, I think, the year that Ben and I won [for Good Will Hunting], which was 19 years ago. I kind of remember all of it and none of it at the same time. We went from watching it on TV to being in the front row. There was no gap year where we got to go but sit in the back, so I think that's why this first one that we went to was so memorable.

    I can't recall any specific thing except getting up onstage and pushing Ben to the microphone because neither of us had planned a speech, nor had we even talked about it, because we both knew, without saying this to each other, that we would be jinxing it. And then if we didn't win, we would know for the rest of our lives that we had a conversation about what the speech was going to be. So we had no plan at all. When we got up there, I realized one of us was supposed to say something, and I pushed him, and he came up with a pretty good one right off the top of his head, but I think it involved us screaming out people's names.

  • Dakota Johnson

    Actress, 'Fifty Shades Darker'

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    My life growing up is movies. We watch screeners every holiday season. We are obsessed in my family, so watching the Oscars is like Christmas.

  • Billy Eichner

    Creator, 'Billy on the Street'

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    I took the Oscars very seriously as a child. When I was 14, a special was released on VHS called Oscar's Greatest Moments Volume 1. To this day, I am still waiting for Volume 2. It was a documentary with all of these clips from the Oscars and the red carpet. My friends and I played that VHS until we wore it out.

    At my peak obsession as a New York kid, there was no internet. I would handwrite reviews of movies on loose-leaf paper. I'd give them star ratings, like two, three, four stars. I would annotate them through the year with magic markers, writing out my predictions and the categories, like, who should win, who will win. I was insane. There was a year or two when I put on a suit to watch the Oscars in my living room.

    Read the full story here

  • Chris Matthews

    Host, 'Hardball With Chris Matthews'

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    With the Oscars, I always rooted for the writers, the bearded guys. The guys who you knew were only going to get up there once in their life and worked 20 years or more to get there, who don't sit in the first three or four rows. It's not quite as glamorous. I appreciate the Oscars when it brings attention to stories that aren't about the lottery of Hollywood and looks.

    I think Hidden Figures is a major movie, about these people who all their lives have been patriotic hard-working people, fabulous in their field but didn't get the spotlight. People with a real personal commitment who say, "Here's something I care about, and I'm going to make it work." The message is: "Even in a superficial world, I can make it by being real." I think that was maybe the most important movie of the year, especially after the wrath that Hollywood took — appropriately — for not having enough diversity.

    Read the full story here

  • Carl Reiner

    Actor, comedy writer

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    I watch the show like a fan. In 1971, the Academy asked whether I'd like to host. I told them I would, but only if they gave Charlie Chaplin an award. To me, he was the genius of the movies. If there was no Charlie Chaplin, there'd be no film industry. But they said no, he was still considered persona non grata. Then a year later, they brought him over and gave him a lifetime achievement award.

  • Gayle King

    Host, 'CBS This Morning'

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    I lived in Turkey when I was a kid, from first grade to sixth grade, so I didn't grow up thinking, "I've got to watch the Oscars." In my early 20s was when I started watching it — and I've just been hooked ever since.

    The first time I got to go was [in 1986] when Oprah was nominated for best supporting actress in The Color Purple. And it was just dazzling. We were in L.A. that weekend, and everyone kept coming up to her and saying, "You're going to win. I voted for you." And I believed it. She was petrified and mortified because she had this dress, and the day before the Oscars [she tried it on and] it was too big. So she asked the tailor to come and take it in. He then made it too small. And she discovered that an hour before the show. So she was sitting there thinking, "Please don't call my name, please don't call my name, please don't call my name." Because of her dress! Prizzi's Honor won that year: Anjelica Huston, also a very good performance. But I really thought Oprah had it because so many people stopped her.

    Read the full story here

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Astrophysicist

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    The Oscars matter because they give us all something to argue about other than our political differences.

  • Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson

    Married actor-producers

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    Rita I grew up watching the Oscars because I grew up in Hollywood, Calif. It was the most glamorous event. We would all sit cross-legged in front of the hi-fi, which was a turntable with a TV in it. It was especially exciting before stylists, when you had people like Edy Williams wearing a belly-dancer costume. You were like, "What's she doing?"

    Tom I think that was my highlight when I was growing up.

    Rita I went to the Oscars for the first time at 19 with my friend Lou Arkoff, Sam Arkoff's son. He ran American International Pictures. It was the year that Faye Dunaway won for Network.

    Tom I love hearing about my wife's big dates when she went to the Oscars with other people. This is the first I've heard of it, and I'm enraged.

    Rita (Laughs.)

  • Anthony Bourdain

    Host, 'Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown'

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    Nothing like watching millionaires in formalwear talk about world hunger. It just makes me want to throw up. I understand that they're well-meaning and have a huge platform, and it's satisfying to everybody there and to people who already agree with them. But if you're looking to change hearts and minds as a strictly tactical matter, I don't know that it's effective.

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