Oscars: 15 Icons Recount the Night That Changed Their Lives Forever

1:39 PM 2/22/2012

by THR Staff

They all went home with a little gold man -- and now reveal what happened that night and how the win affected their career.

Joe Pugliese

This story originally appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

THR’s explores the historic past of the annual Academy Awards with photographs and interviews with some of Oscar’s most legendary winners recounting their big nights.

PHOTOS: 15 Oscar Icons

Michael Douglas recounts stepping out of the shadow of his iconic father by reaching the Oscar stage as a producer on best picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Helen Mirren explains the first-time nominee mistake she made in 2007, when she won best actress for playing Elizabeth II in The Queen. Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Cameron Diaz chat about Shrek, the cartoon movie that got its fairytale ending when it became the first winner of the best animated film category in 2002.

The icons who work behind the camera also share their unexpected paths -- and often unexpected feelings --on the Oscar stage. Ang Lee, who became the first (and still only) non-Caucasian filmmaker to win best director, reveals that his heart sank when his film was beat by Crash for best picture. Similarly, scribe Robert Towne said he felt "nothing but guilty" when he claimed gold on Oscar night in 1975 for best screenplay for Chinatown, since the Roman Polanski-helmed project lost in all the other categories it was nominated in.

With less than one week until the 84th Academy Awards, THR takes a trip down memory lane with some of film's greatest icons.

  • The Legacy

    Michael Douglas (2 wins, 2 nominations)

    Ruven Afanador

    Being the son of one of the great screen icons is not without its challenges. By the mid-’70s — thanks to his co-starring role in TV’s The Streets of San Francisco Michael Douglas had started to carve out his own identity, but it wasn’t until the 48th Awards in 1976 that the industry stopped thinking of him as just Kirk’s son.

    That night, Michael Douglas arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk had starred in a Broadway adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel about the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, who fakes insanity in a crazy world. But when he couldn’t set up a film version himself, he handed it off to his son, who ran with it.

    A counterculture hit from United Artists, the movie won the five top Oscars: Producers Douglas and Saul Zaentz, director Milos Forman, stars Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher and writers Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman were all called to the winner’s podium — the first such sweep since 1934’s It Happened One Night.

    “Having been a second-generation kid in this business, receiving the Oscar really meant a lot to me and helped me step out of [Kirk’s] shadow,” says Douglas, 67. It also marked him as a filmmaker with a special talent for connecting with the zeitgeist.

    His 1979 The China Syndrome, which he produced and starred in, opened just 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. His star turn in 1987’s Fatal Attraction capitalized on rising anxiety between the sexes. And that same year, he stepped into arguably his most indelible role as Gordon (“Greed is good”) Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. That performance — as iconic as any his father ever gave — brought Douglas his second nomination and second win.

    “I’ve been in the fortunate situation where I’ve been nominated twice and won each time,” says Douglas, who is married to another Oscar winner, Catherine Zeta-Jones. “So I haven’t gone through the tsuris most people have had of multiple nominations and losing.” — Stephen Galloway

  • The Crown Jewel

    Helen Mirren (4 Nominations, 1 Win)

    Kurt Iswarienko

    The Burger Queen. That was the moniker Mirren earned in the British tabloids when she was seen wolfing down a hamburger right after winning her 2007 best actress Academy Award for playing Elizabeth II in The Queen. The actress hadn’t learned the insider’s trick to surviving the Oscars: bring food.

    “It’s five hours long!” she said at the time. It’s also incredibly stressful. “I’ve been on the carpet with other actresses now that I see are just shaking with fear and nerves,” says Mirren. “It’s so frightening the first time; it’s so big. You’re afraid of having to go up there and say ‘Thank you’ and of the words that are going to come out of your mouth. In a weird way you’re like, ‘Please, God, don’t let it be me!’ ”

    Clearly, God overruled her. And ever since, Mirren, 66, an appealing mix of regal and real, has been extremely grateful, though she’s aware Oscar can be a “poisoned chalice” that consigns actresses to fusty, awards-worthy roles. Maybe that’s why she turned her image on its head with an action role in 2010’s RED (the cast of which is returning for a sequel) or as a madam in husband Taylor Hackford’s 2010 Love Ranch — or most notably in Funny or Die’s recent parody of When Harry Met Sally … where she plays a vampire who gives Billy Crystal eternal life under the tagline “Getting old sucks.”

    She stars next in Istvan Szabo’s drama The Door and as Phil Spector’s defense lawyer in the HBO biopic of the infamous music producer. Mirren, the daughter of a Russian diplomat-turned-London cabbie who, in her youth, was known for being anti-establishment and anti-monarchist, has softened a bit: She had tea and cucumber sandwiches with the queen and even received an honorary title from her in 2003. With four nominations in all (including for 1994’s The Madness of King George, 2002’s Gosford Park and 2010’s The Last Station), she might not quite be British royalty, but she’s a hell of a Dame. — Leslie Bruce

  • The Trailblazer

    Ang Lee (3 Nominations, 1 Win)

    Wesley Mann

    Lee knows firsthand what it’s like to be caught off guard by an Oscar upset. On March 5, 2006, he was named best director for Brokeback Mountain, his groundbreaking film about two star-crossed cowboys that was considered the favorite of the night. But before he could savor his victory, he was led into the wings to wait for the best picture announcement.

    “I was on the side of the stage when Jack Nicholson opened the envelope,” Lee, 57, remembers. When Nicholson read out “Crash!,” a wave of genuine surprise swept the Kodak Theatre. Lee didn’t let any of it register on his own face, even though disappointment seeped into his own sense of joy. “As a director,” he says, “you cannot just be happy for yourself. You have a lot of hopes for the crew and cast. You just want everybody to win, because it is the Oscar, and the world is watching.”

    Still, his directing Oscar — he remains the only non-Caucasian ever to win that prize — is testament to the filmmaker’s remarkable ability to shuttle between cultures. Born and educated in Taiwan, Lee earned an MFA from New York University. (Spike Lee was a classmate.) He made his home just outside the city, where he and his wife, Jan Lin, a microbiologist, raised two sons. And he struck up a lifelong friendship with James Schamus, now Focus Features CEO, who has been co-writer or producer on 10 of his movies.

    He has dealt with life in Taiwan (1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman), generational clashes in America (1993’s The Wedding Banquet) and manners in period England (1995’s Sense and Sensibility). His career has been as unlikely a high-wire act as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the magical martial arts movie that played to the art house crowd and action fans and first introduced him to Oscar’s glow when it was hailed as best foreign-language film in 2000. Lee won’t be at this year’s ceremony: He’s deep in postproduction on Life of Pi, his adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel about a shipwreck survivor that could well garner him an invite next year. But he has earned
    his stripes, and they never fade.

    “You carry the spotlight with you all your life,” he says. “Last September, I threw out the opening pitch for the Mets, for Taiwanese Heritage Day, and of course I was introduced as ‘the Oscar-winning director.’ It follows you everywhere.” — Georg Szalai

  • The Storytellers

    Ron Bass (1 Nomination, 1 Win), Dustin Lance Black (1 Nomination, 1 Win) and Robert Towne (4 Nominations, 1 Win)

    Art Streiber

    Only a screenwriter, filmmaking’s most enduring unsung hero, could carry with him a feeling of a regret after claiming gold on Oscar night.

    “Honestly, I felt nothing but guilty.” That’s how legendary scribe Towne remembers his 1975 best original screenplay win for Roman Polanski’s epic drama Chinatown — the script that writing connoisseurs say changed the craft forever. The film earned a whopping 11 nominations that year, including ones for Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Polanski and for best picture.

    “We were up against The Godfather: Part II,” says Towne, 77, swapping Oscar tales with Bass and Black on a recent morning in Beverly Hills. “And my award was one of the last given out that night. James Michener presented it, and really, by the time I got up there, I just felt so bad that everyone else from Chinatown had lost.”

    Bass, 69, whose award-winning original script for Tom Cruise’s breakout drama Rain Man joined the film’s 1989 win for best picture, director (Barry Levinson) and lead actor (Dustin Hoffman), can relate to Towne’s regrets.

    “I felt terrible that Tom didn’t win! His performance was wonderful, and he was the one who hung in there for years to get the film made,” says Bass. “He was the first person to hug me backstage after I won.” Black, 37, who calls Bass and Towne “two of my heroes,” says that his 2009 victory for penning Milk, Gus Van Sant’s tragic biopic of gay activist Harvey Milk, still hasn’t sunk in. “Seriously, I’m the luckiest writer in the world,” the former Big Love scribe says when asked how he feels about his latest effort, the original script for Clint Eastwood’s drama J. Edgar, being overlooked by the Academy this year. “I mean, really,” says Black, “how greedy do I want to be?” — Stacey Wilson

  • The War Buddies

    Willem Dafoe (2 nominations), Oliver Stone (11 nominations, 3 wins) and Charlie Sheen

    Frank W. Ockenfels 3

    Mosquito-infected night shoots. Grueling humidity. Dense jungle sludge. If war is hell, then making movies is a close second. And no depiction of America’s darkest hours in Vietnam better embodied our struggle to understand this complicated legacy than Stone’s 1986 epic Platoon.

    “We had to acknowledge that the war had been badly represented in our media,” says Stone, 65, a Vietnam veteran who saw his second ever feature film shake up the 1987 Oscars with eight nominations and four wins (best picture, director, sound and editing), beating out more digestible fare such as A Room With a View and Hannah and Her Sisters.

    “The movie was so difficult to make,” says Dafoe, 56, who, along with co-star Tom Berenger, earned a supporting actor nomination. “So we weren’t poised at all for the attention. It was a Cinderella story; the innocence made it that much sweeter.”

    The $6 million Orion-distributed drama went on to gross nearly $139 million in the U.S. and showcased a slew of relatively unknown actors including Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker and Sheen, whom Stone says he cast because of his “honesty, earnest look and dark brows — like I’d had as a young man.”

    Sheen couldn’t attend the March 30 Oscar ceremony because he was already shooting Stone’s Wall Street in New York — “a different jungle,” Sheen, 46, says with a laugh — but says his Platoon mission remains that rare meant-to-be career milestone. “I’d been in the Philippines 10 years earlier with my dad when he was shooting Apocalypse Now,” he says of his father, Martin, who advised him against taking the role in Platoon because the country was in too much turmoil “to care” about another war movie. “So to be there again, doing my own version of that story, even narrating the damn thing too, was too much to process,” he says.

    And the film’s Oscar legacy? “I felt like I was part of a championship team,” says Sheen. “Being a part of something so special ... it was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced.” — Stacey Wilson

  • The Underdogs

    Sylvester Stallone (2 nominations) and John G. Avildsen (2 nominations, 1 win)

    Frank W. Ockenfels 3

    It was one of the great success stories in Hollywood history, as improbable as Rocky Balboa’s. A script nobody wanted to buy. An actor nobody wanted to hire. And a movie nobody wanted to make until United Artists and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff signed on. Those were just some of the obstacles Stallone faced on his path to two Oscar nominations as writer and lead actor — only the third time in history an actor-writer had received noms for both categories in the same year, following Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Neither he nor director Avildsen imagined their low-budget film, shot in less than a month in Los Angeles and Philadelphia for about $1 million, would launch a franchise that has spawned five sequels — let alone that both would then create further franchises of their own, with Stallone’s Rambo series and Avildsen’s 1984 film The Karate Kid.

    At the time of Rocky, Stallone was a minor actor who had received acclaim for 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush but had not broken through. The 1977 Oscars — when the movie won for picture, director and editing, on its way to a then-staggering $225 million gross — changed all that, even though the film itself could have been very different.

    “Rocky was not a very appealing guy at first,” says Stallone, 65, who recently completed The Expendables 2. “His face was bashed in; he didn’t like anybody. It was a much harder film, more in the vein of Mean Streets. I saw this guy as an embittered fellow who had blown his opportunity and just took out all his frustrations on the street.”

    The night of the Oscars, Stallone, then 30, was so sure he was going to lose (he did, to Network’s Peter Finch and Paddy Chayefsky), he never expected to give a speech — though he got his chance when the producers pulled him onstage and he was able to say a few words.

    Avildsen, 76, almost had his own disaster. “I’d written my speech on an envelope, but when I got onstage, perspiration had caused all the ink to run, and I couldn’t read the names,” he says. “Fortunately, I remembered everybody.” — Stephen Galloway

  • The Green Team

    Eddie Murphy (1 nomination), Jeffrey Katzenberg (1 nomination) Cameron Diaz and Mike Myers

    Joe Pugliese; Wesley Mann

    Even if Shrek, the 2001 movie about a lovable green ogre, hadn’t gone on to become the top-grossing animated film franchise of all time — the original and its four sequels have amassed $3.5 billion worldwide — its place in the Oscar record books was guaranteed.

    Until 2002, toons were something of a neglected stepchild at the Academy Awards. But as they began to gather more commercial and critical respect beginning with the Disney renaissance in the ’80s and the arrival of Pixar in the ’90s, all that changed. The Academy decided to set a trophy aside for best animated feature, and the first one went to Shrek, an adaptation of the William Steig children’s classic whose eventual victory was by no means guaranteed.

    “It could have been a train wreck. We broke every rule. The movie was irreverent, subversive,” says DreamWorks Animation CEO Katzenberg, 61, of the fractured fairy tale, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. But thanks to shrewd casting, it also had heart. Looking back, Myers, 48, says he loved the idea that the title character was “a traditionally bad guy who becomes a hero,” and he decided Shrek should have a Scottish brogue because “it’s a warm accent that is usually working-class, and ogres are working-class.”

    As for Shrek’s sidekick, Donkey, Murphy, 50, took off-the-wall non sequiturs like “In the morning, I’m making waffles!” and sold them with irrepressible enthusiasm. “Nobody makes words their own the way Eddie does,” attests Katzenberg.

    The Academy agreed, and the Oscar validated their efforts. Still, no one could have predicted to what degree Shrek would become part of the popular culture via a Broadway musical, TV spinoffs, even theme park attractions. Reuniting every few years for the sequels, the actors grew even closer to their characters. Says the movie’s Princess Fiona, Diaz, 39, somewhat wistfully now that no immediate new Shrek adventure is on the horizon, “People come up to me all the time and tell me how much they love it, how much it means to their kids, that they watch it all the time.” — Gregg Kilday

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