Perpetual Oscar bridesmaid hopes 20th time is charm

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I'm pretty sure that if you look up the word "loser" in the dictionary, you probably won't find a 20-time Academy Award nominee as the accompanying illustration. Yet somehow, ridiculously enough, Kevin O'Connell has been required to fight that absurd perception.

You see, O'Connell has never won. He is a hugely respected sound mixer who has been nominated for Oscars 19 previous times, only to go home every year without the big prize. On Sunday, he will be looking to avoid a 20th consecutive loss, nominated yet again (this time for his work on the Michael Bay action blockbuster "Transformers").

This is actually O'Connell's 36th career awards show nomination. He has won precisely once: in his lone Emmy nomination, in 1989, for the miniseries "Lonesome Dove."

But if you're looking for lingering embarrassment or ambivalence, you've come to the wrong guy. O'Connell happens to be the most-nominated sound mixer in Oscar history, and the idea that he should feel like a perpetual bridesmaid doesn't even enter his consciousness. All he knows is that on Oscar nomination morning, he's received that call 20 times in a 25-year sound career.

"That's a big honor in itself," O'Connell said earlier this week. "It's a testament to the fact I've been fortunate to be surrounded by so many talented people. And it's because people like Michael Bay and Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer have entrusted me with their vision."

So O'Connell doesn't spend a lot of time worrying that he's become the Susan Lucci of the Oscars?

"Oh gosh, no," he replies. "If I deserve to get it this time, I will. I know that my not having won gets me a lot more attention, and if it shines a spotlight on the sound community a little bit, I feel good about that. My only hope is that if I don't win again, the press will allow whomever does to revel in their moment and not ask questions about me."

There have been only two times when O'Connell admits that he was less than philosophical after coming away from Academy Awards night empty-handed. Once was in 1987, when he earned a nomination for "Top Gun" (his fourth). "I thought 'Top Gun' was the best-sounding movie that year," he recalls. "Every other year since then, the movie that deserved to win has won."

The other wrenching disappointment came for O'Connell last year, and it was mixed with overwhelming heartache. His mother, known as Skippy, had been severely ill and took a turn for the worse on Oscar night. As soon as his category was announced, O'Connell rushed from the Kodak Theatre ceremony (he'd been nominated for "Apocalypto") to be at his mom's side.

Skippy died in her son's arms 90 minutes after he arrived.

"She was the best mom on the planet, so this was just devastating," O'Connell remembers. "This woman was actually responsible for giving me my first job in the business, while she was the assistant to the head of the sound department at 20th Century Fox. She told me that all she wanted was for me to work hard and win an Oscar someday, and that when I was onstage, to thank her in front of the whole world."

The fact that Skippy isn't around to hear her boy pay tribute if he finally makes it to that podium on Sunday saddens O'Connell a little bit, he admits. But without sounding too maudlin, he feels secure in the knowledge that his mother never saw him as the son who lost 19 straight times.

"She was really proud of me," he says. "And if I win, I'm still thanking her."
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