One of the best things about being a judge in a relatively small competition is that you get to know who the winner is before anyone else. Just prior to the big moment, you can sneak a peek at the winner, watching his or her body react to the news as the victor makes the transition from tense to animated.
Within those few seconds, there's a richness of emotion. You can witness so much that, in retrospect, it seems as though you saw it all in slow motion.
So it was the other night when I was among several judges at the 24th annual Hugh O'Brian Acting Awards at UCLA, presided over by the erstwhile Wyatt Earp himself.
My eyes scanned the 12 student actors who had competed, now anxiously awaiting the word of who won. This while judges Bea Arthur and Walter Matthau did an impromptu routine of off-the-cuff remarks about how they began in the business. (They met in a closet, according to Matthau's fable, and in the middle of fooling around, she suggested that he ought to consider acting.)
You could see the tension of the contestants through the nervous laughter. I knew that of the 12, Gary Marks, who had performed the hostile and volatile role of the love-stressed Pale in a scene from Lanford Wilson's "Burn This," would be the eventual winner. The shock for him was terrific, because winning is one of those fabled breaks in the biz.
As they say, he "steeled" himself and was able to say heartfelt thank-yous. He even included thanks for the two inspirations behind his performance: his ex-girlfriend, who taught him what Pale stands to lose, and his current girlfriend, who showed him what Pale stands to gain.
It was one of those times when seeing someone so happy makes you simply feel good. Besides Marks' prize, other cash awards were given to Jennifer Regan, Thad Lamey and Ed Monaghan. Bea Arthur, wiping tears from her eyes, said afterwards that it was the emotion of the whole night that got to her. Somehow these kinds of college performances and recitals can make you believe again in lots of possibilities.
What made it so emotional?
Obviously this kind of competition is a culmination in the long process in college study. The UCLA students had to compete in sub-competitions before they were selected to compete in the O'Brians. Then there's the fact that the audience at the Ralph Freud Playhouse was filled with talent agents, casting agents and other entertainment industry folk--and the other judges: actors Edward Albert, Susan Blakely, Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney, producer Jerry London and UCLA drama professor Delia Salvi.
So to even compete before this audience is to be considered an honor, whether or not you win. On top of that, the winners will get parts in productions at MGM/UA-TV and Stephen J. Cannell Prods., and they will be given auditions at Universal Pictures and Jay Bernstein Prods.
What a treat. Not only were we seeing the top 12 actors at the university, but we were witnessing one of show business' finer moments--when the pros in the industry take time to give the newcomers a break.
Endless varieties of events come and go in Hollywood, and it's not difficult to become a cynic about them. There are self-serving awards. There are commercial awards. There are awards for just about every occasion and format you can imagine. You don't like the awards saluting the best videos made in Belize with a music track by Motley Crue? Then perhaps you can find satisfaction in the theater awards given by a local freebie publication for the best new play of the year that chronicles a family coming to grips with a runaway child, set against the background of Reaganomics.
The point is, it's rare to find awards that are more than rewards for something already achieved. The O'Brians actually encourage students to pursue their goals. Many of the celebrity panelists repeated the same words as they told of how they got their starts: Stick with it like nothing else matters.
Sure the O'Brians aren't the Oscars, Emmys or Tonys. But to the actors just starting out, they can mean the world--or a least a break.