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Movies | Oscar Moments

Some Thirty-Six Enchanted Evenings

Take it from one who's been there: Oscar night is tops, whether you have Liz Taylor on your arm or you are ducking a cake.

March 26, 2000|KEVIN THOMAS | Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer and film reviewer

Note: Times staff writer Kevin Thomas has an Oscar run any studio would envy; he's attended 36 straight Academy Award ceremonies, with No. 37 on tap for tonight. During that time he's seen a streaker on stage, protests at the podium, a cake fight in the balcony and three generations of Hollywood stars. We asked him to flip through his Oscar memory file for some of his favorite moments.

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There's nothing quite like being at the Oscars--those lights, those cameras, that action! The truth is, as is often told, that you get the best view on your TV set, whether of the glittery arrivals or the show itself, but there's nothing like being there in person, in the thick of it.

I was sitting not far from the late Lila Kedrova, a wonderful character actress, who leaped out of her seat and rushed down to the stage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when she heard her name announced as the winner of the best supporting actress of 1964 for her performance in "Zorba the Greek"--and I've been hooked ever since.

It's hard to believe that when I go to the 72nd Academy Awards presentation tonight that I will have attended more than half of the Oscar ceremonies. For 36 years I have laid whatever critical faculties I possess aside in the name of getting into the spirit of the occasion. I put out of mind any disappointments I may have that a certain film or actor didn't get nominated, never worry about whether the show will have dull stretches or run overly long, root for my favorites to win and look forward to the elegant Board of Governors Ball, where you have a chance to catch up with old friends and new acquaintances, and to offer congratulations and condolences.

This wide-eyed attitude never fails; for one night of the year I summon a childlike excitement at all that glamour, suspense and spectacle that continues to captivate the imagination of movie fans the world over.

To look back over 36 years of Oscars is of course to bring back a flood of memories, but what sticks in my mind most vividly are not those emotion-filled thank-yous of the winners but those occasions when the unexpected occurs, often out of sight of the TV cameras. My most unforgettable moment happened some 20 years ago when perennial starlet Edy Williams entered the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center and zeroed in on me as the one familiar face in the lobby crowd gathered before the awards show.

Edy loved to show up in some sort of skimpy attention-getting attire, often accompanied by some wild animal on a leash. This year she was wearing a leopard-skin coat over a leopard-skin bikini; presumably, she had already parked the leopard or ocelot or whatever outside. Naturally, she held her coat open to make sure everyone knew how little she had on underneath it.

In any event, she made a beeline for me. Wouldn't you know I would be in conversation with the late Rouben Mamoulian, the esteemed innovative director, and the late Robert Vogel, longtime head of MGM's foreign publicity, and their wives. Rouben and Bob were stalwarts of the academy's foreign-language committee and were Hollywood aristocrats in the finest sense. They and their wives, who surely had seen it all in their long experience in show business, could not have been more gracious to Edy had she been the queen of England, which made her attire seem all the more inappropriate. I cringed inwardly in embarrassment for Edy, of whom I am fond, yet realize in retrospect that she was well beyond being embarrassed.

Still, Edy surely took such exhibitionism far more seriously than did Robert Opel, who streaked the Oscars back in 1974, just as David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor as one of the presenters. I did not know Opel at the time but subsequently became acquainted with him. He was a likable, unpretentious man involved in the arts and the peace movement. Some five years later he called me to tell me he was about to open an art gallery in San Francisco and to drop by when I was up there. As it happened, I would be in the Bay Area in several weeks, but by then Opel had been fatally shot in an apparent robbery attempt at the new gallery he was so proud of.

Speaking of Taylor, I once escorted her down the grand staircase at the Dorothy Chandler before the show, though I had never formally met her. She was attending the Oscars with director George Cukor, who started to introduce me to her on the mezzanine-level balcony and then got distracted by some people who approached him.

I offered my arm to her, and off we went down the steps! She looked at me pleasantly, trusting in her director--this was around the time she and Cukor were making "The Blue Bird" in Russia in the mid-'70s. Taylor looked absolutely gorgeous up close, was stunningly gowned and the epitome of serene mega-star composure. People noticed her and smiled. She smiled back, but there was no big fuss: This was an industry crowd, after all.

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