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Spotlight dims, not memories

March 21, 2003|Robert W. Welkos and Susan King | Times Staff Writers

Jon Voight keeps his on his mantle at home, but for years his late mother had it in an empty fishbowl by the front door. Whenever guests arrived, she'd ask them if they wanted to hold it.

F. Murray Abraham carries his with him. "It's appeared in every single play I've done," he said. "I give it to the crew and they hide it on stage. It's appeared in London, all over England, all over Italy.... It's just having a good time."

Julie Andrews hid hers in the attic. "Then one day I suddenly realized, 'Oh dammit no, this is something I'm hugely proud of!' "

It's the Oscar, of course: the golden talisman that signals acceptance into one of the most elite fraternities on Earth -- the best actor/best actress club, with 81 surviving members. Some of them are expected to appear Sunday in Hollywood for a rare reunion at the 75th Academy Awards. Assembling such an array of star power and egos would be a delicate task at the best of times; with war looming over the ceremony, it has become even more difficult and unpredictable.

Whether they show up for the show, these actors and actresses share more than ownership of an 8-pound gold-plated statuette; they carry with them a collective memory of what it meant to be, however briefly, at the center of world attention, beacons of Hollywood's dream factory in good times and bad.

Returning to the spotlight

And -- war or no war -- some of them are ready for their close-up again.

Luise Rainer, 93, who won for best actress for 1936's "The Great Ziegfeld" and 1937's "The Good Earth," is expected to fly in from Europe. So is Olivia de Havilland, 86, who won for 1946's "To Each His Own" and 1949's "The Heiress." George Kennedy, 78, who won best supporting actor for 1967's "Cool Hand Luke," is driving from his home in Idaho. "The worst that can happen is, I come down there and the thing is called off and I turn around and come back [to Idaho]," Kennedy said. "In the meantime, I get to see a lot of my pals in L.A."

Kennedy was a journeyman character actor known principally for his "bad guy" roles when Oscar turned it around for him. His friends were so overjoyed at the win that he awoke the next morning to find his house had been toilet-papered as a prank. Hollywood took the win seriously, though. Overnight, he said, his salary went up tenfold and people were saying, "This guy can do more than growl."

Rainer's Oscar memories are less rosy. "They bring a big ballyhoo

She hopes to be onstage Sunday, but for her, it's too little, too late. "I'm upset," she said, because the academy has never singled her out for an honorary Oscar. "I should be honored even being as old as I am. And when I come out, they will be amazed how well I look and am." She also is perturbed by the arrangements that have been made to bring her back to L.A. "It's a sacrilege to mention this when there is a war and trouble, but I found out the academy does not even give us breakfast, which I think is so mean. They only give you bed.... I'm probably going on a hunger strike."

Still, she said, she has no intention of backing out. "It's not comfortable at the moment to come to the Oscars, but I have agreed to come," Rainer said. "Who am I in this world of murderous disorder to stand up and have fear?"

As for De Havilland, she is moved at the prospect of returning for Sunday's show, even though she left Hollywood for Paris almost 50 years ago. One of the grand dames of the Golden Age, she not only co-starred in "Gone With the Wind," but appeared in swashbucklers with Errol Flynn, dramas with Charles Boyer and Frank Sinatra and even romantic comedies.

"What is really marvelous is that the films I made are still being shown and still people enjoy them and write me wonderful letters about them," she said. "Have you heard about the theory that people who have won Oscars live forever? I seem to be doing that."

She remembers her first win as if it were yesterday.

Her gown that night, she recalled, "was a lovely pale sort of blue gauze fabric with a tight waist, a full skirt, no straps and a sweetheart neckline. Painted on it was an absolutely beautiful spray of flowers right down the side of the bust and onto the skirt to the floor -- quite good looking."

But she also remembers the near-disaster that befell the dress, when Madeira sauce from a Virginia ham served at a pre-ceremony dinner "flicked" over the gown. "There was a commotion at that table and every napkin was offered and scrubbing went on and all sorts of things. We got most of it off, and luckily, a great deal of the sauce fell on the garland so you couldn't see the splashes of Madeira."

The selling of celebrity

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