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Presenters of the Academy Awards statuettes need a golden touch

It may seem like a dream job. But trophy presenters always end up empty-handed.

February 21, 2009|Gina Piccalo

Perhaps the most conspicuous people onstage during the Oscar telecast -- those graceful creatures once known as "trophy girls" -- are also the most forgettable, gliding around like sophisticated stage props.

This year, though, Oscar telecast producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon are going for something with more possibilities, deliberately casting experienced actors -- and one model -- as trophy presenters to bring a little more personality to the job. It's all part of their promise to bring spontaneity and surprise to the staid Academy Awards, an event that often feels anticlimactic compared with its own red carpet pre-show.

These presenters -- not to be confused with the celebrity presenters who announce the winners -- have historically been the onstage traffic cops; the ones who first greet the flustered winners as they hustle up for their awards. The presenters hand out the statuettes and usher the winners into the wings after their speeches -- all while remaining as invisible as possible. This year, the producers hope with their backgrounds in performing that the foursome will bring a little more life to the job.

During a break in rehearsals this week, this year's trophy presenters -- an amiable group of two men and two women -- crowded onto a sofa in their small, unadorned dressing room. They were halfway through what would be a 12-hour day and were bracing for a 15-hour shift the next. They are an attractive foursome, not as disconcertingly camera-ready as some in this town and not as quick with the pat answers as their more famous brethren. While exciting, the experience, they gamely admitted, is also bittersweet.

Consider, how hard must it be for the three actors -- Trevor Donovan, Christopher McDaniel and Julia Fowler -- to be at the Kodak, clutching an Oscar, and then giving it up to someone else? They have all spent close to a decade inching toward that Oscar dream, one small TV role at a time, from their small-town beginnings.

"I was a little hesitant to audition [for the Oscar job], as an actor," said the chiseled McDaniel, 28, a native of Bennett, N.C., who has had roles on NBC's "Days of Our Lives," CBS' "NCIS" and the new "90210." "I always heard it was bad news to touch an Oscar and then ever expect to get one."

Fowler, who had a stint on "The Young and the Restless" and now teaches Pilates, has recently been trying to get a film project off the ground. She joked that her efforts to manifest this dream by visualizing it, a la "The Secret," may have misfired. A friend of hers told her she needed to focus. "You're at the Oscars," she recalled him saying, "but you're not getting an Oscar."

This isn't Fowler's first big awards show. A member of the original Broadway cast of the 1999 Tony Award-winning revival of "Annie Get Your Gun," she had performed at that year's Tonys. Despite exhaustive rehearsals, Fowler said, she was still unprepared for the breathless feeling of seeing every major theater star in one room.

"It was overwhelming," she said.

The blond, Brad Pitt-esque Donovan grew wide-eyed as she spoke. "You talking like that just made me nervous," said the former pro-snowboarder turned "Days of Our Lives" regular.

Everyone laughed, rather nervously.

Fowler fluidly moved on to emphasize the more fairy-tale aspects of Oscar presenting. The diamonds, for instance. She described returning to her dressing room earlier this week to find it filled with million-dollar cases of glittering necklaces, bracelets and earrings. When Fowler queried the woman who'd brought them, she was told: "They're for you."

"I felt like Cinderella," gushed the auburn-haired Fowler, temporarily lapsing into her South Carolinian accent.

Of course, there is some actual work demanded here. Diplomacy is required. If an Oscar winner gets overly verbose, it's the presenters' responsibility to gently sweep them off stage.

"For some of the longer speeches, we kind of have to hurry them along," McDaniel said. This is accomplished by first inching toward the speaker, into his or her peripheral vision, a warning sign that they are preparing to move in if necessary. If it comes to that, the presenters simply lightly graze an elbow to gently guide the happy honoree backstage.

The lone model among the actors will join in this adventure, but the lively 20-year-old can't be named here. Condon and Mark insisted that identifying her would ruin yet another of the evening's myriad surprises. That is, the winner of the Oscars Design Challenge, a contest among seven designers and their models competing to have their gown worn onstage.

The producers' intention with all their top-secret plans is to drive viewers mad with anticipation in the hopes that they'll stay tuned for the hours-long show, even after red carpet wags like Joan Rivers and company have packed up.

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