Oscar winners reflect on getting gold
Four Oscar recipients share in their words the impact of one of the world's best-known awards on their careers.
HOLLYWOOD — Those who win an Oscar find their names changed forever. Over the past year, Catherine Zeta Jones, Adrien Brody, and - yes - even Eminem, have all had the appellation "Academy Award winner" attached as a prefix.
That may not give a rapper street cred in Detroit, but the title has a gravitas recognized at more locations around the world than an American Express card. It is, after all, Hollywood's equivalent of a peerage, bestowed at a ceremony watched by millions worldwide.
Its actual impact can be harder to gauge. For high-profile actors it might cement their standing and fame, but Best Supporting Actresses from Geena Davis to Marcia Gay Harden will tell you even that's not a guarantee. After Ms. Harden won in 2001, she expected rainbows, birds singing, and "Steven Spielberg waiting patiently on the lawn," she told the Academy's official biographer, Robert Osborne. "There were no rainbows, no birds, no Spielberg."
But the story is different when it comes to the lesser-known folks without whom movies could not be made.
For the sound-effects editor, the makeup woman, and the film editor, a trip to the podium of the Kodak Theater means more than the recognition of their peers or greater career opportunities. It's a rare occasion for their work to be respected by the public - one time when they become more than a name scrolling up on the end credits of a movie. And their presence is a reminder that film is a collaborative process that relies on craftsmen as much as actors.
"Without question, the Oscar has a great effect on behind-the-scenes people," says Peter Bart, editor of Variety, "if for no other reason than they come into the spotlight for the first time in their careers."
The Monitor puts its own spotlight on four such winners, who share in their words the impact of one of the world's best-known awards on their careers.
By the time Vilmos Zsigmond received an Oscar for his work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), he was an established cinematographer. Dubbed "master of light" by his peers, he is credited with ushering in an era of softer, more naturalistic use of light in filmmaking.
Immediately after the ceremony, he got many congratulatory calls, including what he calls almost hysterical messages of delight from friends in his native Hungary. "Even under Communist rule, they were watching the Oscars," he says, "and everyone in the country was so happy, they send me telegrams and all kinds of things."
Current events had helped launch his career some two decades earlier, when he and other recent graduates from the Budapest film school found themselves in the midst of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He filmed more than 10,000 feet of black-and-white film of Russian tanks crushing his countrymen's revolt.
With the help of a sympathetic border guard, he made a midnight dash across the river into Austria, smuggling the film, stashed in potato sacks, out of the country to launch his new life.
Landing in America was not easy. He changed his name to William on the advice of an immigration official who couldn't pronounce "Vilmos." But nobody wanted to hire an immigrant with no English skills, so his first job was at an Illinois supermarket printing snapshots. He went on to make low-budget howlers for the drive-in crowd, such as "Hot Rod Action."
But his brash approach to intimate filmmaking, combined with a skillful use of natural light, ultimately caught the eye of top Hollywood names such as Robert Altman, for whom he did three films in the 1970s.
Then came Steven Spielberg and "Close Encounters." However, following the Oscar euphoria, he says, he experienced what he calls the two-edged sword of attention: more calls for bigger projects, and fewer for the low-budget independent films that he prefers.
"After you get that kind of recognition," says Zsigmond, "it's much harder to do the small kind of pictures that are creative and usually more fun."
The smaller budget producers won't call, he says, because they are intimidated and worry he will charge too much. "They also think maybe that I will have too big a head or have too many opinions about how things should be done," he says.
Zsigmond, who has just finished a film with Woody Allen, says he makes a continual effort to let people know that he has not changed. "I'm not a showoff. I don't try to tell anyone anything. I'm just a normal guy," he says.
"The key to being a good cinematographer," says Zsigmond, "is you have to work together with the director and not try to do your own movie."
Good work breeds more work, he says. "I like to please the directors," he says. "I believe that good photography helps everybody. Once you do that, you develop a sort of respect from your people and that's how you get your next job."
Zsigmond says he is keenly aware that in many ways, getting an Oscar is like pulling straws. "It's such luck, really," he says, "because most important, you have to have a great film in a year with not many great films." But, he does admit, the award has had a huge impact on his career. "If nothing else," he says, "you become known around the globe."
When film editor Pietro Scalia won his first Oscar for work on Oliver Stone's "JFK" (his first as sole editor on a project), he didn't even have an agent to thank.
"It was so very early," he says. "That one had a huge impact on my career because I got exposure all over the world." Doors that had seemed unreachable began to open, not just in Hollywood, but in his native country as well. The sweetest moment came when the phone rang with a long-distance call.
"It was from Bernardo Bertolucci's producers," says the Italian-born Scalia. "They said, 'We were wondering if you were available?' Available!" he says, laughing at the memory, "available to Bertolucci? It was a like a dream come true. Things like that just don't happen."
He flew to Italy, where he spoke to Bertolucci by phone from Nepal. "They were already shooting (1993) 'Little Buddha,' and he said to me, 'You must come over to Nepal, now.' " "So," he says, "I was on a plane to Nepal within a week." He looks back on that time as pivotal. A trip to Nepal to work with great artists and people he admires, he says, would never had happened if it hadn't been for the Oscar.
Scalia graduated from the UCLA film school in 1985, intending to be a director, but says he quickly fell in love with the process of editing. "Every day you deal with moments of magic and creation as an editor,' he says. "The film comes together in the cutting room because that's where you make the performances ... come to life," he says. "That's where you put it together so it will make sense to audiences."
Winning the Oscar at the beginning of his career gave him the boost he needed to wait for the right projects. "You get the luxury to choose the best films," he says. "I have always wanted to work on movies that have elements of social realism or criticism, or that are based on true stories."
Scalia, who won a second Oscar for 2001's "Black Hawk Down" and was nominated for both "Good Will Hunting" and "Gladiator," says the awards are bigger than his own career. Academy recognition has been important for his profession, especially as the demands on film editors have expanded. "The contribution of the film editor has grown," he says, "because of shorter schedules, more complex visuals, and the need to incorporate more computer-generated images into almost every kind of film."
Worldwide recognition helps audiences understand the art of editing. "Our role is not simply putting pieces together," he says. "It's about storytelling. The editors are involved in the choice of music, you work on sound design to create moods, you create the template from which the composer and sound editors and visual effects people work.
"An editor," he adds with a rueful laugh, "is involved from the first day of shooting till the film is delivered to the studio."
Winning an Oscar had one immediate impact for makeup artist Lynn Barber: It blew out her answering machine.
"The congratulations burnt out my tape," says Ms. Barber, who won in 1990 for her work on "Driving Miss Daisy." "People I went to kindergarten with came out of the woodwork to leave me a message."
But, she says, one of the film's stars put the award into perspective. "Morgan Freeman was nominated at the same time as I was," she recalls. "But he said to me, 'I don't want to win now,' " she says. "He said it was too early in his career. 'I'm an actor,' he said to me, 'I have another 20 years - when I win I want it to be later down the road. But ... you're a technician, you should win now, because it will change your career.' And he was right."
Initially, Barber says she didn't get phone calls for work, because, as some colleagues told her later, "people think you're out of their price range now. I know a woman who won for hair design, and she didn't work for six months because everyone thought she'd be too pricey for them," she says. "In my case, I just let people know that my rates hadn't changed."
But the award meant visibility in a highly crowded field. The Oscar on her résumé is a form of shorthand for prospective employers. "There are 1,500 people in my local union, No. 706, alone," she says. "By having the Academy Award, it just tells people you're at the top." She hastens to add that she believes this is a perception, not necessarily the truth. "There are many brilliant people in my union who have not won anything, so I am just greatly honored to have won," she says, particularly for work that, by Hollywood standards, is downright unflashy.
"This isn't like creating monsters or even wild apes, which most people aren't that familiar with," says Barber. "Everyone knows what age looks like," which meant that her work had to be invisible.
Audiences were not the only ones to get a bit of an education. One of the first calls she received after the award came from a producer who specifically praised her ability to age actors realistically. "He said the award made him realize just how hard that is to do."
Sound-effects editor Bruce Stambler knows he's one of the "invisible" folks behind the movies, the kind that make people ask their TV screens on Oscar night, "Who is that guy and what does he do?" His response is quick and a bit testy.
Imagine, if you can, a movie with no sound. He pauses while the request sinks in. "You can't do it," he says with a laugh. "Most people have never been to a no-sound movie, so they take the sound track or the effects completely for granted."
Sound editors create the entire sound plan for a movie, says Stambler. Foley artists, the crews who do fun stuff like slap lettuce and crush ice to simulate fight noises, take direction from him. And the sound mixers, or "rerecorders," take his final plan and mix it into the film.
His job is critical. "Just try to imagine any of your favorite movies without sounds."
Stambler received an Oscar for sound effects editing in 1996 for his work on the African potboiler, "The Ghost and the Darkness."
He has no doubt that the jury of his peers responded to his work with animals, especially the lions. "All the animals were animatronics," he says, "the way they move their mouths ... is not what real lions do, so that after recording real lions, it's very hard to manipulate the sounds to match the visual."
Other sound editors would know this, he says. "If I were to guess, I'd say they loved the animal stuff, because everyone who does sound knows just how hard that is to do."
Choosing the best film sound effects is a bit of a sideshow. Stambler explains the annual ritual known as the "sound editing bake-off."
Academy voters winnow the nominations down to seven films, from which the sound supervisors create 10-minute "sound reels." Then, he says with a laugh, "we have a bake-off." They run the sound reels one after the other, he says, in front of a packed audience, and the final vote takes place immediately. "Anyone can go," though only Academy members may vote. "It's very cool," he says, "you get to see, or hear, the cream of the crop."
The man behind the lion's roar says he was scared to death when he walked down the aisle to pick up his Oscar. "As I walked onto the stage," he says, "I was on complete autopilot."
Given how much Stambler's profession has grown and changed just in the past few years - with the demands of digital sound reproduction and increasingly sophisticated equipment - he says he's happy to see more than just his own work recognized. "Getting the Oscar," says Stambler, "raised the profile of the field itself."
While the jobs have flowed freely, Stambler says it took him a couple of years to raise his rates, which he did in 1998, by some 15 percent. "But that's only because the cost of living has gone up."
More important than money, he says, has been the satisfaction of being acknowledged by his peers, and the relationships the accolade has helped cement.
"The most awesome thing was that people, like directors I've worked with, call and congratulate you," Stambler says. "Michael Douglas called me," Stambler says, adding that he pulled a classic sound-guy move: "I still have the recording of his message."