When I was a kid, the Academy Awards was about dresses and hairdos. I was too young to have seen most of the movies and had no idea what sound design was or why it should get an award, but those dresses and hairdos and jewels and shoes had my full attention. By my 20′s, I had opinions about who should win and got excited when they picked one of my favorites (and I loved the dresses). A funny thing happened in my 30′s – I started noticing how many people I knew in the audience, how many I’d worked with, how many were friends. The Oscars became personal for me. Then movies I acted in got nominated and some won awards. I was thrilled but I never really thought I’d contributed in any way to that win. Tonight, as Best Screenplay winner Quentin Tarantino thanked the actors who bring his characters to life (and pretty much no one else), I felt like I personally contributed to an Oscar win.
During the filming of Django Unchained, Quentin often used the Prytania Theatre to screen movies from his personal collection for the cast and crew. The New Orleans Film Society and The Prytania host an Oscar party with the show projected onto their giant screen. I attended in 2010 just after moving from L.A. to NOLA and decided it would be the best place to cheer on my friends and coworkers. And there was a lot to cheer on for Louisianans. Skip past Metairie-born Reese Witherspoon or NOLA resident Sandra Bullock as presenters, for the sold-out audience at the Prytania, it was all about locally-shot films Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained.
The first award of the night was for Best Supporting Actor. A lot of noise was made about how tough the category was this year so we were thrilled when Christoph Waltz won for his work in Django. It was an honor to work with him and he richly deserves that statue for his perfected performance, a beautiful balance between horrified and humorous. His “King Schultz” was a professional killer with a soft spot for romance and a strong moral compass who “couldn’t resist” fighting slavery and racism with wit and weaponry. He won once before for his work as a truly bad guy in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Quentin wrote the part of King Schultz for Waltz after that win (and his own nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director). It still blows my mind to know that Quentin wrote the part of Lara Lee with me in mind.
During the commercial breaks, Henry Griffin of HBO’s Treme hosted with trivia contests and costume contests. I got to judge the contests along with my Django co-star Dana Gourrier. They had 2 categories – costumes inspired by movie characters (won by sisters dressed as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln) and another for “Glam” (won by a wigged woman in a gown of silver sequins and beads).
The Memoriam section, already a tear-jerker, is tougher when you know the people. Michael Riva was our Production Designer on Django. We lost him during filming. Viva Riva! There were a few others I’d met but I couldn’t stay composed when Tony Scott’s face filled the screen. I had the joyous and educational experience of working with Tony on Enemy of the State. He was one of my favorite directors to work with and, since he and Quentin worked together twice, I had hoped my work in Django might lead to a reunion. For so many reasons, it sucks that he’s gone and that’s really all I can say.
We all gripped our seats when the Best Actress category was announced. Houma-born 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest person to ever be nominated. I had the honor of hosting a Q&A with Wallis and her Beasts of the Southern Wild co-stars. She’s a spitfire and smart as a whip without ever forgetting to be a kid. It wasn’t her night, but I hope she knows how many people were rooting for her and how impressed we all are with her achievements and her extraordinary performance.
I’m so proud of Ben Affleck, Clooney and Grant Heslov for their tightly executed and effortlessly acted Argo. It earned its award and I’m very happy for them. That said. It was tough having 2 films nominated for Best Picture and not see Hollywood-Southers up there.
The highlight of the evening – by far – was when Quentin won for Best Screenplay. One win is a great moment in film history but 2 wins for Best Screenplay means you are the moment. I knew when I read the screenplay nearly 2 years ago that it was not only brilliant, it was important. I knew the movie would open a dialogue about slavery, about race and about filmmaking today and I knew it would settle a dialogue about whether or not Quentin was the right guy to tackle a slave-revenge spaghetti-southern love story. I literally squealed when his name was called. Many times. And clapped. And cried. I felt his victory and I couldn’t have been more happy or proud.
Then he did something remarkable. His speech didn’t thank agents or producers or publicists, focusing instead on the contributions his actors make to his characters and how he feels it’s picking the perfect actors for the parts that makes the characters unforgettable.
My road to Django started April 27th, 2011 when I first read the now Oscar winning script and found the sentence, “Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, an attractive 40ish strawberry blonde southern belle…” and wondered if I might become part of this amazing movie. Tonight, some part of that journey came to an end. Django Unchained was 1 of 6 films that received multiple awards. Beasts may not have gone home with the gold but they were nominated for 4 top-tier awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress. If you haven’t seen it, find out what all the fuss is about and fall in love with fierce little Hushpuppy and the residents of the Bathtub.
And if you haven’t already seen Django – run, don’t walk, to your nearest theatre and see the Oscar nominated cinematography on the big screen with a crowd to laugh with you and gasp with you!
Enjoy this video from NOLA Wrap-Up where I talk about my Oscar picks, working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino and a little bit about my book, Know Small Parts: An Actor’s Guide to Turning Minutes into Moments and Moments into a Career.