Golden moments for Irish at the Oscars

What’s it like to attend the Academy Awards? In advance of Sunday’s Oscars, Richard Fitzpatrick spoke to Irish people who’ve experienced the thrills, spills, and heavy security of Hollywood’s big night

THE Academy Awards committee hit on a feminist theme for its 1993 Oscars ceremony. It decided it would celebrate the ‘Year of the Woman’. Geena Davis was wheeled out to present a ‘Women in the Movies’ montage to set the scene.

The Irish makeup artist Michèle Burke picked up her second Oscar that year for her work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “The first thing that happened,” says Burke, “was that Joe Pesci, who was one of announcers, called my name out as ‘Michael Burke’ so it took me a while to get up onto my feet.

“Then when I did get to the stage, one of my co-winners Greg Cannom spoke so long and got so caught up with himself that the band started to play and played us off the stage. The next day the newspapers were full of insults against women by men, and of course they mentioned me — that my male cohorts had over-spoken, and that I didn’t get to say a word.”

SIX NOMINATIONS

Burke, who grew up in Kildare town, as one of 10 children, has been nominated for an Oscar six times. Her other win came in 1982. It was the year Gandhi scooped eight awards. She won for the film Quest for Fire. She was unable to attend the awards ceremony because she was filming in Upper Alaska, but picked up her award shortly afterwards at a postal depot in Toronto, Canada.

“My sister Adrienne was with me,” she says. “We both went down to the post office, which was full of guys with cut-off T-shirts. One of them came out with this rectangular, coffin-like box. The Oscar weighs about 12 pounds so he carried it bulkily to the counter. He said, ‘I have to open it and check it. I’m a customs officer.’ I said, ‘Go ahead.’ He opened up the lid and gasped: ‘Ughh, this is an Oscar!’ My sister said, ‘Well, present her with it.’

Before Daniel Day Lewis scored a hat-trick, make-up artist and Kildare woman Michèle Burke was Ireland’s most decorated Oscar winnerwith two to her credit, for ‘Quest for Fire’ and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. She has been nominated six times. Picture: Massimo Masini
Before Daniel Day Lewis scored a hat-trick, make-up artist and Kildare woman Michèle Burke was Ireland’s most decorated Oscar winner

with two to her credit, for ‘Quest for Fire’ and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. She has been nominated six times. Picture: Massimo Masini

“So he became awfully serious and reached into the box and leaned over the counter and handed it to me like it was a newborn baby. By that time people were crowding around and clapping.”

The night Burke celebrated her win at the Oscars in 1993 she had to get her husband to take turns carrying the statuette. “Lugging 12 pounds around gets a bit tiring,” she says. “What’s interesting, too, I noticed about carrying an Oscar around in your hand is that the paparazzi and reporters are really only looking for a star or a well-known face with an Oscar in their hand. There is a hierarchy regardless if you’re walking around carrying a gold statuette.”

RED CARPET

The stars begin arriving at the Dolby Theatre, which has been the Oscars’ permanent home in Los Angeles since 2002, around 4pm. A train of limousines snake their way towards the theatre like a funeral cortège.

“I remember being struck by the amount of soldiers and snipers on the rooftops — with police on the ground— along the way,” says Paul Young, who was nominated for best animated Feature Film as Song of the Sea’s producer in 2015. “It was like a gauntlet of security all the way. There were four lanes of limos driving slowly along this particular route with a lot of people fenced off on the sides.”

Everyone is allowed walk on the red carpet but there are two lanes — one of which is kept for the nominees. Drink is free inside, but the intervals are short so there is a risk of being locked outside at the bar. Nominees get complimentary tickets, but any others that a film production company manages to cadge have to be paid for. Prices ranged last year from $750 to $150. There are 700 tickets available to the public in a lottery system. After the awards ceremony, there is a dinner at about 10pm.

At the Oscars lunch: Clint Eastwood, visual effects Oscar winner Joe Letteri, and Cartoon Saloon’s Paul Young.
At the Oscars lunch: Clint Eastwood, visual effects Oscar winner Joe Letteri, and Cartoon Saloon’s Paul Young.

There are no restrictions on taking photographs. Young stood alongside Clint Eastwood at the group photo for last year’s nominees at a pre-Oscars luncheon. The Hollywood legend — who was nominated for best director for his film American Sniper — happily posed for a ‘selfie’ with him.

JOLIE TIME

“It’s the ultimate networking event,” says Burke. She compares the Oscars night to an evening at the theatre. Everyone is in a good mood. “All swords are left at the door,” she says. “I remember I was sitting close to Angelina Jolie and on the way out she tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Who are you?’

“You meet a lot of people, particularly at the dinner. There’s a lot of milling around. People barely eat —they’re all hopping tables — although the food is amazing.”

If you win an Oscar, it comes with a booklet on use, which includes guidelines on how to clean the gold-plated metal statuette (best to use soapy water) and several warnings. It’s forbidden, for example, to let other people who haven’t won the Oscar pose for a picture with it. Winners are also not allowed to sell their statuettes, except back to the Academy for $1.

Burke, who is Ireland’s most- decorated Academy Award winner until you count Daniel Day-Lewis, keeps her Oscars by the fireplace in her living room in Los Angeles. “If anyone visits and they want to look at them or touch them, I always say, ‘Make a wish’,” she says. “It’s almost 100% guaranteed that they’ll close their eyes and make a wish.”

Hopefully by the end of Sunday night there will be a few more Irish people able to make a similar offer to their guests.

How do the Oscars work?

Every January, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sends ballots to its 7,000-odd members so it can round up nominees for its 24 award categories. The Academy has 17 branches for film-related crafts ranging from actors to writers. New candidates must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission.

There are four main screening centres in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and London; these are supplemented by eager distributors who send DVD screeners to Academy members who can’t always make it to one. The Academy asks members to only vote in categories in which the voter has seen all nominated films. Most voting is done online.

To counteract the old, white male reputation of the Academy that blew up around this years event, new membership rules are being introduced to encourage diversity.

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