Backstage at the Oscars: ‘Raging Bull’ and Raging Bull
April 8, 1981
Early spring, they descend upon Hollywood like snow in Tibet: producers with horror films to hustle to the studios, emaciated writers with screenplays to peddle to the producers, press agents, foreign press, unemployed actors, fans from all over the globe who want to wallow in the glamour of it all, and the Oscar nominees. The lucky ones stay at the Chateau Marmont, which is as close to civilization as you can get in a town where nothing’s close to civilization. From a Chateau window, you can see the Yoga Center on Sunset Boulevard, the Liquor Locker, Schwab’s Drug Store of Lana Turner fame, and a mammoth billboard advertising The Final Conflict.
John Hurt of The Elephant Man is registered at the Chateau, as is the Raging Bull contingent. Robert De Niro is a recluse in the penthouse, Joe Pesci occupies a fifth-floor suite, and Martin Scorsese has rented a bungalow near the pool as an office where he auditions actors for The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis will star).
Tradition has it that at 5 p.m., on Oscar night, while the sun is still shining on the Freeway, the lucky ones descend the Marmont’s carpeted staircase in thousand-dollar tuxes and evening gowns. They lean against rococo balustrades in the lobby making light conversation while chewing their fingernails to the cuticles. An unidentified idiot bangs out “Hooray for Hollywood” on the Baldwin. Limousines arrive. And in a puff, the nominees are off to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where their fates are revealed on national television.
“After they leave, we have the quietest night of the year,” says Marmont manager Sam Heigman. “But when they return at midnight, the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree:”
It is three days before the ceremony. Joe Pesci, a short, fluffy-haired New York actor who’s been nominated for supporting De Niro in Raging Bull, is quietly chewing his nails while seated on a piece of Moorish sectional in his Chateau suite. Although Pesci’s onscreen performance is full of sound and fury, offscreen he’s shy and reticent. He says he was signed for Bull after he had given up acting. He was working in a restaurant when old pal Robert De Niro told him he thought he was the right guy to play his brother in the movie.
Pesci’s not sure about the mechanics behind his nomination. “No one said anything directly, but I think it started when Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times had some good things to say about my performance. After that, United Artists took out ads every few days in the Hollywood Reporter.”
How did he find out he was nominated? “I just heard it on the radio while I was driving my car,” he says. “Then a couple of days later, I got a telegram from Marty Scorsese wishing me congratulations.”
Supporting Oscar nominations can be death to actors. It’s known as the Mercedes McCambridge syndrome; instead of being a step up, it’s a step to nowhere. Pesci received a few offers after his nomination but most were for roles in television films. He wasn’t interested. Before Raging Bull, he would have taken commercials, but television, he feels, is 10 steps backwards. He’d rather wait until another good film part comes along.
Three weeks ago, Pesci came to California to see a friend, get some sun, play golf, and just hang out. Then United Artists moved him into the Chateau Marmont. They’re paying his rent for a week, but he’s reluctant to talk up the picture. He especially doesn’t like the idea of hyping Raging Bull on TV.
“I’m not an excitable person,” he says between short telephone conversations with Scorsese and De Niro. “I can’t be doing flips for six months because I’m nominated. I grew up with the Oscars and I’m proud to be honored, but I still can’t help feeling that they made a big mistake.”
Was Pesci preparing himself for the emotional trauma of Oscar night? Yes. By not thinking about it. Should he win, he says, “I’ll not make a speech. If I did, I’d have to think of a lot of nice things to say to a lot of nice people. What I’ll probably do is talk to the actors who never receive recognition and say something inspirational to them. I’d like to say it without being dramatic.”
Joe Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton, who won for Ordinary People. He didn’t have a chance not to be dramatic.
No one is busier, glitzier, sillier, stodgier, or more sincere than Miss Rona. She is the Ed Koch of tinseltown, the populist, the moralist, the kid to kid. She is phony. She is real. She is Hollywood.
“Now, Carol,” asked Miss Rena on TV the morning after Carol Burnett won her libel suit against the National Enquirer. “Was there ever any time when the suit affected your relationship with your husband?”
“No, Rona,” answered Miss Carol, even more sincerely. “Joe has always been very supportive.”
Burnett’s victory has divided Hollywood. Drugstore cowboys at Schwab’s feel the jurors were predisposed to hate the Enquirer, If you live in Hollywood, you’ve got to be. Perhaps the Enquirer was punished far too severely, but to quote director Arthur Hiller (he’s making Making Love at Fox), “They’ve unfairly maligned so many celebrities, I’m glad Burnett responded and got her million-six.”
Yet one can’t help wondering if there is a correlation between Burnett’s suit during this Reagan conservative period and the innumerable lawsuits instituted against Confidential magazine during the McCarthy era. Ten celebrity suits are pending against the Enquirer. The L.A. Times reports “there may be an even more determined effort by the tabloid to defend itself against them.”
Burnett’s victory knocked Oscar out of the news, the weekend before the telecast. It was the talk of Hollywood.
So much tension, so much excitement, so much activity during Oscar week. Visiting here is like spending a day at the Club Baths. United Artists invites the press to meet its “new star in town,” Mrs. Frisby, the animated rat heroine of a feature-length fantasy now in production. MGM opens its Culver City gates to journalists and and sneaks scenes from Pennies from Heaven (Christopher Walken doing a bump-and-grind strip, Bernadette Peters shaking her ninotchkas in Steve Martin’s face, Steve Martin dancing incredibly well for a comedian), followed by a luncheon on a sound stage (lox, shrimp, strawberries, cheesecake, and columnist Aaron Gold), followed by a set visit (Herbert Ross directing Steve and Bernadette in a replica of Fred and Ginger’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance number)”.
Filmex is about to open with Atlantic City, the American Film Market at the Westwood Marquis Hotel has been running for a week, and the Publicists Guild gives a luncheon at the Beverly Hilton (chicken fried in canned pineapple, broccoli spears, publicist Renee Furst) at which Mary Crosby, Ron Howard, John Houseman, Natalie Wood, and Linda Purl present “showmanship” awards. Goldie Hawn gets one as “the motion picture showman of the year,” a sexist title to numb Goldie’s feminist consciousness. Accumulating pre-Oscar awards has an effect on Academy voters, but no one expects Goldie to win for Private Benjamin. And she doesn’t.
Academy voters are desensitized and lobotomized by trade paper ads: Oscar winners are judged less by the the amount of money a studio will spend to plug what it’s pushing. Warner Bros. can take out approximately 20 Hollywood Reporter ads between Christmas and Oscar night lauding Goldie for Private Benjamin (the ads undoubtedly helped her get a nomination), but Universal will top them with 30 hailing Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (an entirely new Oscar ad campaign was mounted). Major consideration is a studio’s investment in future projects for the nominee. Sissy is currently looping Raggedy Man for Universal, which the studio feels could be as big as Coal Miner’s Daughter.
If an actor doesn’t play ball with the studio, he’s forgotten at Oscar time. Barry Miller got the best reviews for Fame and should have been pushed for a supporting nomination. He bad-mouthed the film. MGM didn’t hype Miller in any of Fame‘s innumerable trade paper ads; Two years ago, Paramount took out a paltry three Hollywood Reporter ads promoting Susan Sarandon in King of the Gypsies. Susan felt she was shafted: this was her finest moment. However Paramount was pushing co-star Eric Roberts as their Travolta of the future. Susan bought a couple of ads with her own money. Neither she nor Roberts was nominated, and Roberts’s movie career came to a standstill. (Ironically, his first film since King of the Gypsies is Raggedy Man, and the word is that he’s excellent.)
At the Publicists Guild luncheon, a Universal executive explains that “it’s all up to the gods. We can only push a little.” He thinks the Academy voters might choose Eva Le Gallienne for Resurrection because she’s old and she’s got lines like “If we could only love each other the way we say we do.” If, by some fluke, Ellen Burstyn wins for Resurrection (she doesn’t) her Oscar would bring the crowds in. Moviegoers adore Resurrection, he says, but the problem all along has been getting them to see it.
“Whatever it’s worth, whatever the cynicism, Oscar symbolizes the mystique and glamour of Hollywood,” proclaims Camille Lane, Universal’s advertising director. “For those of us in the business, it is our one reaffirming moment of glory.”
Oscar means different things to different people. To the owner of the Blue Parrot in West Hollywood, it’s renting a six-foot screen and listening to customers wonder if Angie had a face lift and why Sissy doesn’t get a good hairdresser. To the display designer at Ah Men on Santa Monica Boulevard, it’s a window with a Raging Bull poster and a mannequin in red boxer shorts. To Swifty Lazar, it’s hosting yet another star-studded bash upstairs at the Bistro. To William Morris super agent Joan Hyler, “Oscar night is not just another business evening, but a ritual.”
This is Hyler’s second Oscar night. In 1975, she sat next to a nominee “who was drunker than anybody I’ve ever seen. I spent the entire evening worrying whether he’d throw up on my new Halston.”
Hyler’s date this year is client Peter O’Toole, nominated for The Stunt Man. She believes that a nomination separates an actor from his peers. It’s prestigious, of course, but you can also up a performer’s price: With some actors, like De Niro and Robert DuVall, a nomination will Solidify what they’re already earning. Mary Steenburgen’s worth should be affected because she’s new and young and on the brink of becoming a major movie star.
“For Peter O’Toole, the nomination makes Hollywood happy to have him back again. Peter’s been gone too long: he has an enormous talent. Unfortunately, you’ve got to keep reminding them. Hollywood’s a town with a very short memory,” says Hyler, whose clients include Patti Davis. The president’s daughter has done a very effective reading for a part in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, and is supposed to be in the audience at the Oscar show.
Monday morning, March 30, the day the Oscars are scheduled. The Tuxedo Center on Sunset Boulevard resembles Mamie Stover’s whorehouse in Guam during World War IL Male customers line up outside. They all look anxious. Inside, they’re measured. They fork out $50 for a day’s tuxedo rental. The price includes studs.
At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the bleachers are filled. The broadcast is still eight hours away. Fans are young. Many have brought sleeping bags, blankets, food, and portable television sets. Greg Aiken., 21, from Del Mar, arrived 36 hours ago and has been sleeping on a bench and using bathroom facilities at a nearby service station. Seven women from San Diego arrived the afternoon before and waited outside the stage door to see the stars come in to rehearse. Sissy Spacek was real nice. Donald Sutherland wore red shoes. Peter O’Toole looked tired and worn. Lily Tomlin signed autographs. Diana Ross was rude, Angie Dickinson asked, “Are you from the Enquirer?”, Robert Redford rushed in with his head down. “You can bet we won’t ski at his lodge,” says the den mother of the San Diego group, “and we’ll remember his behavior when we see his movies.”
It’s an innocent, good-spirited, picnic — more Woodstock than Day of the Locust. Several fans carry posters: “We love you Jane Fonda.” “Hooray for Sissy.” “Why isn’t Madeline Kahn nominated?” whines a bobby-soxer. “Because she doesn’t deserve to be,” snaps a teeny-bopper.
Everyone has an opinion.
Back at Schwab’s the visiting reporter asks Barbara the cashier if the drugstore’s gone Oscar crazy today.
“No, it’s gone Ronald Reagan crazy.” Has he decided to appear in person instead of on film? “No. He was shot in Washington an hour ago.”
Televisions blare from every room in the Chateau Marmont. Reagan’s in surgery. Jim Brady’s near death. Maureen Reagan is furious. Michael Reagan is saddened. Dan Rather’s in tears. The country’s gone crazy. The world’s about to collapse. Again.
The telephone rings: Joan Hyler’s secretary to say they’ve just gotten word from the Academy that the Oscars have been postponed until tomorrow. Marilyn Beck goes on ABC News to explain that the Oscar ball scheduled for the Beverly Hilton will now conflict with the closing night banquet of the American Film Market on Tuesday — caterers and florists are facing a major dilemma, and beauticians in Beverly Hills are going crazy. Later, a press agent, who’s scheduled a private party for 50, phones complaining that he can’t fit all that quiche into his freezer so he’s giving a Reagan-watch party instead. A publicist from United Artists calls explaining that he’s having a terrible time rescheduling limousines: At the Chateau’s front desk, the manager cries, “I’m in trouble. I won’t have rooms for tomorrow.” An actor in the lobby (not nominated) wonders if the assassination attempt is considered an Act of God and if Tuxedo Center will charge him another day’s rental.
Oscar nominee Mary Steenburgen calls, too. She’s feeling “real disturbed.” Mary and her husband, Malcolm McDowell, have decided to watch television and eat in. “I’m glad they cancelled the show,” she says. ”It’s inappropriate that performers receive awards tonight. Right now, I feel a great deal of rage about the lack of gun control in this country. Like everybody else, I’m feeling real sad.”
Tuesday. The themes of politics, assassination, celebrity, and movies have never been more dramatically visible than backstage on Oscar night. A block away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a bomb squad truck blares its way toward the arena. Security has been stepped up. Usually 200 guards are on duty. This year, 350 policemen, sheriff’s deputies, and private plainclothesmen patrol inside and outside the hall. Many actors bring along their own bodyguards. Richard Pryor is always within thumb’s reach of his Man Mountain Dean.
An hour before the show, word filters to the press about John Hinckley’s letters to Jodie Foster, including the final one, not mailed, confessing his unrequited love and stating, “There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.” The immediate reaction is life imitates art: Taxi Driver with Hinckley playing De Niro, minus Marty Scorsese’s direction. Especially in Hollywood, this sort of news upstages the Oscars.
Each year, before the Oscar show, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd greets celebrity arrivals and pulls them up to a makeshift stage below the bleachers. He exchanges small talk with heavy-duty nominees as well as stars of yesterday like Cesar Romero and Gale Sondergaard. They wave at the fans (Angie Dickinson: “Thank you for being so patient”) and the fans, in turn, wave back and scream their approval. Hawn, Burstyn, Spacek, Moore, Duvall, Redford, but no De Niro or Scorsese. Would they attend? As it turned out, they either arrived hours early, or sneaked in a side door.
From the sidelines, one gathers that Oscar is an affair for those giving and getting awards, their families, Los Angeles society matrons, and studio executives. It is not an all-out industry celebration. Stars in disfavor this year, such as Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch, and Al Pacino, stay away. Actors in TV series appear by the limousine-load. Bleacher babies know their faces and their TV names, but don’t know their real names
At 7 p.m., the press is allowed to enter the backstage area. We hear Reagan’s videotape welcoming speech, while 200 of us wait patiently for a lone elevator that holds 10. The press room is Kafka interpreted by Bobby Short: men in tails and women in silken gowns beat out copy on 50-year-old Remingtons in uninterrupted rows of Formica tables. Four 19-inch TV sets telecast the show, and a public relations woman keeps track of winners on a huge scoreboard, the way Nathan Detroit did in Guys and Dolls. In the TV media room, Miss Rona occupies a front row space (to Jack Lemmon: “Do you have any advice to give Timothy Hutton?” “Make Rona happy,” says Mary Tyler Moore to Lemmon. “Give Tim some advice”). In the photographer’s room, Ron Gallela leads a brigade of accredited paparazzi (free-lancers are treated like dirt and kept the same distance as the fans) all bringing their own unique vision to the very same photographs.
Had God given each journalist four eyes and ears, we’d watch the Oscars on the monitor screens at the same time we photograph or interview an entirely different set of celebrities. Instead, we have to be selective. Nastassia Kinski and Sigourney Weaver in person gorgeously win out over the best short subject presentation on the tube.
Only award winners and presenters make the backstage rounds. Losers are spared the embarrassment. Sissy Spacek is the only star to make two backstage appearances, having doled out an award for art direction, then winning one herself for best actress. Sissy says she’s relieved the awards are over: she isn’t in a celebratory mood.
Because there is so much glamour and power to select from, lesser award winners are ignored completely while their presenters are lauded and interviewed to death. Lily Tomlin appears in the press room with the winner of Special Optical Effects, but he might as well have been the incredible shrinking woman in the kitchen sink. Lily wonders why the Academy hadn’t junked the Reagan tape. “They should have made a new one from his hospital bed. That would have been an unqualified up for the people.”
Some reporters hog the stars. Radie Harris of the Hollywood Reporter hugs Tomlin. Peter O’Toole kisses Radie. Shirley Eder of the Detroit Free Press asks Lesley-Anne Down if she can check out the label on the inside of her dress — and does. Will Tusher of Variety yells, “It isn’t fair for others if the stars only talk to their friends in the media,” which prompts another journalist to yell, “They should only talk to their friends.” (Tusher is the most persistent interviewer, and asks the most inane questions. Radie and Shirley want to kill him.)
How each celebrity is treated depends on how he is perceived by the press. Mary Steenburgen, overjoyed with her supporting award for Melvin and Howard, is met with affection. Diana Ross with goggle-eyed awe. Lillian Gish with respect.
Best screenplay winner Bo (Melvin and Howard) Goldman is chatting with the press when suddenly someone says, “Hold it.” Twenty newsmen turn their backs on Goldman to watch Robert Redford deliver his acceptance speech for best director (Ordinary People). They never get back to Goldman.
Redford generates a feeling of being either above it or below it all and is not a favorite in the press room. He exudes intelligence, but his answers to questions are vague. He insists he’d never act in and direct the same film. He derides Hollywood for “the current trend toward pyrotechnics,” and says he wants to make more intimate films which deal with emotions and social conditions.
There’s something about Redford — the blondness, the coolness, the good looks, everything that’s been written about before — that must be as awkward for him as it is for the person dealing with him. He makes you feel a little grubby. No one asks him to speak out about the assassination attempt or comment on Johnny Carson’s crack about Fort Apache, Charlie Chan, and Cruising (“It was a bad year if you were a gay Chinese from the Bronx”), or about Carson’s comments on Reagan’s cuts in arts funding or about the Burnett National Enquirer decision. So you talk direction and Ordinary People.
On the other hand, Robert De Niro is painfully shy. He rarely gives interviews. The press — at least, in New York — respects him and leaves him alone. Redford directed Ordinary People but De Niro is ordinary people, and what should have been one of the most gratifying evenings of his life turns into a nightmare.
When he accepts his Oscar for Raging Bull, De Niro concludes his speech by acknowledging “the terrible things that happened in the world.” Then he takes a deep breath, clutches his trophy, and makes the backstage rounds. In the photo room, Ron Gallela asks him to hold a photograph of himself as Jake La Motta close to his face. This is not De Niro’s style, but he complies, with embarrassment. He enters the print media room as Sissy Spacek is being interviewed, and, as inconspicuously as possible listens to ebullient Sissy dispense quotes like “I’ve had the longest adolescence known to man or beast.”
Then he faces the firing squad. Because of his distance with newsmen, there is no “hi, Bob, kiss, kiss, congratulations, kiddo.” Formalities are dispensed with instantly. The topic is assassination.
Somebody asks him to comment on the reports that Hinckley had used De Niro’s part in Taxi Driver as a model for his oneway relationship with Jodie Foster.
“That’s a whole different thing that happened,” he mutters. “It’s a loaded question.” De Niro’s eyes dart around the room, avoiding the eyes of journalists. The faint smile he had offered on arrival has disappeared. So has any semblance of joy. He looks terrified.
“It’s a question I don’t want to be asked. It’s hard to answer something like that. It’s an assumption. It’s not what it is.”
But isn’t it’true that … but didn’t CBS report that … but didn’t Hinckley say that …
De Niro mumbles “I said what I had to say when I accepted the award. You’re really all very nice, but I have to go.”
And De Niro goes. He bypasses the TV room. He is spared the obligatory emotional content questions by Miss Rona. He skips the Beverly Hilton ball and heads straight back to his penthouse at the Chateau Marmont.
At midnight, the Chateau’s switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree. De Niro isn’t taking calls.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 8, 2020