Book Review: “50 Oscar Nights” – Moviemakers’ Magical Memories

By Ed Symkus

This is a handsome, smallish (7 1/2 x 9 1/2) hardcover coffee table book, brimming with photos, and structured into brief, bite-sized chapters. Part of the fun is that it’s a volume you can pick up, put down, pick up again, and never worry about losing the mood or flavor.

50 Oscar Nights: Iconic Stars and Filmmakers on Their Career-Defining Wins by Dave Karger. Running Press, 264 pp.

About a year ago, I reviewed The Academy and the Award, a detail-heavy chronicle of the storied history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Oscar — the glistering golden statuette the organization annually bestows upon deserving (and sometimes undeserving) members of the Hollywood community.

While that book suffered from a few dry spots, 50 Oscar Nights is a joy from beginning to end. Subtitled “Iconic Stars & Filmmakers on Their Career-Defining Wins,” it’s the creation of Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger, who admits in the first line of the book’s introduction that he’s been obsessed with the Oscars since he was 11 (he’s now 50).

His concept here, which has been pulled off with aplomb, was to track down folks who have been awarded Oscars — in categories ranging from Best Actor-Actress-Director-Original Screenplay to Best Picture-Documentary Feature-Original Song-Costume Design. The whole gamut. He settled on landing 50 of them, conducted interviews, got them to share thoughts (both serious and silly) of what was going through their heads leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of their wins, and then pared down their responses into a series of categorized subjects.

There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason concerning the order of the book. For some reason the narrative begins with Nicole Kidman’s memories of being named Best Actress for The Hours in 2003 (“After not having a very good time at the Vanity Fair party, “I went home and ended up ordering takeout and eating it on the floor of the Beverly Hills Hotel.”), and it concludes with Meryl Streep, Best Actress winner for Sophie’s Choice in 1983, admitting that the dress she wore to the ceremony was on backwards.Why? That way the garment’s train covered her belly and hid the fact that she was six months pregnant.

Nicole Kidman holding the Oscar she won for The Hours in 2003. Photo: Wiki Common

The stories told in between those two are all over the place, in a good way. J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash, 2015) recalled the emotional strain of playing such a controlling character as his maniacal Fletcher, and how director Damien Chazelle “wisely scheduled the screaming scenes a couple of days apart so I could literally physically recover and get my voice back.” Clint Eastwood (Director, Unforgiven, 1993) said, of the moment he heard his name announced, “In my mind, I was definitely not going to get Director; I was the least likely guy to get it. So, when I got it, I was discombobulated.” Aaron Sorkin (Adapted Screenplay, The Social Network, 2011) talked about a rule he had always followed: “I’ve never voted for myself. I think it’s a little weird, and I somehow consider it bad luck. For the life of me, I can’t remember who I voted for in my category.” Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh shared a combined six Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 2004). Jackson tells us that the Oscars are in their office and that each has a Post-it note attached with a name: Neville, Muzza, Trevor, Lysander, Brent, and Gary.

This is a handsome, smallish (7 1/2 x 9 1/2-inch) hardcover coffee table book, brimming with photos, and structured into brief, bite-sized chapters. Part of the fun is that it’s a volume you can pick up, put down, pick up again, and never worry about losing the mood or flavor.

My only insignificant quibble with 50 Oscar Nights is that Karger seems to have gone out of his way to ask many of his female subjects the very tired question: “What were you wearing?” They all happily complied, but I felt it was one-sided of him not to ask their male counterparts. So, I was thrilled when, apparently impulsively, Keith Carradine (Original Song, Nashville, 1976) said, “I came of age as a ’60s hippie…. I had no fashion sense. But I went and rented this tuxedo. It had a ruffled shirt. Oh, my! And the tuxedo itself was brown. It’s on YouTube, and you can look at it, and if you really pay attention, you can see: That’s a brown tuxedo.”

Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. Among his accomplishments: He went to Woodstock, interviewed Albert Brooks, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Hicks, and Christopher Nolan, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, Capri, and the Isle of Wight with his wife Lisa.

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