Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive • The Glamour, The Glitz, The War • Kate O’Toole

Kate O'Toole @ Colm Henry 1995

Kate O’Toole @ Colm Henry 1995

When I’m not working either on stage or on location somewhere, I live in grand seclusion at the end of a remote peninsula in Connemara, in the same area where I happily spent much of my childhood. Normally I feel blessed to have made my home so far from the madding crowd and in such a beautiful part of the world, but these past few weeks have been anything but normal and there were several moments recently when I cursed the fact that I had chosen to live in a region which teeters over the wild Atlantic shoreline because although it has much to recommend it, as a place where one can get glitzed-up and ready to go to the Oscars it’s completely and utterly useless.

The fuss began back in January while my father was staying with me for a short holiday. The unexpected news that he was to receive an honorary Oscar didn’t actually come from the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) but had in fact been leaked to the press weeks in advance of any official announcement from them; Peter therefore found himself in the incredibly bizarre position of reading about his upcoming award in the newspapers one otherwise leisurely Sunday morning, like everybody else.

It didn’t seem to be possible. Having ascertained that it was actually truth, not some mad rumour, he immediately asked the Academy if they could defer the honour until he was 80. Like any actor worth his salt he would prefer to win an Oscar in competition (he has been nominated seven times) because magnificent though such an accolade is, there are inescapable intimations of mortality which hover about the dread words ‘Lifetime Achievement’. As Clint Eastwood said when he picked up his honorary Screen Actor’s Guild award a few weeks ago: “I hope this doesn’t mean I have to retire now, because that just isn’t my style”.

Artistic pursuits aren’t the same as regular 9 – 5 jobs which many people want to escape from once they reach a certain age. Creative people rarely retire from what constitutes the very fabric of their lives, we enjoy what we do far too much (and usually have far too little job security) to contemplate such a thing as retirement, at any age. Peter’s career is still going strong, he made three movies back-to-back last year and starts filming a wonderful part in the upcoming blockbuster Troy with Brad Pitt later this month. I can appreciate how being reminded of one’s old age, for whatever reason, must be quite horrid when both the lifetime and the achievements are hopefully far from over yet.

Peter soon learned that the Oscar was non-negotiable, however, it was already a done deal. That’s when the realization began to sink in that far from being a consolation prize, an honorary Oscar such as this is the highest recognition one can hope to receive in the film industry. Unlike the other Oscars they aren’t handed out every year. Previous recipients include veritable cultural icons such as Henry Fonda and Charlie Chaplin. This is heady stuff indeed. Being the loving father that he is, he wanted his family to be with him on such an occasion and kindly asked if I would attend the ceremony along with my brother, Lorcan. We were delighted to oblige — my peaceful existence in Connemara began to unravel.

First item on the agenda was getting hold of The Frock, some suitably glamorous ballgown which would hold its own amongst the Hollywood glitterati at their most excessive. Not a lot of those to be found in among the gardening clothes, sensible shoes and sailing jackets which take up most of the space in my closets. There are a couple of posh frocks lurking in among the mothballs which are hauled out and dusted down for awards ceremonies of the more domestic variety here at home or in England, but really nothing that could cope with Los Angeles cranked up to maximum volume.

Being an actress myself, I decide to approach the whole enterprise as if it were simply a job which had to have the correct costume. Applying this discipline saves one from losing one’s mind when presented with the dizzying array of choices from designers who are more than keen to supply you with something to wear, gratis, when they know it’s going to be seen by a television audience of roughly a billion people worldwide. If you are an actual nominee, though, it gets better. The designers not only give you truckloads of gear but they also pay you to wear it. During the pre-Oscar run up nominees and presenters can expect to receive little gifts — bribes we call them here — of shoes, cosmetics, luggage, clothing, whatever, which can easily reach several thousands of dollars in value. They also receive ‘goodie bags’ as presents from the academy which are worth about $30,000 each. That’s not a misprint, that’s thirty thousand. Hollywood during Oscar season would definitely give Versailles a run for its money.

Then there are the gemstones which start being flung around Beverly Hills like so much confetti. One shop on Rodeo Drive tells me over the phone that I can borrow up to three million dollar’s worth of jewels before I’m required to get a bodyguard as well. I’m in the middle of trying to light a turf fire during this conversation and I can’t help giggling, it all sounds so absurd. Being tailed by an off-duty cop or wrestler while I stagger under the weight of my Harry Winston’s all night long would, I fear, somehow cramp my style and dampen my party mood, so I decline the offer. It also strikes me as rather common and stupid to go to so much trouble simply to advertise somebody else’s wares. It can’t feel very nice to wear something so beautiful and then have to return it the next day either; diamonds really should be forever. I don’t have any and am quite happy to wear paste instead. People who should know better but are nevertheless caught up in all the hype are aghast when I announce (correctly) that the fake stuff looks better on TV anyway and that this is only showbiz after all, not real life.

One trip to Dublin and one trip to London later I am secure in the knowledge that with a drop-dead gorgeous, blood-red silk georgette gown from Vivienne Westwood, my Oscar wardrobe and accessories have been sorted out in plenty of good time before the upcoming event. Boy, was I wrong. After an un-relaxing few weeks back home where I am now being buried beneath a daily avalanche of emails and letters marked ‘urgent’ from everyone involved with organising our soon-to-be hectic itineraries, I go back to London again in order to meet up with Peter and Lorcan so we can all travel out to LA together.

The day before we are due to fly off, war is declared on Iraq and blood-red suddenly sounds like a really bad idea. An old friend, Ricci Burns, who owns a terrifyingly expensive shop in Bond St. comes to the rescue with a minimum of fuss at the final hour and supplies me with something black but not boring. It is perfect. The Vivienne Westwood still gets packed though as there are many other (non-televised) parties to attend during the build-up. It feels surreal to be worrying about something as frivolous as clothes during a time like this.

Day One
We arrive three days before the ceremony is to take place. Meeting us at the airport are many fans wanting autographs and a long stretch limo which is spacious enough to house a homeless Iraqi family. There are doubts and misgivings about being here at all, under the circumstances. At best the outbreak of war makes the Oscars seem irrelevant, at worst it makes them appear tasteless. The Academy is in a state of disarray, there are rumours that the event may not even go ahead as planned. Peter remains unperturbed either way, having been here before for his My Favourite Year nomination when President Reagan was shot and the ceremony was postponed. It seems that wherever he goes, chaos follows. The ever-shifting tension between escapist entertainment and violent global conflict is making the logistics behind this year’s Oscar show complex, to say the least.

It is announced that the red carpet plus its attendant publicity is to be cancelled, the official thinking being that it’s probably best to proceed but in muted fashion. We’re talking Oscar Lite here and the subsequent weeping and wailing from some of the stars and the Ladies Who Lunch is a tangible presence in the tobacco-free but smog laden air. My last minute panic about what to wear is as nothing compared to the hysteria of those who have ‘been in close consultation with their designers since December’ and who have even undergone plastic surgery in readiness for their moment in front of the world’s press on the red carpet.

As far as the O’Toole family is concerned, we’re relieved to be spared that particular ordeal. The red carpet normally extends for a couple of city blocks, three hundred members of the press are installed upon it, the limousines disgorge their celebrities at one end and it can take a full hour or more to slowly make your way to the Kodak theatre’s entrance at the other end. Getting out of the limo and being able to walk straight into the theatre strikes us as being infinitely more civilised, not to mention kinder on the feet.

Day Two
It’s not possible to maintain any perspective on the outside world when you are living in the hermetically sealed and self-obsessed little community that is Hollywood during Oscar week. The news is depressing, so I switch it off and focus on the immediate job in hand. The main order of business today is to attend a luncheon for Peter at Orso’s which is being hosted by the people directly and indirectly involved with the making of My Favourite Year. The director, Richard Benjamin, is in attendance along with Paul Mazurszky, various veteran comic scriptwriters and many other delightful ‘old Hollywood’ types such as a long-since retired agent who once managed both Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando (when he was busy). Mel Brooks presides over the table and the idea is to have fun, which we do. As the stories from the days of live television flow,

I am struck by the wealth of experience assembled here, how genuinely funny and talented they all are, how modest and low-key also. No one behaves like a star nor is there a bodyguard in sight. Mel regales us with anecdotes from when he first began his career, working as a rookie writer on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. Apparently he’d been locked in a room for nine solid hours one day, trying to come up with gags for the show when he asked if he could perhaps have a short break and get a little fresh air to clear his head. An outraged Sid Caesar opened a window, grabbed him by the ankles, upended him and dangled him outside, yelling “Air? You want air? There! Is that enough air for you now, you schmuck!” You couldn’t imagine that happening to a writer nowadays could you, just think of the lawsuits… Through these marvellous people and their stories from a bygone age it is possible to touch the last days of Vaudeville and this, to me, is the real Hollywood.

Day Three
We have many cocktail parties and one ball to go to in the evening, all of which require different outfits. I anticipate a lot of costume changes later on (they’re obsessed about dress codes for everything here) and there’s no time to lounge around by the nice Hockney-esque pool because I have to go to a spa which has been recommended to me by Anjelica Huston in order to do something about my sub-standard European grooming; after that there’s a rehearsal call at the theatre. The approaching roads to the Kodak have already been sealed off, the police sharpshooters are figuring out their rooftop positions, helicopters are buzzing overhead, everyone except those of us who are Irish seems to be very jittery about a possible terrorist attack. The tight security is a pain in the ass and looks like overkill to me. Passports have to be brought everywhere, hundreds of irritating bits of paper and laminated limo passes and show passes and God knows what else all have to be gathered and presented at all times. It doesn’t feel very festive, it’s more like a taste of what it must be like to live under a police state.

We arrive at the theatre via a secret route which brings us not to the entrance, but into a large, dingy, underground car park beneath the building. This is where we must queue up to have our mugshots taken and affixed to yet more laminated cards. Dustin Hoffman has just gone through a metal detector, I’m behind him, Meryl Streep is behind me, being searched. I don’t know about you but I never pegged the lovely Ms. Streep as being a likely terrorist threat but rules is rules, I suppose. In deference to all these stars milling about in the car park it has been tarted up with lavish floral decorations and red velvet drapes all over the place, but this doesn’t really disguise the fact that it’s still a car park. The flower arrangements were created by some very famous party stylist. What with this lunatic subterranean décor and my experience at the spa earlier where I was attended to by a Beverly Hills manicurist who was far more glamorous than me, I am put in mind of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, and little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum’.  In Hollywood there are not only celebrities aplenty, but there are celebrity decorators, celebrity reflexologists and probably celebrity pool-cleaners too.

Finally, we clear security and go backstage where I am introduced to one of the most important people involved with getting this show on the road, Bruce Vilanch, the man who has written the jokes for the Oscar hosts for the past 10 years or more. He’s been under fierce pressure because all the gags that had been scripted weeks ago (for example, Steve Martin was planning to address the Iraqi leader and say: “I hope your connection goes out just before we announce best picture”) have been jettisoned because they’re obviously inappropriate now that the war is actually happening. Vilanch is wearing a T-shirt which reads ‘Don’t harass the unmedicated person’. He is a delightfully jolly man of considerable girth whose sharp eyes twinkle at you from behind impossibly thick spectacles. When Meryl took a picture of Peter, Lorcan and myself standing in front of a huge Oscar statuette in the artist’s greenroom, Bruce ruined the shot by making her fall backwards with laughter as he stepped into the frame saying: ‘The O’Toole family – and their pet Jew’ just as she was about to click the shutter. I notice that, again, it is the old-timers who behave best. Younger stars make demands and flounce around being not very pleasant while people like Olivia De Havilland, Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons sit quietly in unlit corners, minding their own business, adjusting their clothes, practising their moves and not bothering anyone. It felt good to be backstage, the banter and the familiar atmosphere of a straightforward rehearsal lessen the pre-show tension somewhat.

The Big Day
As usual, I awake at 4 a.m. because I’m still on Connemara time. It occurs to me that I probably won’t get to bed until the same hour the following day. Breakfast takes place outdoors in beautiful 80 degree weather, not a cloud in the turquoise sky, but we can’t stop to enjoy any of that as we have to be camera-ready and sitting in the limo by 3 p.m. and there is much to do. Along the route there are small pockets of anti-war protestors, but as soon as they spot a celebrity they stop protesting and start screaming for autographs instead. They appear to be the same crowd we met at the airport.

By the time I sit into my seat in the auditorium I am completely exhausted from parties, hangovers, jet-lag, fuss, costume changes, photographers and stress. I have a nervous rash which I won’t be able to scratch for the next five hours as we’re under the microscope and seated in the Royal Box (or presidential equivalent thereof) which isn’t heavily featured during the telecast but is the most visible position in the entire auditorium, as befits the guest of honour.

I’ve already heard Peter’s speech and am mightily pleased when it is so well received by the audience. He struck just the right note by managing to be above it all and yet very much a part of it. After all the hype and the nonsense we were delighted and refreshed when we witnessed the Academy functioning at its very best by rewarding good, honest, deserving work. The hot favourites turned out to be not so hot after all, while Polanski, Chris Cooper and Adrien Brody triumphed. It was exciting. Michael Moore spiced things up with his ‘shame on you’ speech, while the usually outspoken Susan Sarandon — sensing career suicide — made do with the peace gesture.

Although the show lasts far too long, after all the preparations it seemed to be over very quickly, like Christmas dinner, and before we knew where we were, we were heading off to the Governor’s Ball without the necessary paperwork, so we nearly didn’t get in to that. A woman started shouting on Peter’s behalf at a beefy gentleman wearing a tuxedo and a firearm, ‘For God’s sake – this man’s just won an Oscar! Let him in!’ but this cut very little ice. Finally the mess was sorted out by an official who wasn’t an out-of-work wrestler and we gained access but by then we wanted to head over to the Vanity Fair party instead. There, we partied into the wee small hours and had a complete blast. Several luminaries — who know what they’re talking about — told me that my frock was the best in the room. That’s what I call a result. The following day I bade my father farewell at the airport as he had to fly back to London and I had to fly on to Hawaii for a well earned rest.

I last saw Peter trying to get through X-ray machines and metal detectors which reacted badly to the hefty Oscar now nestling in his hand-baggage. When post 9/11 security can be thrown for a loop by a small pair of nail scissors, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they had to shut down LAX in order to cope with such a potentially lethal weapon.

Kate O’Toole © March 2003

This article was first published in Ireland on Sunday and re-posted in Rogues & Vagabonds on Sunday 13 April 2003 at the suggestion and permission of Kate O’Toole.

2 comments on “Archive • The Glamour, The Glitz, The War • Kate O’Toole

  1. First Night Design

    Reblogged this on Rogues & Vagabonds.

  2. M E Cheshier

    Great read! Thank you!

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