ARTS; Confessions of an award junkie
One of the year's most acclaimed films, 'Leaving Las Vegas' won prizes at all the major festivals. But what's it like to have the film world at your feet? In this diary, its director, Englishman Mike Figgis, reports from Hollywood's frontline
Sunday 01 September 1996
7 JANUARY 1996, NEW YORK CRITICS' CIRCLE
As I go through immigration at JFK, the passport man scrutinises my photo and then stares at me, then back at the photo. I'm innocent of anything that he might suspect, but still I'm nervous. He looks at me, then back at the photo, he tap taps on the computer keys and then looks at the screen. Eventually, I get my passport back and he says, "Good luck with the Oscar nominations!"
The morning of the awards I woke early, jet-lagged and looked out of the window to see my first American blizzard. Quite beautiful. The snow was dry and serious. By the time the limo arrived it was laying thick and fast. Stretch limos are not ideal for blizzards and it was touch and go whether we would make it. At the Rockefeller Center some die-hard camera crews had turned up and we were all asked to do interviews as we came in. In the coming months the questions would become more than familiar.
We have the airline-style dinner and the ceremony begins. They had asked me who I would like to present the Best Film award and I'd suggested Woody Allen. Woody Allen doesn't do that sort of thing so I suggested Richard Gere. Richard accepts but is delayed by the snow and for a while it seems that Quentin T is going to do it, but then Richard makes it after all. Other winners include Terry Zwigoff (director of Crumb) and Mira Sorvino, who's here accepting an award for Woody Allen. Over the season they become very familiar faces. Speeches are made, some long, some short, some funny, some extremely boring. Nic [Cage, star of Leaving Las Vegas] is very nervous and anxious. I realise that Catherine Deneuve is sitting at the next table. Eventually our turn arrives and Nic, accepting his second award for best actor, makes a nice short speech thanking all the right people and gets off the stage. I look out of the window and see that the snow is blowing sideways and upwards. The wind howls and I wonder if we are going to get out of the venue and back to the hotel. Everyone by now is pretty ripped and it's a nice feeling. I'm glad to be in New York with all these critics but I realise that I have not prepared a speech and try to think of something clever to say. Richard is announced and makes his way on to the small stage. He speaks. First he announces that he is not sure why he accepted to come at all, given that the New York critics have not been very kind to him in the past. There is some laughter, slightly nervous. Next he points out that the Brazilian man who has just been given a special award for running an alternative cinema still owes him money from some 15 years ago when he went to the Rio Film Festival. Then he talks about me and says what a great guy I am and that the four films I have made - I point out that it is actually seven - OK, seven ...
Then he says something that slightly puts me in the shit with Nic, an actor thing, to do with the fact that maybe Richard was offered the role first and turned it down. Actors are a strange breed, constantly telling each other in shorthand that they know a thing or two that the other person does not. For a director it's a no-win situation.
Then I have to go and speak. I decide to be different. I propose a toast to Bunuel's Exterminating Angel (Catherine D visibly perks up). The glasses go up and I point to the window and the blizzard and suggest that as we are all going to be spending the night together, we had better choose a partner (laughter). I say that my first choice would be Catherine D. I'm still not sure whether she was offended or not.
17 JANUARY, LA CRITICS' CIRCLE
I'd been surprised that the LA critics had been so generous, there being such rivalry between New York and LA. The LA Times review was not good. We'd been named Best Picture and also been given Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress.
Turning up in the stretch I was surprised by how many press and TV crews were waiting outside the hotel. Autograph hunters with photographs to be signed. Where do they get the photos? More interviews of the "Did you ever imagine this little picture would get this far?" variety. But now a new question : "What hope for the Oscars?"
Inside, the format is consistent. Honorary awards are given for this and that. Some of the speeches are funny, some are not. All are long and the food is still of the airline variety. This is a weekday lunch and people have to go back to work so the awards are given out while we eat. Several hundred people trying to use a knife and fork quietly is a very interesting sound. At one point a journalist was making a plea for Third World disease awareness and spoke passionately about diarrhoea. At this point the tonality of the massed utensils became momentarily muted. The Best Director award was presented at the end and again I'd decided not to write a speech but to wait for inspiration. Late in the meal it came. Just before my moment, I borrowed a hardback book from one of the critics, took off its dust jacket and walked on to the stage with it. I said that I felt that everything that had to be said had already been said and at times like this there was no better thing to do than fall back on the classics (this being the year of Jane Austen). I opened the book and announced I was going to read the third chapter of War and Peace. The look of horror on the audience's faces was pretty good and their laughter due to sheer relief.
21 JANUARY, GOLDEN GLOBES
On a cold wet day in London the news came through that the film had been nominated for the Globes. This is an event that up until fairly recently had been thought of as a bit of a joke - the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's annual get-together. Now, like all the other awards, it has taken on weight and is another excuse for everyone to practise for the Oscars. It also has a significant effect on the marketing of the film. MGM pump in more P and A [promotion and advertising] money and the film goes a little bit wider. Annie Stewart, the producer of Leaving Las Vegas, calls me from LA to tell me that Armani would like to be my tailor for the event. This is interesting. Armani has not been so aggressive in the past, but in recent years Hugo Boss has been and Quentin T and the boys are wearing his stuff (as well as Nic). Thank God, say I, it's time the guys like me got some attention and I accept his offer with indecent haste in case he was kidding or changes his mind. A couple of days later I get a little card from Versace with the same offer. Too late, my friend, I'm playing on Giorgio's team now. I have a fitting and choose a fab tux. Wanda, my new best friend, tells me that Giorgio would like to make me something special for the Oscars. I point out to her that the nominations have yet to be announced and she gives me an old-fashioned look and says that Giorgio has seen the film and is in no doubt that I am going to be nominated. This is one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me ... in my life ... so far. Have you ever tried to wear an award?
The day arrives and the limo turns up at the hotel to pick up my wife, Bienchen, and me. Unfortunately, LA is having a biannual rain storm. Tropical stuff. The limo is old. On days like this they must get every stretch ever built out of mothballs, a bit like a Battle of Britain fly- past. As we set off it strikes me as funny that in NY it snowed and here it is still raining. But I'm feeling damned good in the tux from Giorgio (and the shoes and the shirt and the beret). Suddenly a huge deluge of water comes through the roof on to us. The sunroof has a leaky seal and a backlog of rain water must have been building up for some time. The limo driver is an extremely nice man from the East Coast who doesn't know his way around town so I, the Brit, direct him ...
We eventually arrive at the Beverly Hilton, the venue for a lot of these awards. They have laid out a massively long red carpet on which we walk into the hotel. It is now at saturation point and as we step on to its thick luxuriance, we sink up to our ankles in wet carpet, stopping every three or four yards to chat to the press, the way we've all seen Charles and Di do on walkabouts. The press are safely cordoned off behind rope barriers. Flash, flash, flash. "Mike ... Mike, this way, CNN, Mike, BBC, Mike. Did you ever think this little old film would? ... Are you nervous?" (No.) "What do you think your chances are at the Oscars?" (Haven't a clue.)
Once inside we make our way to the table, which has a number and place names. Apparently some early arrivals, not happy with their table's proximity to the stage, have switched table numbers and a modicum of anarchy and confusion is rife. Seasoned waiters seem to have spotted the ruse, but are unable to find the culprits. Heads are swivelling as celebs are spotted: Tom, Nicole, Mel, Michelle, Nic, Patricia, Tom (the other one), Sean (the elder), Pitt (the younger), Meryl and, of course, Sharon. Without wanting to name-drop, I can tell you that I'd spent the afternoon just the day before with Ms Stone and she'd shown me her outfit (Valentino, of course) and her closet. She also gave me a brooch to wear for good luck, but I couldn't find anything to pin it on to so I brought it in my pocket in case we bumped into each other, at which point I'd have whipped it out, so to speak, and held it to my chest or somewhere.
The airline food was served and the wine wasn't too bad, until they took it all away. This was because the event was being sponsored by a champagne company and they'd insisted that the only alcohol in evidence had to be theirs. Huge bottles of champagne were opened and placed on every table. I never saw anyone drink any. What a waste. Water, on the other hand, had to be paid for. The live telecast began and I watched the cameramen and crew with real admiration as they wiggled their way through the sardine seating and lined up the correct shot for the next nomination. "Excuse me, are you so and so?" "No, that's him there." "Thanks a lot, pal." For some reason the Director awards were very early on and I clapped heartily as Mel Gibson went up to thank the world. "I see," I thought to myself, grinning cheerfully to the cameras in case they wanted a reaction shot, which they didn't.
Next we went into TV award hell, something that blissfully will be absent from the Oscars, and which alone makes the Oscars special. "And the award for child acting in a day-time soap goes to..." Elisabeth [Shue, co-star of Leaving Las Vegas] doesn't get her award, Sharon does and she says exactly what she'd told me she'd say, "No one is more surprised than I am." She says a lot more and the tele-prompter behind us (but in front of her) starts to flash something like "Get off! Get off!" Sharon has had to deal with far worse than that and takes her time. Nic does win and makes a nice speech, but forgets to mention Annie until the last moment where his mind clearly goes quite blank. Travolta forgets to thank his wife but does thank Ron Hubbard (which later is put forward as a theory as to why he doesn't get nominated for an Oscar). Brad thanks his woman and the manufacturer of an anti-diarrhoea product and then it is all over, and about a thousand people head for the exit and their stretch limos. If you lined up all the stretch limos in LA...? We never find ours and have to cadge a lift with someone else. This limo driver also doesn't know LA so we have to direct him via the intercom phone in the back. We party hop for a while. Celebs everywhere and they treat me as if ... I was a celeb. Amazing. I notice that I'm leaving much bigger tips. You need balls to get out of a limo in an Armani suit in front of a bunch of photographers without giving a large tip to an incompetent driver. It does lead to a more profound understanding of the workings of the culture of the town known as LA.
13 FEBRUARY, ACADEMY NOMINATIONS
The nominations are announced very early in the morning in LA so that they can be watched in New York. For some reason I do not set my alarm clock and wake up 20 minutes late. I turn on the TV in time to hear the announcer say: "And that must be a huge disappointment for the Leaving Las Vegas team." I flick from channel to channel and only hear snippets. Sense and Sensibility seems to have done well. Babe seems to have done very well. Dead Man Walking seems to have done well. Il Postino seems to have done very well. Leaving Las Vegas ... "What happened there, Pete?" I turn on the radio and begin dialling through the waveband while channel hopping on the TV. The phone rings and my assistant, Amanda, congratulates me from London. I ask her to put me out of my misery: four nominations but no Best Picture. The next day the trades all have big stories asking why we did not get the Best Picture nomination. As I avidly scan them I realise, sadly, that I have become an award junkie and Roman Polanski's advice has been temporarily cast aside. Actually his advice was about reviews: "If you believe the good ones then you have to believe the bad ones too." TV crews arrive at my house. The phone rings immediately. Everyone wants a quote or a funny "What were you doing when you heard the news?" story. I tell them I was asleep, but no one prints it. They all want to know if I am upset about the absence of a Best Picture nomination. The truth is I am not. It all seems slightly insane and I have a terrible headache. It makes hardly a ripple in the English press. I can't work out if I am insulted or not. Have I really become an award junkie?
13 MARCH, ACADEMY NOMINEES' LUNCH, LA
Back to the Beverly Hilton, same room, different decor, same food, quick waiters. No stretch limo today; I drive myself. Lots of cameras and press. People have told me that today will be fun. Quincey Jones, who is running the show this year, gives us a lecture on how to receive the award, how to walk (quickly), how to talk (quickly) and what not to do, which turns out to be what everyone will do, namely thank everyone in the world. We all pose for a huge group photograph and then one by one, in alphabetical order, we all walk on to the stage and get a certificate proving that we are nominated, a sweatshirt and a poster. I, being a double nominee, get two certificates (but only one sweatshirt).
25 MARCH, OSCARS, LA
Some time ago I went to the Armani store in Beverly Hills and had a fitting for my special tuxedo. I think the design I chose was something they were hoping to get Quentin T to wear but he went over to Hugo Boss. It's a long coat with a velvet collar and silver lining. The lining was my idea; I have an ego as well. The week before the Oscars the coat turns up but it's all wrong, not a long coat but standard length. They are very contrite in the store and fax Milan and promise me that it will be made in time for the big night. Eventually it does turn up and is very special, but the day I go to pick it up they tactfully ask me to leave before Mel Gibson arrives. The fitting-room has racks of clothes in it waiting to be picked up by the chosen.
On the morning of the Oscars I try and sleep late and have a normal breakfast. In fact, I am not in the slightest bit nervous and am in complete agreement with David Thomson's predictions (which, for the most part, prove to be accurate). My entire family has joined me at the Chateau Marmont and it is interesting to see what my two sons look like in tuxedos. My daughter chooses to wear an antique dress that I bought a long time ago in a shop in Devon. My wife has borrowed a diamond necklace from a store in Beverly Hills and my two sons set off in a taxi armed with IDs to pick it up. The necklace is valued at about $650,000 and it's handed over without a murmur.
The inevitable stretch limo turns up and we depart at about 3pm. It's very hot in the back and the driver, a young girl called Laura, sets off over Laurel Canyon, which is a very winding road. The windows do not open from the back and we have to ask her to do it. It feels like we're schoolchildren on an outing. We drive into the valley and get on a freeway and about 40 minutes into the journey we drive past the Sunset Boulevard exit, about a half mile from the hotel. We see lots of other limos heading in the same direction. As we get closer to the theatre we see some helicopters circling. We join a huge line of limos and creep forward. Out of the window we see a huge crowd. Some people are holding banners with religious right- wing statements: "Homo Sex is a Sin", "Sex is a Sin", etc, etc. Jesse Jackson is boycotting the event because there are no black nominees. There are also no Hispanic nominees or Asian, for that matter. Our windows are dark but people press their faces against the glass, trying to work out if we mean anything. It's very hot in the back. Suddenly we are there and doors are opened violently by a team of red-coated flunkies. The noise of the helicopters is incredible and we are urged onto a red carpet and announced over a PA system. The rest of my family go ahead while my wife and I walk the line from camera to camera. Live interviews start. It's impossible to hear properly or to think straight and I have no recollection of any conversation. As I wait behind Claudia Schiffer and her magician, I become aware that my foot is stuck to the red carpet, courtesy of a huge wedge of bubblegum which some celebrity has dropped. The gum dogs my footsteps all evening. Eventually we get into the theatre. It is impossible not to peer into the faces for a famous name. We make our way to our allocated seats. It seems that all nominees have aisle seats. Rod Steiger makes himself known as a fan of the film. Anthony Hopkins says hello. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman say hello. Sharon Stone says hello. I wish everyone luck and realise afterwards that half of them are guests and not nominees.
At this point it is still exciting. An atmosphere of something about to happen. The show starts. Three and a half hours later it finishes and by that time I am very depressed and bored. Nic wins his award, Elisabeth and I do not. It's a huge relief that it is over and that this is the final ceremony. Here are a few images from the three and a half hours:
Christopher Reeve is revealed in the middle of the stage in a wheelchair. He makes a very moving speech and I find myself in tears. He gets a standing ovation, but as he finishes we go into a commercial break and a barrier slowly comes down between him and us. As the barrier is coming down we see on a huge TV screen a Revlon commercial by Cindy Crawford. I found the two images together quite disturbing. At the break there is a stampede for the bar, the only place where smoking is permitted. Substitute guests come in to fill all the empty seats.
Richard Dreyfuss is sitting in front of me. He has his teenage daughter with him. During every break she gets a mobile phone out of her bag and makes calls. Later, Steven Spielberg does a nice speech leading up to Kirk Douglas's honorary award. Kirk walks with difficulty and has problems with his speech after his recent stroke. A mobile phone rings and young Ms Dreyfuss makes a cute "whoops" gesture and turns it off. A cameraman fights his way down our row to get a shot of someone behind us. He shoulders my wife aside and supports his weight on her shoulder. She tries to get out of his way and he tells her, annoyed, "Relax". The only moment of genuine audience response was to the English group Stomp, who managed to get something cooking for a short moment. There seemed to be a bit of an obsession with death; the idea that film gives some kind of immortality and that the ageing or the dying of actors is some kind of special event, different from ordinary folk.
It was also clear that the technical awards seemed to reflect some kind of internal carve-up. Personally, I thought that the editing and sound and music on Leaving Las Vegas were special and certainly as good as anything being feted that evening.
After the Best Actor award came up, I had a feeling that Nic was not going to get it. When he did I experienced a huge drop in energy and a wave of depression, which I suppose was due to relief that it was now all over at last. It has been a somewhat uncomfortable period to be in, and yet not in, this special club.
After the awards there was a "Governors Ball", to which my kids were not invited. We made plans to meet up later. The ball was chaos. Winners walked around with heavy trophies not quite knowing what had hit them and not knowing what to do with the things. Much hugging, congratulating and consoling. A man approached me and wanted to know why there was no "back story" in Leaving Las Vegas. I sat at a table with Nic's mother and his grandmother. The food was good, but they were not hungry so quite sensibly took it home with them in a plastic bag. I said a quick thing or two to Nic and then gave him back to the mob. We ate quickly and left.
Outside there was anarchy as everyone tried to find their limo. I gave my number and waited for an hour and a half. During that time, waiting in harsh tungsten light, I said hello to Robin Williams, another fan, it seems. We fell into conversation with lots of people, the way you would waiting for a bus. A mugger's paradise. Eventually we found our driver, who informed us that she had been parked 20 yards away waiting for her call. We set off for the next rendezvous. More traffic jams, more circuitous driving. Spago and the Miramax party. We got in, but my kids were held back. I kicked up a fuss and they got in. As I did so, it crossed my mind that as a loser I might not have the same clout I had as a nominee, but my change in status had not filtered through yet. I attempted to get drunk and, with Stephen Rea, eventually succeeded.
The next morning I had a complete hangover. Part alcohol abuse, part award-season abuse. But I survived.
! A longer version of Mike Figgis's diary appears in 'Projections 6: Film- makers on Film-making' (pounds 9.99, Faber & Faber paperback, out now), edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue.
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