The destination for history

At the Oscars with producer Michael Deeley


It is the night of the Oscars, 9 April 1979, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Inimitable master of ceremonies Johnny Carson announces the presenter of the last and most important award category, Best Picture – and the audience is astonished to see John Wayne mount the stage.

‘The Duke’, seventy-one years old and terribly afflicted by stomach cancer, has made an extraordinary effort to be here. In the course of the previous year’s ceremony MC Bob Hope sent a get-well to Wayne from the podium, inviting him to amble down in person next year. And now here he is. The audience’s ovation is prolonged, and all the more moving because Wayne’s obvious and uncharacteristic frailty suggest that he is losing his well-documented battle with the disease. (In fact, this would be his last appearance in public: two months later he was gone.)

I was among that audience – an English film producer and Academy member of ten years’ standing, yet this was the first time I had ever attended the Oscar ceremony. I was nominated for a picture called The Deer Hunter, and had spent the last five hours waiting nervously to learn the names in the sealed envelope between Wayne’s shaky fingers. Robert De Niro, the star of our film and fellow nominee, wasn’t in the audience, such was the state of his own nerves. He had asked the Academy if he could sit out the show backstage, but no permission was forthcoming, and so De Niro chose to stay at home in New York. From my place in the stalls I had slowly come round to the view that De Niro had spared himself a good deal of grief.

An Oscar nomination can be a life-changing marvel for a filmmaker, but if your nomination is for Best Picture then you must accept that you are in for an interminable evening. The Academy demands that attendees be seated by 5:30 p.m., but you are unlikely to hear your fate any time before eleven o’clock. This comes, moreover, at the end of a peculiarly long day. A limo arrives to fetch you at 2:30 p.m. and off you go in full evening dress on a bright sunny afternoon – an object of curiosity to everyone in your neighbourhood. Faces peer through the window as your limo creeps along the line towards the theatre entrance, awash with press, TV cameras and avid movie fans. But it’s all worth it, no question, for the glitziest event in the Hollywood calendar. And yet the actual making of the film for which I was nominated had been one of the more unpleasant experiences of my career.

The adventure had begun when I bought a first-draft script called The Man Who Came to Play for the modest sum of $19,000. By the time I produced it as The Deer Hunter I was president of EMI Films Inc., but before then I had taken the project to every studio in Hollywood, all of whom decided to pass. The standard response was that ‘no American would want to see a picture about Vietnam’. I was constantly amazed by this argument, because the film that became The Deer Hunter was never a ‘Vietnam movie’. (In the completed film the depiction of combat runs to about thirty seconds of screen time, and that is that.) But in the early days the illusion around the project persisted. Still, no producer worth their salt can afford to take ‘No’ for an answer. But even after I found financing, I had then to battle the antics of the film’s director, amid the complications of what turned out to be an arduous post-production. I had worked with such famously taxing temperaments as Sam Peckinpah and Lindsay Anderson, and lived to tell the tale. I hired Michael Cimino, firstly to work on the script of The Man Who Came to Play and then, if that experience worked out, to direct the picture.

In short, the picture had been a travail. I thought it just possible, though, that a golden statuette might compensate me for the whole experience. But the competition posed by our fellow nominees was tough. Academy membership is by invitation and covers the full spectrum of people working in film, from producers and directors to wardrobe and make-up. There is a myth which floats around the Academy that there are four bases upon which the average member decides his vote. His first cast will always be for any picture with which he is connected, however remotely. If there is no such picture, then he will vote in a way to spoil the chances of any enemy he may have. Category three is that he will vote for a friend, irrespective of the quality of the work. The fourth category – not that it usually gets this far – is that he will vote exactly as his judgement tells him about the standard of the year’s pictures. My view was that the 3,500 or so members were sensible judges, no doubt, but easily put off by any irregularity, which was clearly what arch-plotter Warren Beatty was counting on.

In the weeks leading up to the event, orchestrated lobbying against The Deer Hunter took place, led by Beatty, whose own picture Heaven Can Wait had multiple nominations. It seemed that Beatty had rustled up the services of his legion of ex-girlfriends. Julie Christie, serving on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival where The Deer Hunter was screened, had joined a walkout of the film by Russian jury members on account of its negative portrayal of North Vietnamese combatants. That atmosphere of political protest would persist: even on this night of the Oscar ceremony, when all the votes had already been cast, police fought to hold back protestors thrusting pamphlets berating The Deer Hunter through the windows of the long line of limousines. Jane Fonda’s campaigning on behalf of the North Vietnamese cause had seen her nicknamed ‘Hanoi Jane’, and she too had fiercely criticised The Deer Hunter in public. It hardly seemed coincidental that Coming Home, Hal Ashby’s anti-war ‘Vietnam movie’ starring Fonda, was vying with The Deer Hunter for Best Picture. In the event I had managed to plant a friend of mine in the special Oscar press area behind the stage, and when Fonda was ushered in as newly crowned Best Actress for her performance in Ashby’s film, my accomplice asked her if she had actually seen this Deer Hunter that she so castigated? Her snapped response was something along the lines of ‘No, I don’t have to. I know what it’s about . . .’

Inside the Chandler Pavilion I watched De Niro’s co-star Christopher Walken collect the Supporting Actor Oscar, followed by further Deer Hunter wins for Sound and Editing (though in fact Cimino had got rid of our editor Peter Zinner for the sin of agreeing with me that the picture was too long). My suspicion remained that we were being compensated with technical prizes prior to being denied Best Picture. And then Cimino scooped Best Director. It is rare that the Best Picture and Best Director awards are split. The Deer Hunter’s odds had dramatically improved, which only increased the suspense leading to the final prize. I wasn’t breathing so easily as Wayne carefully opened the envelope to reveal the winner.

But it was The Deer Hunter.

Extracted from Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing The Bloody Doors Off  by Michael Deeley and Matthew Field

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