‘50 Oscar Nights’ Author Looks Back on Favorite Academy Awards Moments

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​​Longtime entertainment journalist and Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger is well aware that the Academy Awards have taken a few knocks (and one slap) over the years. “I think a lot of people just remember Will Smith and Chris Rock, or the ‘La La Land’ and ‘Moonlight’ best picture mix-up,” he says. 

He celebrates Hollywood’s biggest annual extravaganza in his new book “50 Oscar Nights: Iconic Stars & Filmmakers on Their Career-Defining Wins.” It’s a passion project for Karger, who has loved the Academy Awards since he was a child and has gone on to cover decades’ worth of ceremonies. In it, the author talks with Oscar–winning actors, screenwriters, directors, and musicians who share their golden memories from the big night and discuss what it means to take home the industry’s most prestigious honor. 

Interviewees include lead acting winners Julia Roberts (“Erin Brockovich”), Dustin Hoffman (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Rain Man”), Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”); and supporting acting honorees Whoopi Goldberg (“Ghost”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), and J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”). Perhaps the most fun revelation is that, on the night Meryl Streep won best lead actress for “Sophie’s Choice” in 1983, she wore her dress backwards to hide her pregnancy.

Dave KargerKarger notes a common thread among the stars he spoke with: “The idea of winning an Oscar was a dream for the vast majority. They really do appreciate the importance and the history.” Ahead of the 96th Academy Awards on March 10, the author shares his thoughts on Hollywood’s biggest night.

After last year’s SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, what kind of energy do you expect from this year’s ceremony? 

Well, I’m glad Jimmy Kimmel is back as host, because I think he’s really able to walk that high wire of being positive but also including incisive humor. 

Do you get the sense that actors have a newfound appreciation for their craft after not working for so many months?

I do. I think all the awards shows so far this season have [had] an overall positive vibe. There’s a relief that everyone [has gotten] back to work. I hope that lends itself to a ceremony that feels supportive, because that’s what it should be. There are winners and losers, but first and foremost, the Oscars are meant to be a celebration of great work. 

What made you want to write “50 Oscar Nights”?

I’m truly obsessed with the Oscars. Something about the ceremony has really intrigued me from a young age. And a lot of Oscar books are about the horse races or the studio politics. I really wanted to hear people talk about the emotions they were going through at the time and then get their perspectives years later. 

Among the people you interviewed, whose recollections were the most surprising?

Well, I learned that, in addition to the elation and thrill you would expect, there can also be insecurity, guilt, anger, and sadness. When Jane Fonda first won [in 1972 for “Klute”], she felt hostility from Hollywood because of her political activism; and she felt guilty that she had won an Oscar while her father, Henry Fonda, didn’t yet have one. Nicole Kidman was at her professional high when she won for “The Hours” [in 2003], but she was divorced [from Tom Cruise] and hadn’t yet met Keith Urban. 

Who was just flat-out happy about winning? 

Julia Roberts’ interview was almost entirely one of elation. I know she felt guilty for referring to Bill Conti, the orchestra conductor, as “Stick Man” during her speech [in 2001], but she sent him a note and chocolates as an apology. For her, the night was a career-capping, joyful moment. Once Octavia Spencer [won best supporting actress at] the Oscars [in 2012 for “The Help”], it was thrilling. Because she had worked with so many people in that room over the years, she felt all the love from the crowd. 

Halle Berry holding OscarWhat’s your personal favorite Oscar moment? 

The biggest one for me personally and historically is Halle Berry’s best actress [win in 2002 for “Monster’s Ball”] because she broke barriers by becoming the first Black woman to win that award. I was a writer at Entertainment Weekly at the time, and I had interviewed her on the set; the crew members all wanted to talk about her performance. And I was in the auditorium when she delivered that moving speech. We did not see each other again until she got on Zoom for this interview. It was a wonderful reunion.  

What other instances have stood out to you over the years? 

Hilary Swank’s win for “Boys Don’t Cry” was a seminal moment. She was up against Hollywood royalty, with Annette Bening [nominated for] “American Beauty.” And while there have been as many steps back as there have been steps forward as far as [onscreen] LGBTQ representation [is concerned], understanding that moment of film and culture in 2000 was so special and exciting. 

Is there a reason you’re not naming any of the show’s crazier moments?

Well, that’s another reason why I wanted to write the book! I hope it reminds people of the tradition, the importance, and the prestige of the Academy Awards, because it’s all still there. 

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Oscars, almost a century after the first ceremony? 

I have to commend the Academy for not pandering. I mean, I’m so glad and relieved they abandoned the idea to include a “most popular film” category, because that would have been disastrous! They’ve largely stayed the course, and I hope they continue to do so—because they have 96 years of history behind them, which is more powerful than any changing attitude or taste.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Backstage Magazine.