British actor Michael Caine has had a career spanning six decades, starring in "Alfie," "The Dark Knight" and more than 100 other films. He has written a memoir, "The Elephant to Hollywood," detailing his rags-to-riches Hollywood career. In this excerpt, he writes about the Oscar night experience.
As Lewis Gilbert had predicted, I was nominated for Best Actor in “Educating Rita” in 1983 — as was Julie for Best Actress — but once again the odds were stacked against me, this time because, of the five nominees in my category, four were British: Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in “The Dresser,” Tom Conti in “Reuben, Reuben” and of course me. The only American in the running was Robert Duvall in “Tender Mercies” — he was brilliant as a burned-out country singer, but I suspect he would still have won even if he hadn't been.
And I was in for an agonizingly long wait to find out. The Academy Awards ceremony is a tense and very long evening. It starts very early, at around five o'clock in the afternoon, so that it makes prime-time TV on the East Coast, which means that you have to set off for the venue at about three-thirty because of the appalling traffic. It seems incongruous to have to put on evening dress in the middle of the day and of course you know you're going to have to wait until nearly midnight for any food, so although it may all look glamorous, the reality is different. And as soon as you get inside the theater you know what the likelihood of winning is: if you are seated on the aisle or near the front, then it's clear you are in with a chance. If you are on the inside of a row, the chances are you're not. I had already decided that I wasn't going to win for “Educating Rita,” but as soon as I was shown to my seat, halfway back, and looked over to see Robert Duvall sitting bang in the front row, I started practicing my gallant loser's smile. I could see that Shirley MacLaine was in pole position for “Terms of Endearment,” too, so it wasn't a wild guess to make that Julie Walters had also been unlucky for Best Actress.
Tedious though all the hanging about might be, the annual Academy Awards is the most important fixture in the Hollywood calendar and has been since it started. Perhaps the most iconic event in the Hollywood social calendar — and certainly the aspect of the whole Academy Award business I enjoyed the most — was for years Swifty Lazar's Oscar party. Along with the other two top parties, media mogul Barry Diller's lunch and the late Hollywood agent Ed Limato's dinner, Swifty's party ranked as the place to be and to be seen. Swifty's Oscar parties were real high-octane affairs held first of all at the Bistro restaurant and then at Wolfgang Puck's Spago. Swifty's party may have been the hot ticket, but you could find yourself seated at the back of the restaurant in "Siberia" if he didn't like you or think you mattered — and he had a very keen sense of priority. He once invited me to dinner and I had to turn him down because I was already having dinner with someone else. When I told him who it was he looked at me, rather disappointed. "He's not a dinner, Michael," he said, "he's a lunch!" So sitting at the front of Spago at Swifty's Oscar parties were the "dinners" — the "lunches" were at the back....
After Swifty's death, the mantle passed to Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, who started the very small and very exclusive Oscar party at Morton's, which very quickly became the massive — but funnily enough still very exclusive — Vanity Fair party at Morton's. I discovered just how exclusive the Vanity Fair party was when one year [my wife] Shakira and I were invited and we found ourselves seated right by the kitchen. This would definitely have been classed as "Siberia" and a real social stigma, but so many stars were seated round us that it was very clearly not. In addition, it had two great advantages: we were served first and the food was piping hot! But it wasn't until I went to the Gents that I realized quite what an exclusive crowd it was. There were three urinals. Left and right were occupied so I went for the middle one. All three of us finished round about the same time and we went to wash our hands and I found myself in the company of Rupert Murdoch and George Lucas.
Back at our table, I found myself sitting next to an old friend, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. She had a BlackBerry with her and every now and then would pick it up either to speak on it or to fiddle with it. As the awards show played on the giant television screens placed around the restaurant, we all started to give our uninhibited opinions — both negative and positive — of each award. During a commercial break I asked Arianna what she was doing on the phone. "I'm texting my blog," she said. I had never heard of a blog at the time and she had to explain to me that she was texting what was happening to her right now, live on the Internet, to all the readers of her very popular Huffington Post. I panicked. "You haven't put out what I've just been saying about some of the winners for millions of people to read, have you?" I couldn't keep the note of fear out of my voice: I had not been discreet.... "No!" She laughed. "I wouldn't do that — I've just told my readers that I'm here sitting next to you, that's all." Phew!
Morton's restaurant isn't big, so when the dinner and the Oscars show are over, they open up a door and you go into an enormous pavilion and wait for the people who went to the actual ceremony to come to join the party. It doesn't take long before the first ones come in, usually slightly pissed off and demanding a drink. These are the losers and the presenters who don't have to stay at the Oscars for the Governor's Ball. The winners do, and eventually turn up much later, brandishing their trophies. I remember bumping into Jack Nicholson, who was smoking. I started to give him the lecture I'd first had from Tony Curtis about the dangers of smoking, but he interrupted me. "Michael," he said, with that wolfish Nicholson grin, "it has been proved that people who are left-handed die earlier than smokers. I am right-handed, so I am ahead of the game."
Even Hollywood and the Oscars have been affected by the credit crunch. Morton's has now closed down and been turned into another successful restaurant, and the Vanity Fair party is now a much smaller affair, held at the Sunset Towers restaurant on Sunset Boulevard — a trip down memory lane for me as I lived in that building on my first stay in Hollywood while I was making Gambit.
There are hosts of other wonderful and much larger parties, of course — Elton John's annual AIDS Foundation party, for instance, which is now a regular fixture in the Hollywood calendar and combines high glamour with fund-raising for a worthy cause — but for me part of the pleasure has always been about finding the smaller, more intimate occasions in the midst of all the glitz.
Being one of the six thousand industry members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the awards involves being sent the most fantastic Christmas present any film buff could ever want: the "screeners." These are the DVDs of the eligible films made over the previous year, sent to us by their producers, all of whom are hoping to get nominations. The screeners arrive at the beginning of November and my family and I hibernate into the cinema and live on those screeners.
Although British winters were one of the many reasons Shakira and I had decided to relocate to LA, by 1983 I had found myself becoming increasingly homesick. I had given the performance of my life in “Educating Rita” and we decided that, much as we loved Hollywood, if I didn't win the Oscar, there was no professional reason to stay on and we would move back to England. I didn't win, but in my mind I had won — because I was going home, and so my delight at Robert Duvall's Oscar was genuine. That was the year of Swifty's first Oscar party and I was completely unprepared for what awaited me there: as I came into the restaurant I was greeted by a standing ovation from all the brightest and best in the movie business. As I stood there with tears streaming down my face, Cary Grant came up to me and gave me a hug. "You're a winner here, Michael," he whispered. I was overcome — how could I leave people like this? But I knew I had made the right decision — and I knew, too, that we would be back and that the friends we had made would be friends for life.
Excerpted from "The Elephant to Hollywood" by Michael Caine, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Michael Caine. All rights reserved.