What It’s Like to Win an Oscar

By
Aron Warner. Photo: SGranitz/WireImage

Here, eight winners reflect on the humdrum and the surreal. 

Aron Warner
Best Animated Feature, Shrek (2001)

To prepare for the ceremony, I tried to find the most effective pair of man-Spanx I could, but failing that, I found a good tuxedo. As for the speech — this was a very unique award because I was accepting a collective award on behalf of 250 people, so it wasn't an individual achievement by any means. I felt like there was a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure I said the right thing. I’ll be honest — there was a lot of barfing. A lot of pre-barfing before I got there, and then I just went out-of-body.

After we won [Warner was a co-producer on the film], I still didn't know what was going to go on, so I went to a couple parties and had a great time, and it was just like — it's so hard to describe, but everybody was extremely friendly and congratulatory, and we all celebrated as much as we could. For someone like me, who's usually asleep at 10:30, it was a big night to be out till two or three or whenever we were out until. I do remember talking to Lionel Richie at a party, who was the nicest human being I'd ever met. He had won an Oscar, and was just talking to me about it and how it changed his life. I just thought, I'm talking to Lionel Richie, yay!

Ray McKinnon. Photo: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

Ray McKinnon
Best Live-Action Short Film, “The Accountant” (2001)

By the time it came to our category that year, it was like three hours into the show, and I had gone from nausea to calm and had a little bit of clarity. We were right up there with a lot of the famous faces. Everywhere you look, there are movie stars. I was a character actor at the time, too. One of the stars nominated, I can’t remember who, looks over at me like, I know that face, but he shouldn't be here. Isn't he the guy I saw on an episode of Matlock? What is he doing at the Oscars? The other thing I remember now was the business of the awards. I mean, you had to get a tux and a limo — and we didn't have people doing that for us — so we got somebody to loan us a tux, because they were expensive, and then the limo, they price-gouge you, so by the time we got around to trying to rent one, I think we got the last limo in L.A., which was like a 1972 caddy with ripped vinyl. Newer limo versions were so damn prohibitively expensive, so we were like, “Give us the one with the ripped vinyl. We'll take it!”

After we won the award, I went to the lobby to gather myself, and I saw Ron Howard. That was the year he won [for A Beautiful Mind], but he hadn't won yet on that night, and I thought, Oh my God, if I win and he doesn't, he'll never hire me again. I was hiding the Oscar like, “Don't look this way, Ron.”

Winning didn’t have a huge effect on my career. I did start taking a lot of meetings and understood that if you’re booked for the 4 p.m. meeting on Thursday, that meeting is really about the other person justifying their salary by having meetings — more than it is about you. 

Mercedes Ruehl. Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

Mercedes Ruehl
Best Supporting Actress, The Fisher King (1991)

So there’s this moment when you hear your name and you go, “Whoa.” I got out of my seat, and there’s a little rickety, wooden flight of steps with no railing on either side of it that goes up the stage, and I have these seven-inch high heels, and I thought, I'm gonna fall. I get to the second step, and I was listing to the left, and suddenly, a saving-angel somebody guided me up the steps. I turned around and it was Warren Beatty, and I thought, You can process that later, Mercedes. Then I gave this speech that I created in the Hotel Bel-Air the night before, and as I came off, Joe Pesci gave me the “And the winner is” card. He said, “You'll want to frame this.” I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Did that speech sound too prepared?”

Once you walk off the stage, you go to one big room where you speak to a lot of people, press, a lot of photographers. But then you go into this little warren where you speak to one different news agency, one television network after another, and there seems to be about 30 of them, and then, an hour and a half later, you emerge from that. I managed to get to a phone somewhere and called my parents, and I never let go of the statue. You don't even realize you're holding it, and you don't realize how heavy it is. You pick it up the next day and you think, Gosh, that was heavy. The whole night was a long, slow-building whoosh of sound.

Ted Tally. Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

Ted Tally
Best Adapted Screenplay, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

When you go into a bathroom at the Oscars, you never saw so many people smoking and drinking. The atmosphere is hard to describe: very recognizable people who all look tense. I smoked for the first time in 20 years. My wife and I, we didn't even go down the red carpet. I said, “Look, nobody cares who the writer is anyway, and I'm going to have a nervous breakdown if I have to go through that gauntlet.” So we actually went in a side door.

My wife and I sat behind Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, which was nerve-racking in itself. When I won and left her there, Tom turned around and said, “Are you okay?” to take care of her. I felt like I was floating about 15 feet in the air. I also had the thought, Well, there’s the first line of my obituary.

Winning an Oscar did open some doors. It certainly made the contracts fatter, but it didn't keep anybody from giving me story notes, as if they knew more about writing. I've had story meetings where I was tempted to drag the statue along and plop it down on the table to start the meeting, but it wouldn't make any difference. Everybody still feels that they know better than the writer.

Marlee Matlin. Photo: John T. Barr/Getty Images

Marlee Matlin
Best Actress, Children of a Lesser God (1986)

I can’t really say I remember much because my heart was beating out of my chest that whole night. The funny thing about it is that 11 of my family members were there. I don't know how we were able to get 11 tickets. My publicist at the time [asked], “How many tickets do you need?” and I said 11. He was like, “Are we going to a movie theater? This is the Oscars. You can't get 11 tickets.” But I did! I got them 11 tickets. And they made it through the press line after I won the Oscar. There was this one publicist who said it was like Ma and Pa Kettle go to the Oscars.

The day after the ceremony, me and my family were at the pool, and my mom saw a star. So she went back to the hotel room, got the Oscar, and brought it out to show, of all people, Kathleen Turner. It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life. Then my mom said, holding the Oscar, “Marlee, what do you want me to do with this?” In front of Kathleen Turner! I rolled my eyes and looked at Kathleen and said, “You know moms, right?”

Mat Kirkby. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Mat Kirkby
Best Live-Action Short Film, “The Phone Call” (2014)

At one point on the night I won, somehow, I was at Madonna’s house. I got an email saying, “Come to …” and then it's in code. It doesn't say, “Come to Madonna's house.” It gives you an address, and you get to the address, and they’ve locked off the street, and you show your little email to security, and they're like, “Yeah, you're in.” And you go inside, it's A-list. There was a dance floor with John Travolta and Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne. I was probably the only one that nobody recognized in the room.

When you’re in that sort of party, you put your Oscar down and see there are about 30 Oscars in the room, and they’re all over the place, and then I’m like, “God, where’s my Oscar?” I found it because they’d spelled my name wrong and then had taken the nameplate off. So mine was the only one that didn’t have a nameplate. Afterward, I was convinced I’d get upgraded on my flight, and all that happened was I put the Oscar through the security scanner, and one of the guards said, “Is that real?” “Yeah.” “Oh.” I put the Oscar in the overhead cabin on the plane and went home.

I live in a dodgy neighborhood. So I keep my Oscar somewhere secret. Literally, when I leave the apartment, I hide it. I’ll go buy some milk and take him off the shelf, just in case somebody breaks in.

Aviva Slesin. Photo: John T. Barr/Getty Images

Aviva Slesin
Best Feature Documentary, The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table (1987)

At the show, I didn’t understand that if you go to the ladies room, there are these seat-fillers. And when I came back to my seat after getting up, someone was sitting in it, and I thought, Oh my God, now what? But I figured it out. After you win, you go back to your real life, which is not bad, but it’s not where you wear gowns.

There was a tremendous boost afterward in terms of validation; in terms of thinking, For the rest of my life, I'm going to be an Academy Award winner. People were impressed, and they wanted to hold the Oscar. All that work — ten years in cutting rooms and writing grant proposals, and then finding somebody to appreciate it ... it was all validated in the biggest possible way.

My statue is actually tarnished now from years of my cleaning it. For an astronomical price, you can send it back to the Academy — I guess they’re the only place in the universe that re-plates Oscars — but I wasn’t going to do that, so I have a tarnished Oscar. It’s sitting on 16mm film cans on top of a wooden filing cabinet.

Ernest Thompson. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Ernest Thompson
Best Adapted Screenplay, On Golden Pond (1981)

My date that night was Diana Ross. We’d been set up through mutual friends. I called her and said, “What time do you want me to pick you up?” and she said, “In what?” and I said, “The studio gave me a limo,” and she said, “How big?” So my limo showed up, and then I saw her limo, which was a city block long. When we pulled up to the venue, she said, “Are you ready for this?” and I said, “Yeah, I think I am.” I thought she meant, “Are you ready for the Oscars, and you may not win.” But she was really asking if I was ready for what was going to happen when she got out of the limo. The driver opened the door and Diana got out, and it was pandemonium, 10,000 people screaming. It was great for me because it took all the pressure off.

When I won — I thought I was going to have a beautiful woman presenting it to me. It was Jerzy Kosinski. I kissed him anyway. And during my speech, I said, “If you all see me later, I would love to suck face with you all.” Did you? I was criticized for saying that. I thought it was so sweet.

After the event, I said, “We’re going to [On Golden Pond co-star] Henry Fonda’s house.” He was bedridden and couldn’t be there. Henry and I clinked our Oscars, and he said, “You did good, boy.” At the very end of the night, I was back in my normal limo and I went to 7-Eleven, got two pints of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and these cakes called Ne-Mo’s, and I went home and had a party by myself. And that’s how my Oscar night ended.

*A version of this article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.