BY Pierre Bismuth in Profiles | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

Adventures in the Screen Trade

An Oscar-winning artist's guide to a fragmented Hollywood experience

BY Pierre Bismuth in Profiles | 12 MAY 05

Two days before the ceremony, a DVD about the Academy Awards entitled ‘What Nominees Need to Know’ is delivered to my room at the Hermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Hey! It’s Tom Hanks on TV! ‘Hello’, he says, ‘and congratulations!’ Yes, Tom knows all about my nomination in the category of Writing (Original Screenplay), for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and myself), and is here to give me a few tips in case I need to make an appearance on stage. ‘Make it short! Make it sincere! Make it special!’ However, it’s wasted advice, since our producer, Focus Features, Universal’s speciality film unit, who produced the film, has asked Michel Gondry and me to let Charlie Kaufman do the talking if we win.

1) Make It Short

At the Oscars ceremony, on 27 February, Dan Aloni, Gondry’s agent in LA, reminds me that it is seven years since I jotted down an idea I mentioned to Gondry during a chance encounter at a bad Parisian restaurant. He always liked my work and referred to it several times in his clips, so I was happy to spend an hour writing a treatment and receive the $7,000 from the sale of the rights that would cover my rent in London plus a few phone bills. I had time on my hands and energy to burn. The art world wasn’t keeping me busy enough and I had to go wherever people made me feel that what I do is worthwhile.

2) Make It Sincere

I speak regularly with Gondry, who keeps me up-to-date about the project and his work with Kaufman. Then, in the middle of a conversation, he tells me that the film is going to be made, starring Jim Carey and Kate Winslet. I am delighted yet now realise how ridiculous my fee was. When the film comes out someone else tells me that, thanks to Gondry, my name features in the credits (my contract didn’t specify how I should be mentioned). On 1 February 2005 I get an email from Focus Features: ‘Congratulations on your Academy Award Nomination. Over the next few days you will be receiving a notice from the Academy about your tickets.’ Gondry, who was in the creative turmoil of his new film with Charlotte Gainsbourg, had forgotten to tell me (perhaps he didn’t even know himself at this stage). As for me, after six months of trying unsuccessfully to get hold of a DVD of the film, it never occurred to me that something like this could happen.

3) Make It Special

Universal Studios is the size of a town – it is often referred to as ‘Universal City’. The Academy Awards jury is comprised of 5,000 professionals. My fellow nominees include Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, Mike Leigh and Leonardo di Caprio. It’s hard to understand how a project by a contemporary artist who has never even tried to get into this world can end up in such company, quite literally without the slightest effort. And it’s just as difficult to describe the atmosphere of the Oscars ceremony. The whole thing is a mass of little details both banal and extraordinary: the boulevard leading to the Kodak Theater solid with limousines; the crowd of rubbernecks crushed against the security railings looking like a scene of repression from the Third World; anti-Hollywood demonstrators waving banners with slogans like ‘Success in Hollywood leads most of the time to failure in life’; the red carpet, as wide as an avenue, on which a few scattered stars answer journalists’ questions amidst total chaos. The Oscars is a four-hour show designed exclusively for TV, with commercial breaks every ten minutes when guests head for the rest room or the bar, missing part of the show for a drink and a chat. (The Academy employs ‘seat fillers’ so that none of this is noticed on TV.) I am sitting in the fourth row, not far from Johnny Depp, Robin Williams and Mike Meyers; I have Mickey Rooney’s gleaming skull in front of me. I hear my name spoken when the envelope is opened and go up on stage and have the statuette handed to me by Samuel L. Jackson. From the stage I see Jeremy Irons, Prince, Sydney Lumet, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Al Pacino all looking at me. Then I go backstage holding the Oscar, being guided by Jackson through a series of rooms full of photographers and press conference. Afterwards there is a dinner for several hundred people, few of whom really taste the dishes prepared by the famous chef, Wolfgang Puck. I meet Clint Eastwood, who congratulates me and introduces me to his mother, before going to the Vanity Fair party (still holding that statuette – it’s both a tradition and a ‘pass’) where the crowd of famous faces has become so familiar they begin to look ordinary. I joke with Donald Trump, and chat with Spike Lee and Beck. And then it’s all over.
Two weeks later, back in Brussels, my father sends me a recording of the ceremony. I put on the cassette. It begins to dawn on me. I was terrified!