Behind the scenes at the 1996 Academy Awards with Nicholas Cage, Kevin Spacey and more

April 05, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Nicolas Cage danced. He can’t remember where and seems a bit hazy on when. But awaiting the awards in the wee hours of Monday, March 25, Cage cut a rug with his wife, Patricia Arquette. ”Silly dancing,” he called it, ”to ease the nerves.”

After dawn broke, other nominees found less unusual pursuits. Kevin Spacey had brunch with his mother, Kate Winslet studied a script, Mel Gibson visited his chiropractor, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon played ball with their children, Brad Pitt tended his garden with girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sean Penn tended to his off-and-now-on-again love Robin Wright, who was recovering from emergency surgery. And while the other attendees preened before bathroom mirrors and worried how the gusty March winds would rearrange their hair, Penn remained by Wright’s side and skipped the ceremonies altogether.

Jaded viewers might have assumed that he wouldn’t be missing much. Sarandon’s time — after four losses — appeared to have come, and it did. Cage looked like a shoo-in, and he was. Even Best Picture had all the excitement of a beige Armani sheath. No Schindler’s List to wrench the heart. No Forrest Gump to warm the heart. No Pulp Fiction to stop the heart. Just a charming pig, a freedom fighter, three astronauts, two English spinsters, and one posthumous postman.

But by the end of the night, low expectations had been replaced by something approaching exultation. Not only would producer Quincy Jones’ ceremonies turn out to be a hip rethinking of the telecast’s traditions, but they would be filled with enough old-fashioned human feeling to inspire some awe among the nominees, the live audience, and a billion viewers.

Of course, no one knew that as the stars emerged from the limousines, seeking the limelight and, as usual, plugging the designers who had graciously draped their forms. Before conducting her pre-show interviews, Oprah Winfrey stood on the edge of the red carpet being groomed by her omnipresent hairdresser, while other celebs paid their respects to veteran greeter Army Archerd, who made the evening’s first gaffe by calling actor Laurence Fishburne ”Larry.” ”Army,” Fishburne groused for the crowd to hear, ”if you call me Larry one more time, I’ll break both your legs.”

Jesse Jackson’s protest against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its inattention to African-American talent never materialized in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. ”I told Jesse this was not the proper forum for what he’s trying to get accomplished,” Jones said. ”PEOPLE magazine is 35 years late. God bless ’em, but it’s our jobs and lives at stake. We know very well what it is. We live it day by day.”

Inside the Pavilion, Whoopi Goldberg set the pace with a lightning-quick opening monologue, though the show, which came in at 3 hours and 35 minutes, was long enough to tax anyone’s patience. Even those rooting for friends and loved ones escaped to the lobby during commercial breaks. While ”seat fillers” replaced them in the audience, Pitt and Paltrow persuaded security guards to allow them to step outside and smoke cigarettes (and grab a quick kiss). Winslet hung out with her mother and Alicia Silverstone, watching the awards on the TV monitor.

Meanwhile, in the downstairs lounge, Quentin Tarantino and Mira Sorvino partied with other audience expatriates, but the noise stopped when Christopher Reeve appeared on the monitor. Just 20 minutes prior to his surprise appearance, Reeve had learned that the theme from Superman would announce his arrival and nixed the music. Jones scrambled down to conductor Tom Scott, ordering him to replace the theme. With new music in place, Reeve appeared on stage to honor films of social relevance.

”That,” said nominee Tim Roth (Rob Roy), standing in the lounge, ”was the best speech of the night.”

In the auditorium, the audience was moved to more tears than usual — by Reeve and by Douglas, left partially paralyzed by a stroke but graciously and bravely accepting his lifetime-achievement award. Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Holocaust survivor, was nearly cut off by the band. When the exit music fired up, director Jeff Margolis ordered it stopped and let her have her say in a speech that left the audience silent with emotion.

Overall, the evening was short on mishaps, except for the envelope that was missing when Sharon Stone and Jones were announcing Best Original Dramatic Score. Stone, a veteran presenter who always gives the winner the envelope as a keepsake, inadvertently handed the wrong envelope to the previous winner, Pocahontas‘ Stephen Schwartz. ”I saw her do it,” Jones said the next day. ”And I said to myself, I think we have just blown it.” While Stone vamped, Jones scurried to get the winner’s name from two Price Waterhouse representatives — who, breaking with tradition, were never introduced on the show. ”With all the time problems, the last thing we need is those guys coming on stage,” says Jones. ”But thank God they were on the right side of the stage. We’d have been out there half an hour saying ‘Wonder who won?”’

Backstage, the winners began to pile up in the press room. Sarandon announced that she would keep her Oscar in the bathroom, ”where all our other awards are. The kids were more impressed with the chocolate ones that they gave us at the hotel.” Costume designer James Acheson, who won for Restoration, was less jovial in victory; he ”wasn’t thrilled” by the supermodels’ fashion show/production number showing off the Best Costume nominees. ”There was no showing of the wigs we used in this,” he said. ”I was told that we would have some input, but we didn’t.”

By 10 p.m. Pacific time, the stars had begun to arrive at various Oscar bashes. At the Vanity Fair party at Mortons, a small crowd of stars and agents were overheard dissing Barbara Walters’ special featuring Richard Dreyfuss, Annette Bening, and Demi Moore, none of whom allowed Walters’ cameras into their homes, and none of whom cried. ”Could you believe who she got?” hissed one player. ”Yeah,” snipped another. ”Nobody.”

Tom Hanks munched voraciously on the room’s favorite late-night snack, mini-cheeseburgers — ”They’re going to be my best friends tonight,” he said — and the bulk of the Melrose Place cast prettied up the place. The most consistent buzz centered on the moving appearance by Reeve — ”the most emotional moment of the evening,” said Hanks. ”We were totally in awe.” Greg Wise, Thompson’s squeeze — and costar in Sense and Sensibility — said he particularly enjoyed Goldberg’s ”fart joke” following Vanessa Williams’ turn on the nominated ”Colors of the Wind,” and several actors mentioned Sarandon’s victory as their highlight. Jones, however, was clearly the man of the night, and praise for his sleek handling of the telecast was offered far and wide. But anyone looking to outdo Q might want to heed the man’s summation of the Oscar experience: Producing the show, he says, was ”like running through hell with gasoline underwear on.”

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