New Orleans at the Oscars: City has a long history with the Academy Awards
New Orleans has forever been an exhibitionist of a city. From the wide-open secret of the closed-door goings-on in the former red-light district of Storyville to the century-old public displays of showmanship known as Carnival, and on to the 1896 establishment on Canal Street of the world’s very first permanent public movie theater, the city has always seemed eager to shout “Look at me!”
And the rest of the world? Well, they sure seem to enjoy looking.
That includes Hollywood, which in recent years has made Louisiana one of the busiest TV and film production hubs in the country outside of Los Angeles and New York.
It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Locals get a new industry out of it, one that is putting all manner of creative types to work in well-paying jobs — not to mention the added satisfaction of seeing their city and state splashed all over movie screens. And the filmmakers? Well, they get Oscar-nominated inspiration in spades.
Case in point: “Dallas Buyers Club” and “12 Years a Slave,” two New Orleans-shot films that together earned 15 Academy Award nominations this year, including best-picture nods for both. What’s more, with the 86th annual Academy Awards set to be handed out Sunday (March 2), this is the second consecutive year in which two local films have been in the running for that mother of all Oscars. (Last year, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Django Unchained” shared that honor.)
Still, Louisiana’s Oscar history goes back much further. Much, much further, in fact — to the Academy Awards’ early, black-and-white years. With this being Oscar week, it’s only fitting that we take a look back at them. Cue the flashback music …
In its first years, the Oscars were something of a Hollywood-only party, although New Orleans was occasionally invited along to liven things up. New Orleans, after all, is always good at a party. Even then, though, it was clear who was really being honored.
You’d have New Orleans-set films earn the occasional nomination — and the occasional statue — as early as 1939’s 11th Academy Awards. In that year, two New Orleans-set films earned nominations: William Wyler’s “Jezebel,” starring Bette Davis as a headstrong Louisiana belle — a role she is rumored to have been given as consolation for Warner Bros. refusing to loan her out to MGM to play the lead in “Gone With the Wind” — and Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Buccaneer,” a semi-fictional tale about the pirate Lafitte. (Davis would end up winning the lead-actress award, although “The Buccaneer” would miss out in the only category in which it was nominated, cinematography.)
Despite being set here, though — and aside from the occasional moss-draped establishing shot — both were substantially filmed on very un-Louisiana soundstages in Los Angeles. That would set the trend for years to come, as Hollywood productions showed a clear preference for staying close to home even when telling stories about other places.
In the years that followed, the formula would be repeated for such Oscar-nominated films as 1946’s “Saratoga Trunk,” a New Orleans-set melodrama starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper; 1949’s “All the King’s Men,” a fictionalized best-picture winner inspired by the story of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long; and Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic New Orleans drama “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a 12-time Oscar nominee and four-time winner.
All would boast a New Orleans accent — but all would be faking it.
Then, in 1950, something started to change. “Streetcar” director Elia Kazan would decide to shoot another New Orleans story, the thriller “Panic in the Streets.” This time, however, he would pack up his cameras and head to the Crescent City to shoot the film on location. In the process, he would have a revelation.
“We were shooting in New Orleans, and we had a hell of a time, ” Kazan would be quoted as saying in “Kazan on Directing,” a 2009 collection of his notes, letters and interviews. “I hung around the harbor, and I felt the wind on my face, and I thought, ‘I’ve been indoors all my life! I’ve got to get out of the theater and into film!’ It just freed me of all that inside-a-set tension and just directing minuscule little bits of acting. … I don’t think I could have made ‘On the Waterfront’ like I did if I hadn’t done ‘Panic in the Streets.’ … ‘Panic’ might seem conventional to critics, but it was a big change for me, for my attitude toward everything.”
The result would be a priceless time-capsule of the mid-century French Quarter that — at the 23rd Academy Awards in March of 1951 — would deliver the first major Oscar to a film shot substantially in New Orleans, in the now-defunct “best story” category.
Still, it would be years before Hollywood would realize that Kazan was onto something. New Orleans-linked movies would still get their share of nominations, such as one-time local resident Tennessee Williams’ 1957 nomination for his “Baby Doll” screenplay, or the nomination for best costumes earned by DeMille’s 1957 “Buccaneer” remake, or the seven nominations earned by the Southern Gothic thriller “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” which saw Bette Davis once more playing the role of Southern belle. None of those films, however, were shot in New Orleans.
In fact, as significant Oscar films go, 19 years would elapse between “Panic and the Streets” and the next major Oscar showing for a New Orleans-shot film.
By all accounts, the New Orleans set of “Easy Rider” was something close to anarchy, with drug use and creative strife rampant, and — in one case — a near fist-fight between writer-director-star Dennis Hopper and a crew member. It was crazy, it was unhinged — and it was just like “Easy Rider.” But that was just how Hopper rolled, and that wildness came across on-screen, thanks partly to New Orleans, which was portrayed as a city constructed of wet kisses and exclamation points.
In the film, Hopper plays one of two motorcycle riders who head off on a pilgrimage to New Orleans, which they envision as a sort of Shangri-La. They would get there, too, in scenes that Hopper and company shot entirely without permission in the French Quarter, at Carnival and in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Hollywood would follow them.
Unlike all those studio-shot films that were set in New Orleans, “Easy Rider” felt gritty, real and vibrant. Hopper had discovered what Kazan had learned back in 1950: that New Orleans is a city alive, a characteristic that comes across on film. The result would be two Oscar nominations at the 42nd annual Academy Awards in 1970, for Jack Nicholson in the supporting-actor category, and for Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern for their screenplay.
“Easy Rider” also would mark a turning point in American cinema, as one of the first films of the so-called “New Hollywood” era. Suddenly, filmmakers weren’t afraid to think outside the box — or to work outside of Hollywood.
Still, it wouldn’t be until 1990 that we’d see another major nomination for a Louisiana-shot film. That would be for Julia Roberts’ supporting performance in “Steel Magnolias,” shot in Natchitoches. It would finally signal the opening of the floodgates.
The Kennedy-assassination drama “JFK” came next, spending months shooting in the same city in which much of the locally set drama was set. In addition to generating more controversy than any other film ever to shoot in town, it would compete for eight Oscar nominations at 1992’s 64th Academy Awards, including for best picture, best director and best supporting actor. (It would win two, for cinematography and film editing.)
Three years later, New Orleans was back on the Oscar stage with another locally shot film, this time for the twice-nominated “Interview with the Vampire.” It would leave Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium empty-handed, but just one year later, Susan Sarandon would win the best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of local nun and death-penalty opponent Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking,” a film shot in New Orleans and at Angola State Penitentiary.
Kathy Bates would follow in 1999 with a nomination for her performance in the locally shot political drama “Primary Colors.” A year later, the documentary short “The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo” would be nominated. A year after that, former Baton Rouge resident Steven Soderbergh would win the best director Oscar for “Traffic,” followed in 2002 by a historic win for Halle Berry, who became the first black actress to win the lead-actress Oscar, for her performance in the prison drama “Monster’s Ball” (curiously, yet another Angola-shot film).
The local film industry was, in short, on a heck of a run. But a production slowdown was just beginning, prompting some in the halls of power to wonder if there was a way to turn on more filmmakers to what the state had to offer — and to lure them away from the West Coast on a more consistent basis.
By 2002, the brisk production bubble that started in the 1990s appeared to have burst. Thanks to tax incentives offered by other locales, studios were opting for places like Toronto or Wilmington, N.C. — even for Louisiana-set films like “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”
State legislators decided to do something about it. That something was a 2002 tax-incentive law designed to be an offer productions couldn’t refuse. It would be tweaked occasionally over the years, but it would do the job. Before 2002 was even over, the 20th Century Fox legal thriller “Runaway Jury” — with its $60 million budget — had decided to shoot in the Big Easy.
“Runaway Jury” wouldn’t earn any Oscars nods, but those would come in due time. A year after locals saw native daughter Patricia Clarkson nominated for supporting actress in 2004 for her role in “Pieces of April” (which was shot in New York), the locally shot Ray Charles biopic “Ray” would earn a best-actor Oscar for Jamie Foxx and nominations for best picture and best director for local property owner Taylor Hackford.
Hackford, as it turns out, was a vocal supporter of setting up a local tax-incentive program for filmmakers, and so it’s only fitting that one of his films would be among the first high-profile beneficiaries.
“I said, ‘Listen, No. 1, (Hollywood is) sending $10 billion a year to Canada, and that’s a crime. We should not be doing that. The Canadians are great, but why aren’t we offering the same kinds of incentives here to states that need their economies boosted?,'” Hackford said in a 2009 interview while in town for the New Orleans Film Festival.
He continued: “And, secondly, I know that artists love New Orleans — I do, my wife (Helen Mirren) does, everybody who goes there is charmed because it’s a unique city, it’s a city for artists. Its every nuance, every place you look, is a picture, a feeling — and the music, food, everything else. And I knew that it would draw. So it’s not just that there were locations there, but for filmmakers and artists and musicians who wanted to be inspired, it’s an inspiring city.”
Just as inspiring, as it turned out, were those tax incentives — even it if would take a couple of years to bear fruit.
After “Ray” won Oscar gold in 2005, locals saw the city play a supporting role for a few years at the Academy Awards, albeit not for films shot here. In 2006, “Capote,” based on the life of native son Truman Capote, was nominated for best picture. Philip Seymour Hoffman won the lead-actor trophy for his portrayal of the charismatic writer. A year after that, local native Ellen DeGeneres would host the Oscars telecast — a gig she will repeat at this year’s 86th annual Academy Awards.
And then came director David Fincher’s visually arresting “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” That film, starring part-time New Orleanian Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, is based on the Baltimore-set short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and producers at first considered shooting it in Maryland. But with expected production costs soaring, the film’s producers — drawn by the state’s tax incentives — decided to send a scout team to the Bayou State to see if a New Orleans shoot would be feasible.
Behind the scenes of ‘Benjamin Button’ – Day 1 (Extended!) Today — in the first in a seven-part series of video vignettes leading up to the Dec. 25 opening of the locally shot fantasy-epic “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was shot in and around New Orleans in late 2006 and early 2007 — director David Fincher discusses shooting the film in New Orleans.
“They started sending back photos, and David went ‘Oh!’ and he showed them to (screenwriter) Eric (Roth), and he went, ‘Oh!’ and it became a character in the movie,” producer Frank Marshall said ahead of the film’s release in 2009. “So it was really one of those great things that happens when you have a problem, you solve it with a better solution, and it made the movie better.”
Marshall’s producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy, added, “When you’re dealing with a kind of sense of magical realism, which is inherent in this kind of storytelling, it just felt like New Orleans was perfect, because you just believe a story like that could come out of a place like New Orleans. So Eric just embraced that and made that a part of the script.”
“Benjamin Button” would go on to earn 13 Oscar nominations — the second-most of any film in Oscar history, and the most ever earned by a locally shot film. It would win only three, all in technical categories, but if anyone had any doubt that New Orleans was ready for its close-up, “Benjamin Button” put them to rest.
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That same year — 2009 — New Orleans would also see the local Hurricane Katrina documentary “Trouble the Water” nominated. A year later, the animated Disney feature “The Princess and the Frog” — set in Jazz Age New Orleans — would earn a nomination in the animated-feature category and another for the song “Down in New Orleans.”
Two years later, at the 84th Academy Awards, the Shreveport-based duo of Brandon Oldenburg and William Joyce would claim the Oscar for best animated short, for their Katrina-informed heart-tugger “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” It might have been for a short film, but that award was beyond significant, as it was won by members of Louisiana’s native creative community, as opposed to a group of Hollywood types who were just visiting.
The locally shot motion poem “Beasts of the Southern Wild” would build on that native momentum in 2013 by earning nominations for best picture, best director (for Behn Zeitlin) and for best actress for Houma native Quvenzhane Wallis, then 9 years old and the youngest ever nominee in the lead-actress category. The film would go down as the Louisiana-est film to ever earn an Oscar nod — and its makers, most transplants from New York, made it clear that their inspiration bubbled up from the soil beneath their feet in their adopted hometown.
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“We completely rewrote the film to the actors that were cast, which is not how you normally work,” Zeitlin said in 2012. “Normally, you’re just executing a script. For us, you meet (local actor) Dwight Henry and you know this guy embodies this character in some way. Not that he’s anything like that character, but he has this kind of tenacity, he has these qualities that that character needs. Before we even touched a script, I was in that bakery doing interviews with him from 12 o’clock to six in the morning, making doughnuts for weeks and weeks. So you’re writing in all that stuff that you’re learning from him.” (Henry owns the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe in New Orleans.)
Amazingly, “Beasts” wasn’t the only locally shot film nominated for a high-profile Oscar last year. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” would earn a nod as well, giving the local film industry claim to two of the nine best-picture nominees.
Lightning in a bottle, right? That could never happen again, right? Not so fast. One year later, Louisiana has done it again.
Should either “Dallas Buyers Club” or “12 Years a Slave” take home the best-picture trophy at Sunday’s Oscars, it would be the first time a locally shot film has ever done so. In the case of “12 Years a Slave,” that’s a distinct possibility, as it’s among three front-runners heading into the show.
In addition, two local residents — Robin Mathews and Alice Baker — are in the running for Oscars this year in the makeup and production design categories, respectively. And if that’s not enough, the whole show will be hosted once more by DeGeneres, in her second outing as Oscar host.
In other words, when the red carpet is opened on Sunday New Orleans will be present and accounted — and once more shouting “Look at me!”
And, win or lose, the world will be looking.