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Pittsburgh goes to the Oscars

Sunday, March 09, 2003

By Ron Weiskind and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Now that the pride of Squirrel Hill, Rob Marshall, has won the Directors Guild of America award for "Chicago," the chances have increased that Pittsburgh will be represented among the winners at this year's Academy Awards.

Southwestern Pennsylvania has had its share of Oscar laureates over the years, from the obvious (Jimmy Stewart of Indiana, Pa.) to the obscure (Herb Magidson of Braddock, who won the first Oscar ever awarded for Best Song, in 1934).

You might be surprised at who never won: Gene Kelly was nominated only once, as Best Actor in the 1945 movie "Anchors Aweigh." The Academy gave him an honorary award in 1951. William Powell was nominated three times for Best Actor, but never got the gold.

Stewart later received an honorary Oscar, but even he scored only one in competition -- no more and no less than F. Murray Abraham, who was born here but left as a preschooler. And then there are those winners who are Pittsburghers only in that they attended the drama school at Carnegie Mellon University.

Leave it to the musicians to reflect the most Oscar glory on the city in which they were born or raised -- and not just that Mancini fellow from Aliquippa.

In the categories that follow, we don't have room to include Pittsburgh-area nominees who went home without an Academy Award, such as Best Actress nominees Sharon Stone ("Casino") and the late Elizabeth Hartman ("A Patch of Blue"). But we hope we got all the winners. Like the Oscar voters, we tried our best, relying on some details excerpted from "Inside Oscar," written by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona.

Class acts

In February 1941, Indiana, Pa., native Jimmy Stewart won Best Actor for playing opposite Katharine Hepburn in the sophisticated comedy "The Philadelphia Story." After accepting the statuette in front of a raucous, approving audience at the Biltmore Hotel, he spoke with his father, who instructed him to send the Oscar home. His father placed it in the hardware store case that had once displayed kitchen knives.

In 1985, "Philadelphia Story" co-star Cary Grant presented an Honorary Oscar to Stewart, who singled out director Frank Capra and borrowed the title of their now-classic collaboration. "You've given me a wonderful life," he told the audience.

"Psycho" actress Janet Leigh may have wanted to scream when the Best Supporting Actress Oscar went to Shirley Jones, a native of Smithton, Westmoreland County, for her portrayal of a prostitute in the 1960 drama "Elmer Gantry." In the press room, Jones said she would not be instructing her agent to raise her price and didn't think "Elmer Gantry" would typecast her. The future Mrs. Partridge was right.

Monessen High School graduate Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as pregnant, perceptive police chief Marge Gunderson in 1996's "Fargo." McDormand was born in Illinois but lived in Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and Illinois again before moving to Monessen for seventh grade through high school. Her family frequently relocated because of the work of her minister father.

"What am I doing here?" she asked from the stage of the Shrine Auditorium. She was celebrating a career that had started with school plays in Western Pennsylvania.

*CMU graduate Holly Hunter was part of Oscar history in a couple of ways. She was nominated in both acting categories, as lead in 1993's "The Piano" and supporting player in "The Firm," as was Emma Thompson from "The Remains of the Day" and "In the Name of the Father."

Hunter won for "The Piano" and thanked her first piano teacher and parents for letting her have lessons. She also credited director Jane Campion for "giving me a character and experience that was so difficult to say goodbye to."

"Amadeus" is one of eight movies to have won eight Academy Awards, and one went to F. Murray Abraham for his portrayal of composer Antonio Salieri, who seethes with envy at the genius of Tom Hulce's bratty Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

After being summoned to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1985, Abraham confessed, "It would be a lie if I told you I didn't know what to say because I've been working on this speech for about 25 years, but you're not going to hear any of those speeches because none of them are under 45 seconds."

While here in 2001 for the world premiere of "Paper Doll," Abraham recounted that when he was born, his family lived in the Hill District. They left for El Paso when he was 3 to find better weather for his sickly older brother.

Location, location, location

"The Silence of the Lambs," filmed largely in Pittsburgh, became the third movie in film history to sweep the top five Oscars. It won the 1991 Best Picture award, top acting awards for Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, directing honors for Jonathan Demme and the adapted screenplay statuette for Ted Tally.

"The Deer Hunter," shot partly in Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio in the summer of 1977, was crowned Best Picture and won for supporting actor Christopher Walken, director Michael Cimino, sound and film editing.

*The late Charles Guggenheim won one of his four Oscars for 1989's "The Johnstown Flood," which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the disaster. It was honored in the category of Documentary Short Subjects.

Music to their ears

Pittsburgh's rich history of Oscar-winning composers begins with the winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Song: Herb Magidson, a native of Braddock, who shared the 1934 award with Con Conrad for "The Continental," from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical "The Gay Divorcee."

The region's best-known cinematic songwriter was Henry Mancini, who was born in Cleveland but raised in Aliquippa. His Oscar run started with the 1961 movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's." He won for score and the tune (with Johnny Mercer) that became a signature not just for him but also for crooner Andy Williams: "Moon River." His third Academy Award came the following year, for the title song from "Days of Wine and Roses," also with Mercer. He shared his fourth award with Leslie Bricusse for the score from the 1982 comedy "Victor/Victoria."

Jay Livingston, a native of McDonald, and his partner Ray Evans were among the most prolific of movie songwriters. They composed for more than 100 movies (and three Broadway shows and numerous television themes) and earned seven Academy Award nominations. They won three Oscars for these winners of the Best Song category: "Que Sera, Sera," sung by Doris Day in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956); "Mona Lisa," from the movie "Captain Carey, U.S.A." (1950) and made famous by Nat "King" Cole; and "Buttons and Bows" from "The Paleface" (1948).

Two Pittsburgh Symphony conductors have won multiple Oscars, both before they forged their local connections. Andre Previn, who led the symphony from 1976-84, has four Academy Awards from his days in Tinseltown, for the scores of "Gigi," "Porgy and Bess" (with Ken Darby), "Irma La Douce" and "My Fair Lady."

Marvin Hamlisch, conductor of the Pittsburgh Pops since 1995, scored a rare Oscar hat trick, three awards in one year: Best Adapted Score for "The Sting," Best Original Score for "The Way We Were" (both released in 1973) and Best Song for that film's title tune, shared with Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

The then 29-year-old composer said, "What can I tell ya? I'd like to thank the makers of Maalox for making all this possible." Hamlisch's winning streak was more impressive than the unscripted performance of the man running nude across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

CMU graduate Stephen Schwartz has two Best Song Oscars, both from animated films: for "When You Believe," from the 1998 film "The Prince of Egypt," and "Colors of the Wind" (with Alan Menken), from 1995's "Pocahontas." Schwartz and Menken also won for the "Pocahontas" score.

You've heard Bob Hope sing "Thanks for the Memories" innumerable times, but did you know a Pittsburgher co-wrote it -- and that the original title was "Thanks for the Memory"? Leo Robin shared the 1938 Best Song prize with Ralph Rainger for the tune that became Hope's theme song, from the movie "Big Broadcast of 1938."

Oh, what a feeling! The title song from "Flashdance," the made-in-Pittsburgh movie about a female welder who dreams of being a dancer, won the 1983 award for Giorgio Moroder (music) and Keith Forsey and Irene Cara (lyrics).

Pittsburgh can even claim a Bob Dylan connection. He wrote and sang the Oscar-winning "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys," the 2000 movie that was set and filmed here.

The moguls

The early, tentative steps taken by the Warner brothers (Harry, Sam, Abe and Jack) toward Hollywood occurred in Western Pennsylvania. After watching customers stream in and out of a Smithfield Street nickelodeon, Harry and Sam decided, "We're in the movie business." They later operated a 99-seat nickelodeon in New Castle, Lawrence County, with chairs borrowed from an undertaker, and in 1907 formed a small distribution company in Pittsburgh: Duquesne Amusement Supply Co.

In 1912, Sam opened an office in Los Angeles, and within five years, the brothers went from ragtag film distributors to moviemakers and eventually, millionaires. In November 1966, Jack sold his interest in Warner Bros. for $32 million; his brothers were dead or retired at that point. According to the book "Hollywood Be Thy Name" by Cass Warner Sperling, Jack boasted, "Not bad for a butcher boy from Youngstown, Ohio."

For the record, Jack Warner won the 1964 Best Picture Oscar for "My Fair Lady" and won the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award in 1959. His brother Harry won an honorary award in 1939.

David O. Selznick assured his place in movie history by producing "Gone with the Wind," which netted him the 1939 Oscar for Best Picture (he also won the Thalberg award the same year). Selznick would go back-to-back in 1940 with Best Picture for "Rebecca." The Pittsburgh native was responsible for importing the film's director, Alfred Hitchcock, from England. Selznick's father, Lewis, was also a movie mogul, and his brother Myron was a producer and talent agent. He was the son-in-law of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and was among Hollywood's first independent producers.

Pandro S. Berman may not have been as well-known as Selznick, but he's another Pittsburgh native with a long career as a producer. He is perhaps best known for making several Astaire-Rogers films and for some of MGM's most prestigious pictures. He won the Thalberg award in 1977. "The marvelous thing about this medium is that I can show my dreams as well as my feelings," he said.

Boffo behind the scenes

Although born in Georgia and raised primarily in Baton Rouge, Steven Soderbergh told the Post-Gazette in 1995 that he once lived on Kentucky Avenue in Shadyside. The family left in 1976, the year his father joined Louisiana State University, where he became dean of the College of Education. Soderbergh, nominated as Best Director for both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," took directing honors for the former at the 73rd awards.

Abby Mann, a Philadelphia native who grew up in East Pittsburgh, was a writer best known for tackling controversial subjects related to social issues. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 1961 drama "Judgment at Nuremberg." Upon accepting, he said, "A writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives."

Pandro S. Berman wasn't the only Oscar winner in his family. Brother Henry Berman, a native of New Castle, shared the 1966 Best Editing award for "Grand Prix." And Berman isn't alone in that category. Another film editor from these parts won two: Harold F. Kress, for the 1963 epic "How the West Was Won" and for the 1974 disaster film "The Towering Inferno."

CMU graduate Ann Roth won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for the 1996 Best Picture winner, "The English Patient." And she's nominated again this year for another Best Picture contender, "The Hours."


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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