“You’ll go to that ceremony tonight if we have to put you in a straightjacket.”
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to reveal that many (make that most!) of the performers who have won Academy Awards suffer through the experience — the buildup, the uncertainty, the self-doubts — in a combination of raw terror and emotional exhaustion.
Even though the professional rewards are great and careers generally flourish as a result of an Oscar nod, the process leading up to that big big Awards ceremony was or is, for many actors, sheer torture. There are few more articulate expressions of this malaise than in the 1974 autobiography, Ray Milland: Wide-Eyed in Babylon.
Milland was a working actor without great artistic pretensions who developed into a big star. He did not harbor acting aspirations as Reginald Truscott-Jones, born in rural Wales in 1905. For much of his early life he gave serious thought to making a career out of the military, specifically the cavalry since Milland early on developed into an excellent horseman.
He sort of fell into acting — read his book to discover just how — and never felt quite secure in his abilities in his early movies both in England and in Hollywood. He never forgot being singled out and cruelly chastised once by a rude director in front of an entire movie crew.
He also recalls how impressed he was as a fresh immigrant in the early Thirties by the sight of the Hollywood lights as seen from a perch atop Sunset Boulevard. He was told then that the sight “belonged” to Ramon Navarro, the Mexican-born MGM star who reigned at the time as Hollywood’s premier leading man.
Milland was a real workhorse, and appeared in more than 70 productions of all stripes at MGM and at Paramount (his home for two decades) by the mid-Forties when director Billy Wilder cast him as dipsomaniac writer Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend. (See photo above.) By this time Milland began to take himself more seriously as an actor.
When the picture (largely shot with hidden cameras on the streets of New York) was completed, Milland’s performance as the alcoholic writer on a weekend binge was getting noticed. The actor was approached one day by a studio technician:
The sound department ran a rough cut of “Weekend” Saturday night, just checking the sound track. I wanna tell you something. You’re going to be nominated for an Academy Award. You can’t miss.
Milland’s response was typical of him: I gave him a quizzical look and told him to stop kidding around. The technician wasn’t kidding, and proposed a substantial bet giving the actor fifty to one odds that he would not only be nominated but actually win an Oscar. Your trouble is that you’re afraid to think about it.
But think about it Milland certainly did. The next three months were absolute hell. I was working but I wasn’t really there, the actor wrote.
Then came, finally, the morning the Oscar nominations were announced with the results splashed across the Los Angeles papers. And sure enough, there was Milland’s picture among those of the best actor nominees. Then I burst into tears. It was March, 1946. I was thirty-nine years old. The next four weeks were a phantasmagoria that brought me to the point of almost hating (Hollywood).
Milland decided NOT to attend the Oscar ceremonies. He told his wife, Mal, on the morning of the big day that I couldn’t face it and made up my mind not to attend. That did not go down well with his spouse. (She and Milland were married for 54 years until his death at 81 of lung cancer.)
With a look as cold as a Canadian nun, she said — what is printed at the top of this blog.
Upon departing a triumphant Oscar ceremony, Milland ordered his chauffeur to go out Sunset to the bridlepath and stop near Hillcrest. I got out, and with the Oscar in my hand, I …looked down at the lights (of Hollywood).
They seemed very bright that night. After a few minutes, I quietly said, “Mr. Navarro. Tonight they belong to me.”