As promised, through the rest of the day we’ll take a look at the Academy Awards through the eyes of Abigail Phelps. Her first trip to the Oscars accompanied her first nomination, which happened to be for her first acting role ever. Her date that evening was her best friend/unemployed actor George Clooney. And though she was up for the greatest honor a film actor can receive, she could think only of her messy love life.
Oh, and it may be helpful to know…Chris and John who are talked about in this excerpt? Christopher Dean and John F. Kennedy Jr.
So, like I said, in 1985 I was on top of the world. My very first acting role ever had resulted in awards and nominations galore. I got offered many other roles after the gigantic success of Out of Africa, but I turned them all down. It was very flattering, but I considered acting a one-time thing. It had been the right circumstances at the right time, with Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack, and I got to go to Kenya and meet interesting people and see animals in the wild which I had previously only seen in the zoo. It was amazing and I knew I would treasure it always, but I didn’t get bitten by the acting bug at that point.
I think I had really done it, at least in part, to stay busy and keep my mind off of my disastrous personal life. I was so lonely. I was in my mid-twenties, still a virgin, and messing up every relationship I had. But then again, I’d only dated the two guys. And had I really dated either of them? Chris and I became a couple just days before we broke up. Five years of build-up, and then it all went to hell in a matter of hours. John and I had been together for two years, but those two years were spent trying to squeeze in a dinner together while I was training for the Olympics and he was finishing college.
I was such a romantic failure. It was George who pointed that out to me, in the way that only a true best friend can. I’ll never forget it. We were at the Academy Awards – our first of many together – held that year at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It was a fun and relaxed evening for us – he was there as a spectator, and so was I. I knew that there was absolutely no chance I would win, and that’s not just me being humble. Out of Africa was a huge hit, of course, and the film received eleven nominations, matched only by The Color Purple. There was a very good chance that the film would win a lot of Oscars, and it did – it won seven, unmatched by anything – but I had been nominated for lots of awards all through the season, and I lost everything. Well, that’s not true. They liked me in Italy. But that was great for me. The pressure was off, and George and I had a great time.
As we sat there during the commercial break right before they announced Best Actress, George leaned over to me and said, “Do you have a speech ready?”
I laughed. “You mean my It-Was-An-Honor-Being-Nominated Speech? Yes, tried and true and ready to go!”
“No, I’m serious, what if you win this thing? What are you going to say?”
“I haven’t even thought about it,” I lied.
“You’re lying.” George cocked his eyebrow at me and smiled that Clooney smile. “Here’s what I think. I think you’re sure you won’t win – and okay, you probably won’t – but you prepared a speech which says everything you’re afraid to say, because then at least if you don’t say it, it’s not your fault. You were prepared to, but the award went to…who? Jessica Lange? Are we betting on Jessica Lange this time? I forget.”
I looked at him and I was pretty annoyed. I wasn’t annoyed that he was saying what he was saying – George and I have the right to say anything to each other if it is said in love. I was just annoyed because he was right.
“Do you really want to hear it?” I pulled a little note card out of my handbag.
“I really do.”
So I began reading my acceptance speech to him – the one I had never intended for anyone to hear. I read it very quietly so no one would hear and think that I was practicing. How vain that would be!
“Thank you all. I’d like to thank the Academy for this great honor.” I looked up at George with a look that I hoped expressed how stupid I felt. He just smiled at me, enjoying himself a little too much. I continued, “I’m up here alone, and that feels wrong. I’m a girl who needs a partner -”
George smiled smugly. “I knew it.”
The orchestra began to play the music indicating the ceremony was continuing, and F. Murray Abraham took to the stage to present the award for Best Actress. George and I kept whispering.
“Knew what? I think it’s a nice speech. I talk about how much I loved being Bob’s partner in this film. And I talk about -”
“Chris. You talk about Chris, don’t you?” I silently tucked the paper back into my clutch as the color rose to my cheeks. “You’re so dramatic, Abby! You always have been. Ten bucks says you quote some ‘Vienna’ lyrics in there.” I wish I’d thought of that. “Why don’t you just tell him you love him? You know that if you called him up and told him you are head over heels in love with him and that you are fine with never seeing John again, the two of you could be together and you could cut out all of the drama. But you can’t do that.”
“And the nominees are…”
We stopped talking, knowing that the cameras would be on me soon.
“Abigail Phelps. Out of Africa.”
I kept looking straight ahead and smiled while the other nominees were announced. After Geraldine Page was announced as the winner, and I applauded and looked thrilled for Geraldine, whom I had never met in my life, and never even seen in a movie, including the one for which she had just beaten me to an Oscar, George started talking again.
“You owe me fifty bucks.”
I let out a loud laugh, which thankfully couldn’t be heard over Geraldine’s ovation. “You did not pick Geraldine Page. You picked Jessica Lange. You just said so. And I picked Whoopi Goldberg. We both lose. Now, as you were saying?”
“Now, to present the award for Best Actor: Sally Field.”
“You’re not willing to give up all the drama. You love that they both love you. You love that they hate each other because of how much they love you, and that’s why you don’t date. You’re afraid that if you just dated some nice, normal guy who maybe you didn’t love at first sight but who you could get to know and maybe fall in love with, you know, the way most people do it, then you would be bored. Because that’s just not how you do things. And that’s okay. I accept that about you. And when you’re old and gray and alone and not understanding why John and Chris don’t fight over you anymore, I’ll still visit you. And we’ll sit together and watch Out of Africa and Bolero and reflect on your golden days. I won’t even bring my twenty-two-year-old girlfriend around, because I am your best friend and don’t want to make you feel bad about yourself.”
“And the winner is…William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman!”
I applauded William Hurt’s victory, kept facing forward, and leaned over and talked to George out of the corner of my mouth. “I will kill you one day. It may be while you sleep, it may not.”
George laughed and I couldn’t help but smile. He put his arm around me and pulled me close.
“You really do think I am a complete romantic failure, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, putting his head against mine. “But you’re my romantic failure. Now,” he sat up and began looking around the pavilion, “how much will you give me if I can get Geraldine Page’s phone number?”
We sat back and watched Sydney Pollack win Best Director and Out of Africa win Best Picture, and there, on top of the world, I suddenly had a very real desire for something boring to happen in my life.