The Oscar Experience: From pre-show freebies to the red carpet and beyond

FILE - An Oscar statue appears outside the Dolby Theatre for the 87th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 21, 2015. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File) (Matt Sayles)

Getting nominated for an Academy Award is a bit like being hit by a freight train – the impact is sudden, dramatic, and life-changing.

The first indications that a nominee has entered the Oscar whirlwind come right after the big announcement, in the form of endless freebies as William H. Macy (Fargo) fondly remembers.

“It’s a rollercoaster. Lots of bottles of champagne. I’m still drinking champagne. Lots of flowers,” Macy said. “I got four or five pairs of dark glasses.”

David Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night) loved the electronics that came in a studio gift basket.

General view of Oscar statue at the 94th Academy Awards nominees luncheon on Monday, March 7, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP) (Invision)

“The picture I was in was for Sony and they send me this little Sony color television,” he recalls. “Like, ‘Hey honey, there’s a TV in here!’”

After getting nominated for 2008′s Changeling, someone sent Angelina Jolie a customized figurine from “Sesame Street” to her hotel room.

“It was a little statue of Oscar the Grouch with garbage. And it said, ‘The Oscar goes to…’ and my name.” The actress still smiles at the memory. “NOBODY has that.”

The makers of an over-the-counter diarrhea medication thought they had the perfect gift to mark Emily Watson’s nomination for Breaking the Waves.

“I got a T-shirt from Imodium saying: ‘Imodium… for that moment when they open the envelope,’” she laughs.

The next step in the Oscar experience is the fashion designers who start reaching out to nominees like Nick Nolte.

“When it comes Oscar time, a lot of designers will hit on you,” says the actor famous for his mix-and-match outfits. “‘Wear my clothes! Wear these clothes!’ But since I’ve worn Armani clothes for years, I’ll combine Armani with medical pants. Whatever’s comfortable.”

Laura Dern arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Laura Dern absolutely loves that attention.

“Designers have been incredibly generous in giving me the most beautiful dresses and making you feel like a princess,” Dern said. “It’s the only time in your life that you dress up like that.”

Kathleen Quinlan from Apollo 13 agrees.

“There’s no bones about it, you get wooed. And they sit you down and just say, ‘Take your pick.’ And you go, ‘I like that, I like that.’ It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

Mira Sorvino was stunned by the clothing offers after being nominated for 1995′s, Mighty Aphrodite.

Actresses Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino pose together before the Academy Awards.

“It’s so funny. It’s like I go from shopping in bargain basement thrift stores a few months ago and now look, I’ve got these amazing, amazing designers saying, ‘Oh, you’d look great in our stuff.’ ‘Yeah? Sure, fine.’ The only problem is I can only wear just one,” Sorvino said.

When the big day arrives, the nominees take their tickets (two per person) and head off into the traditional Oscar night traffic jam.

Willem Dafoe (Platoon) remembers being stuck in a sea of limousines with the ceremony start-time rapidly approaching.

“All of a sudden, I saw all these people getting out of their cars,” Dafoe said. “It like an A to Z list of Hollywood movie stars running along in the streets through the crowds… I joined them.”

Upon arrival on the red carpet, the nominees slowly make their way down the press line, facing hundreds of reporters and cameras.

“Over the years it’s gotten more hilarious and more gossipy and more weird,” Dern said with a laugh. “They want to find out who’s wearing what and they’re asking all kinds of rude questions. It’s overwhelming, but it’s great.”

Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) brought along his mom to share the red carpet experience.

“I’ve never seen her that happy,” he said. “She got to be interviewed, got a dress, got her hair done. She got to meet Brad and Angelina and the whole thing.”

Once inside the theater, the nominees might notice a number of well-dressed men and women standing around, waiting. They are there to make sure the TV audience doesn’t see any empty seats.

John Malkovich earned his first major role, and an Oscar nomination, in 1984's "Places in the Heart." But before that he drove school buses, sold egg rolls and painted houses to make ends meet. (Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

“They have professional seat-sitters,” recalls John Malkovich (Places in the Heart).  “A lot of people are up or they’re out in the lobby or they’re in the bathroom and there are actually people hired to come and sit in your seat in their evening gowns and tuxes and they sit there until you come back.”

As the live telecast is about to start, whoever is hosting is getting themselves focused.

Hugh Jackman was standing with the floor director just before “go time.”

“And I’m standing in the wings, and he says, ‘OK, take your places.’ And he goes, ‘One minute.’  And I look out and I see Meryl, I’m seeing everybody. I’m like, ‘OK, have fun. All good.’ I’m in my head and then he goes, ‘Yo, Hugh.’ ‘Yeah?’ He goes, ‘You’re about to host the Oscars dude. And there’s a billion people watching. Have fun.’ Ha, ha, I started laughing as I walked out,” he recalled.

Tom Hanks was definitely NOT laughing when he was asked to be an emergency fill-in host for Billy Crystal for a 1990s Oscar ceremony.

“I got a call from Gil Cates who was a producer,” Hanks recalled. “And he said, ‘Look, I got a problem. Billy is very sick. Would you consider coming in and doing it?’ And it was two days before. And I said, ‘Sure.’ It’s the easiest thing in the world. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Crystal’s material.’ And I would have done whatever it was. But Billy’s a pro. He wasn’t feeling well when he did it, but he was fine enough to do it.”

2007: Billy Crystal, actor and comedian known for his several stints as host of the Academy Awards and roles in movies including "City Slickers" and "When Harry Met Sally"

The Oscar ceremonies are long and regularly stretch beyond three hours. People start to get hungry, which is why veteran attendees like the late Debbie Reynolds would come prepared.

“A lot of people have munchies in their pockets,” she explained. “You’re starving to death, frankly, through the whole thing. Very major stars’ stomachs are going, ‘Rumble, rumble.’ They really should serve food during the show.”

As the ceremony progresses, another basic instinct starts to emerge: the need for a bathroom visit. Michael Douglas knows the drill.

“If you’re out front and you’re nominated, then your trip to the john is very fast and nervous,” he said.

Robert Duvall (U.S. Army) (Coburn Dukehart/NPR)

Robert Duvall couldn’t break away until after his name was announced for Tender Mercies.

“I had to go to the bathroom bad and when I won the Oscar, I put it on top of the urinal and let it sit there for a few minutes,” he said.

The winners, of course, receive the Academy Award statuette while the runners-up keep an assortment of lesser items.

“You get a chocolate Oscar, which you swiftly bite the head off of,” laughed Miranda Richardson of Damage.

Morgan Freeman kept a number of paper mementos: “You have the certificate that they give you for the nomination. So I have certificates all over the place from different nominations that I had.”

Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in a scene from 1989 best picture winner "Driving Miss Daisy." Tandy became the oldest actress to ever win an Oscar in the best actress category. Freeman was nominated for best actor.

Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation) remembers a particular piece of clothing that many nominees receive.

“They send you a sweatshirt which says, ‘Congratulations Oscar nominee.’ And I wondered, ‘Where are you going wear this?’ You know? When you go to the gym?” she said “You get a sweatshirt. You know, they can never take the sweatshirt away from you.”

Getting your Oscar home can be an adventure as Emma Thompson discovered when she took her prize for Sense and Sensibility through airport security.

“I wrapped it in an old sock to keep it from getting scratched, and I had it in my handbag,” Thompson said. “And when it went through that thing that checks for guns, of course, they pounced on it because they clearly thought it was some sort of weapon, which it could easily be. You could kill someone very efficiently with an Oscar. And they unwrapped it and, of course, all hell broke loose. And they all wanted a picture with it. Everybody was going, ‘Could I have my picture taken with this Oscar?’ Everybody in Customs. And then they abducted it on the plane to take up to the flight deck.”

Colin Firth decided to go with the flow while flying back to England with his Oscar for The King’s Speech.

“And they came up to me and asked me if it was OK for the pilot to make an announcement when the plane landed,” Firth recalled. “Some sort of congratulatory thing and I thought, ‘You’ve got to party this time. You’ve got to share it. You’re coming home with gold, and it’s great.’ And I ended up getting the statue out and people kind of gathered and that was the time you could just go with it and it was wonderful.”

Ben Affleck, left, and Matt Damon present the award for best original screenplay at the Oscars on Feb. 26, 2017. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File) (2017 Invision)

Once the Oscar is home, the fascination continues, as Good Will Hunting winner Ben Affleck discovered.

“All my friends by now have seen it and taken their pictures with it. My friend had his kid do a whole bunch of photos. He was like a year and a half old, holding the Oscar. Putting it in his mouth,” Affleck said. “It got like fooled around with so much and dropped by people wanting to come over. Eventually, I kind of put it conveniently out of reach.”

The late George Kennedy won his Oscar for Cool Hand Luke and had to make a decision after it was damaged.

“Mine fell off the mantelpiece during the recent earthquake and knocked his head off,” Kennedy said. “I contacted the Academy and they said, ‘We’ll replace it for $300. You’re covered with your insurance, so it won’t cost you a dime.’ And I’ve gotten to think about it. I don’t want it replaced. That beat-up old Oscar was the one I was handed way back in 1968 and it doesn’t matter to me that his head is going to be beside him. That’s my Oscar and that’s the one I want to keep.”

The one thing that most nominees like Dern DON’T get to keep from the Oscar experience is the incredible jewelry provided by designers for the big night.

OK, let’s get something straight,” Dern explained. “Some of it’s free and some of it’s borrowed. And at midnight you turn into a pumpkin because there’s someone at the door saying, ‘Can we have the jewelry back?’ Ha, ha.”