The golden gang... the people continuing our long Oscars pedigree
From the man who designed the iconic gold statue, to homegrown A-lister Saoirse Ronan, the Irish are always well represented at the Oscars. Ahead of tomorrow's ceremony, here we meet some of our past winners and nominees, to find out what it's really like to be in the running for an Academy Award
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
Although we're a small island in the Atlantic, Ireland's contribution to the Hollywood film industry has been monumental over the years. From actors to directors and animators to costume designers, many of our countrymen and women have been lauded at the most extravagant and important ceremony there is in movie-making - the Academy Awards.
This year is a particularly stellar one for the Irish at the Oscars; Lenny Abrahamson's Room is nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and a nod for the director himself. Saoirse Ronan is up for Best Actress in Brooklyn, Michael Fassbender is nominated for his depiction of Steve Jobs in the film of the same name, and filmmaker Benjamin Cleary is nominated for his short film Stutterer.
But our history with Oscar goes back to the very beginning; like many big American industries the Irish were in on the ground floor, with an Irish man even credited with the design of the golden statuette. Cedric Gibbons was also the first Irishman to win the Oscar he crafted, for art direction in The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1929. He's was credited with 11 more wins during his years as art director at MGM, and many more nominations.
Over the subsequent decades there were several more Irish wins for those both in front of and behind the camera. George Bernard Shaw won for his Pygmalion screenplay for the 1939 film, while Dubliner Michele Burke had success twice in the make-up department in 1982 and again a decade later for Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula.
It was in the late 1980s and '90s that Irish film really stormed the ceremony though; My Left Foot was nominated for five awards in 1989, with Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker taking home the big gongs for their performances. Neil Jordan won an Oscar for The Crying Game script in 1992 with five other nods, and In The Name Of The Father received seven nominations in 1993.
Since then, the nominations have been more sporadic and the wins fewer and far between, but every one has brought Irish pride home. Short films The Shore, A Note Of Triumph and Six Shooter all took awards between 2006 and 2012, and who can forget Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's win for Best Original Song in 2007, when the pair performed the duet of Falling Slowly and beat three songs from the Disney musical Enchanted.
It remains to be seen what will happen at this year's ceremony, but hopes are high. Saoirse Ronan has been nominated before, at the tender age of 13, for Atonement, but the bookies have Brie Larson favourite to take the award. Still, Larson is nominated for Room, a film by an Irish director and producer, and written by an Irish woman, so we'll count her as one of our own. Will Room or John Crowley's Brooklyn be able to fend off competition from Spotlight and The Revenant to take Best Picture? Does it even matter?
This month, Liam Neeson told the Sunday Independent that he was relieved to have lost when he was nominated for Schindler's List in 1994. "To be honest, when they announced Tom Hanks' name my main emotion was relief," he said. "I was dreading walking all those steps up to the podium and thanking 17,000 people, making that speech with billions watching me. I feel for the nominees every year. It's a very nerve-wracking situation to be in."
But when I spoke to members of the exclusive club of Irish Oscar nominees past and present (see right), it became clear that even a nomination can change your life when it comes to the Academy Awards…
Oscar category: Producer of Room which is nominated for Best Picture this year.
Head of Element Pictures Ed (49) lives in Ranelagh, Dublin, with his wife Aoife and their five-year-old son.
"I always loved movies growing up, but I really got in to filmmaking in college. I'd been friends with Lenny Abrahamson when we were teenagers and when we both attended Trinity College, I had the idea to set up some kind of filmmaking company on campus. So we started what was then known as the Trinity Video Society, and made some horrendous videos. After some time, we made a documentary on Lenny's grandfather who was a refugee living in Ireland, and then I commissioned Lenny's first fictional film in 1991, a short called Three Joes. We've worked together many times since.
"Lenny and I had both been keen to do more ambitious stuff on an international scale when we came across the novel Room by Emma Donoghue in 2010. Lenny read it and really took to it; he had a strong sense of how he would make it. Then the book got a lot of traction and won lots of awards, so we weren't optimistic that we'd get the rights. Lenny wrote a long letter to Emma outlining just how he'd make the film. Then we met Emma and had a real connection; it all went from there.
"You never really know if a movie is going to be an awards season contender.
"The fact that the book was so fantastic and had such a high profile helped of course, and the fact that Lenny's star kept on rising. But there are always challenges with material and with storytelling, so no project is ever a slam dunk by any means. To find something that cuts through and stands out is really important, and hard to do, but we like a challenge. We knew that if we could do on film what Emma had done in the novel, we'd have a shot.
"There were moments of anxiety along the way, and one of them was around casting the actor to play Jack. When casting a young child, you should really wait until you know the movie is happening, because physically they can change so much. We were about three or four months out, and couldn't say that we'd have our Jack. But then we met Jacob Tremblay, of all the children we saw, he was the one that was best for this role. I often wonder what would have happened if we hadn't found him when we did.
"Awards season has been a lot of craic so far! Certainly since we've been nominated, because you're able to let loose a little. Besides the big awards ceremonies there are countless lunches and other events, so you get to meet all the other people who are nominated. You're in competition, but there's nothing you can do - your movie is made, so you become friends with them. It's not like you have to prepare to fight or play one another!
"Everyone is in it together. And this year there's a big Irish contingent who all knew one another before. We're all thrilled that this is such a great year for Irish film.
"I'm not nervous right now, but I will be. The whole thing is slightly surreal, and this is my first time on the Oscars circuit. You turn your head and there are Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Lady Gaga… For me, Sly Stallone is something of a towering mythical figure; I don't get star-struck, but he's a proper legend."
Oscar category: Director of Give Up Yer Aul Sins, which was nominated for Best Animated Short Film in 2002.
The CEO of Brown Bag Films, Cathal (45) lives in Clontarf in Dublin.
"Looking back, the Oscars were an incredible experience. There are some wonderful memories from the time we were at the Academy Awards, but the best memories were from the nominees' luncheon two weeks before, because that was when we got to meet and mingle with all the nominees.
"Oscar nominations definitely open doors in the US but I find you're only as good as your last job and awards ceremonies don't pay the bills. After Give Up Yer Aul Sins, we set about creating an environment where talent could flourish and it was an ambition in Brown Bag to get back to the Oscars a second time. I'm probably prouder of our second nomination in 2009 for Granny O'Grimm than I am of my own, because this was a short film that Nicky Phelan directed a few years after he joined us from college. He has since gone on to direct a number of major series for the BBC and Disney.
"I haven't personally directed since Give Up Yer Aul Sins, and I far prefer the business side of animation and managing an environment where creativity thrives.
"Brown Bag is based in Smithfield in Dublin, near to the Lighthouse cinema. The company was founded 22 years ago.
"After the Oscars, we positioned our business to focus on long-form TV series and are now employing almost 250 staff producing children's content that's watched by more than 100 million kids around the world every year. Our work has seen us at various awards ceremonies like the BAFTAs, Emmys and the Peabodys, but the Oscars were definitely the most fun.
"In more recent years the animation sector has seen lots more nominees like Tomm Moore and Paul Young (see above) as well as Nicky Phelan, Ruairi Robinson and Daragh O'Connell, which is incredible for our industry."
Oscar category: Winner for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for Avatar, 2010.
Born and raised in Tallaght, Dublin, visual effects specialist Richie (45) now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.
"I studied traditional 2D animation in Ballyfermot College and when I graduated, along with some of the lads from the class, I had an offer from Disney in Paris. It's something I truly regret not getting to experience but serendipitously, 1994 was a year that Irish people could apply for a Morrison Visa, and both myself and my partner Aisling managed to land one. With the visas in place and 2D booming in the States, it seemed like an obvious choice to move over and jump in feet first.
"The movie The Iron Giant was the impetus for me switching from traditional animation to CG and live action integrated effects. My mindset was, a computer is just a more expensive pencil, and I was one of very few animators who ended up with 2D and CG credits. A few years later I got to work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was an amazing experience - a chance to work with a top class visual effects company and an opportunity to live in New Zealand on and off for a couple of years. Working on the character of Gollum was an enormous opportunity to push the reality of animation.
"The opportunity to work with James Cameron was a huge honour. Terminator and Aliens are two of the reasons I ended up in the film industry. Working with Jim on Avatar was an adventure, it always is. He sets the bar so high for himself and everyone around him, and you know he's going to drill down on every element so you tend to do your homework! But when you're mired in making a movie, awards or accolades are the last thing on your mind.
"The Oscars ceremony itself is long, but arriving, walking the red carpet and attending the Governors Ball afterwards were all really fun. I don't remember being nervous but I probably was! Truth be told, I don't have a clear recollection of the moment I won. I just remember walking to the stage seeing Jim clapping and cheering us on. As far as a speech, we'd such a large crew to thank, it was just a laundry list of names!
"After the Governors Ball, we went to an Irish bar called Dillon's, which sadly no longer exists. All of the other Irish were there - the lads from Brown Bag and Cartoon Saloon, as well as our family. From there we went to the Vanity Fair party. As for surreal moments, there's one that I can't fully share. Backstage, heading to the press room I ended up in a lift with Gerard Butler, Bradley Cooper and Zac Efron. Needless to say it was a fun moment, but that's a story best told over a pint!
"I think in a lot of ways it's a choice as to how you let something like winning an Oscar affect your life. We made a conscious effort to keep everything the same. Like everyone else with three kids, we're happy just muddling through day to day and we hope we're doing a good job. On the professional side it certainly doesn't hurt, but the truth is, it's what you put on screen that counts."
Oscar category: Twice nominated as producer for Best Animated Feature, in 2010 for The Secret of Kells and 2015 for Song of The Sea.
One of the three brains behind Cartoon Saloon, a Kilkenny-based animation studio. Paul (41) lives with his fiancée, Yvonne, and their daughter.
"Myself and Tomm Moore met in college in Ballyfermot, studying animation. After we left we set up business in Kilkenny and made our first trailer, The Secret of Kells. That was 16 years ago. We'd no idea how to finance a film, none of us had ever worked in a film company before. We went to the Irish Film Board and got great advice, and started pitching the idea. It took five years to raise the money to start production, and in the meantime we did work for other people on their movies.
"We try to be very authentic in our portrayal of Ireland on screen - the way the characters talk in our films is the way our kids talk. But they work abroad because the stories are fairly universal, and have an emotional impact too. We took liberties with the mythology and added stuff, because that's storytelling. And kids just enjoy characters.
"Our first nomination for The Secret of Kells was very grassroots. We met our American distributors at an animation festival in New York, and one condition of us going with them is that we'd go for a shot at an Oscar. Then we were asked to go to LA and screen the film, and there seemed to be quite a buzz about it so we spent a bit of time there. Then an animator over there spread the word about the film, and after a while we ended up screening it in Pixar up in San Francisco. There's no real mad competition in animation like there is like in live action, and no massive egos either. We're not famous, so it's all about the art for us. We found that people really liked watching good old-fashioned 2D.
"We were still blown away when we were nominated, but I think it was just being very visible that did it. We got to go to all these amazing places, meet incredible people. We were going against Up, and knew we had no chance of winning. But you're guaranteed people will watch your film, which is amazing.
"We were nominated again in 2015 for Song of the Sea, and we went to the Oscars on both occasions. The best experience for me is the nominees' luncheon about two weeks before the main event. It's a much smaller crowd, and everyone is just there chatting to each other. I remember Tarantino asking me, "What are you in for?" and then being really annoyed because he hadn't seen it yet.
"At the lunch, I went to the toilet and told Tomm to keep my seat. When I came back, he'd his head in his hands and told me, "I just told Sandra Bullock that she couldn't sit beside me". There she was sitting one seat over! He was mortified.
"The Oscars ceremony itself is a little more tense because everyone is wondering what's going to happen and most are preparing themselves to lose. But look, it was very glamorous. Still, we were warned it's a long night, so we had little energy bars in our tuxedos!"
Oscar category: Nominee for Best Achievement in Costume Design for The Queen, 2007.
From Dublin, Consolata has been working on costumes in theatre and film since the early 1980s and her credits include Angela's Ashes and The Iron Lady. She won an Emmy in 2004 for her work on The Lion in Winter.
"I remember The Queen itself had a lot of excitement surrounding it by the time awards season came around; it seems to have touched on something and fascinated a lot of people, particularly in the United States. And a lot of that was down to Helen Mirren's performance, which was quite remarkable.
"But even though there was a lot of energy around the film as a whole, the Oscar nod came something out of the blue. I thought the costumes were fairly low key, but it was incredibly satisfying because I feel very strongly that every costume is important, whether it's wild, beautiful, ugly or quite ordinary.
"The Oscar nomination was particularly special as it came from my peers, all the other people working in the same part of the industry. That was the loveliest thing of all, to be recognised from those intimately connected with the craft.
"My journey in to the film industry was quite unexpected. I was working in theatre when I got the opportunity to work on a film, and I was fascinated by the art. I started doing very small films, then moved in to television and then in to bigger films. It was all a very natural progression and very organic, and I absolutely loved it.
"Awards season is incredible because you go through all the rituals. The screenings, question and answer sessions and events all happen before the big event. It's great because everyone there is completely obsessed by film, and delightfully curious and enthusiastic.
"It's all very energising, and fantastic to observe the wonderful mix of hard-edged business and the creative coming together to tell a story. Films are about that coming together, very strange and intense, and then gone as if by magic.
"I suppose I was nervous on the night, but I had no expectation because there were some very strong contenders. And Helen won, which was the whole thing really - the actor disappearing in to this character.
"The nomination made a difference in that I now get to read really interesting scripts and I get approached about interesting projects. But in the end, what actually counts is what you've done. That's what you're judged on, the body of work that you're able to produce. It keeps you on your mettle, but on every project you prove yourself over and over again."
The victorious Irish at the Oscars
1957: MGM's Cedric Gibbons (above) wins his final Oscar for Art Direction on Somebody Up There Likes Me. It was the Dublin man's 11th win and 39th nomination. A founding member of the Academy, he is credited with the design of the Oscar statuette itself.
1983: Michéle Burke becomes to first Irish woman to ever win an Oscar, for make-up on Quest For Fire. The Kildare woman won again for Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992.
1986: After a career spanning a quarter of a century, Josie MacAvin wins for art direction and set decoration on Out Of Africa. The Dublin woman would go on to win an Emmy award for her work on Gone With The Wind TV spin off Scarlet in 1995.
1990: Brenda Fricker does it for mammies everywhere when she takes Best Actress for My Left Foot, the first Irish woman to win an Oscar for acting. Daniel Day Lewis - then resident in Wicklow and long since claimed as our own - also won Best Actor for his role in the film. He has since added two more Best Actor wins, for There Will Be Blood in 2007 and Lincoln in 2012.
2003: Nominated seven times for Best Performance by a Leading Actor - the first time for Lawrence of Arabia in 1963 - without winning over the previous 40 years, Peter O'Toole (above) was given an honorary Oscar at the age of 71. The Connemara man was again nominated for Best Actor in 2007 for his role in Venus.
2008: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's Falling Slowly melted hearts the world over both with their passionate performance and emotional reaction to winning Best Original Song.