The Daily Gamecock

On the Academy Awards, past and present: Q&A with film historian Patricia Ward Kelly, widow of Gene Kelly

Film historian Patricia Ward Kelly, biographer and widow of famed actor, singer, dancer and director Gene Kelly, answered a few questions for The Daily Gamecock about personal experiences with the Oscars, both past present.

Are you excited about the Oscars this year? What part are you looking forward to the most?

I am a bit anxious about the Awards this year. I have so many good friends in the running that I feel more nervous about it than usual.

I’m sure you’ve attended the Oscars. What were your experiences like? Was the overall mood expectant, celebratory, tense, etc.?

Gene and I never attended the Awards themselves. He always preferred going to the party that Irving and Mary Lazar held at Spago restaurant up on Sunset. Everyone wanted an invitation to “Swifty’s” party. Irving was our literary agent and he and Mary were good friends of ours, so we were always included. The old guard came to see the show and then the winners and others poured in after the ceremony was over. It was quite a mix of people and quite a night. It would be hard to beat that experience!

What were Gene Kelly’s experiences like with the Oscars? Did he have any special memories from past awards ceremonies?

Gene was working abroad when he was awarded the Special Honorary Oscar 65 years ago, so he was not there in person to receive it. But he was extremely proud to be acknowledged by the Academy: “In appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”

Do you personally have any special memories from past Academy Awards?

I often go to the Playboy Mansion to watch the Awards. Hugh Hefner is a huge supporter of film restoration and preservation. He greatly admired Gene and, very graciously, he has invited me to his movie nights, including his screening of the Oscars. In 2009, I was there and I remember been very proud of my friend Anthony Dod Mantle when he received the Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire.

Do you have any predictions for this year’s awards?

Some people are very good at making predictions, but I find it difficult - and this year, especially, when I feel like the political climate in the country and in the world could weigh-in on the outcomes. It is also a tricky business as you are often comparing apples and oranges.

What is your opinion on the entire idea of the Academy Awards? Do you think the ceremonies popularize cinema as a whole? Or is it simply a night of glamour, pomp and circumstance?

I was at the Academy of Motion Pictures the other night for a special presentation of the nominees for best documentaries – short subjects and features. I was so impressed with the quality of all of the contenders and by the passion and commitment of the people who made the films. I feel like a very high bar has been set and that these films give an important voice to so many issues that deserve our attention – Syrian refugees, the war in Syria, autism, racism in America, to name just a few. If the Awards help to shine a light on these artists and their work at a time when freedom of the press is threatened, then there is great value in that.

If the Oscar fervor helps draw attention to a film like La La Land – a musical with an original concept that is difficult to finance – then there is also value in that, as it may pave the way for companies to support more original works and not just regurgitations of Broadway successes. And the same goes for films like Moonlight and Lion; that they were nominated for Oscars may help filmmakers get funding for other less commercial films.

You were involved in the creative process for “La La Land.” Can you tell me a bit about what that process was like? What are your hopes for the film on Oscars night?

I feel a bit odd saying that I was involved in the creative process of La La Land. It was such a monumental undertaking and if I played a small role in it I am honored. The director Damien Chazelle, choreographer Mandy Moore, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone came for dinner here at my house and to take peek at Gene’s archives. They saw Gene’s annotated script for Singin’ in the Rain and his original choreography notes for the iconic number. We talked about Gene’s revolutionary use of the camera to capture dance on film; his insistence on shooting numbers head-on and full-figure; his tendency to cut on turns so the cuts are less evident; his dislike of close-ups in dance numbers; his dislike of chopped up body parts in the shooting and editing of dance numbers. They all did their homework and paid attention and I think you see the results in the film.

Damien invited me to a private screening at Lionsgate. Sitting alone in the theater, I kept wishing that Gene were there to see the film with me. He would have cheered and he would have been a tremendous mentor for these talented young people. I really felt his absence.

Any other thoughts about the Academy Awards? Will you be watching this Sunday?

I will be watching. And I will be rooting for my friends and for their fine work.