INSIDE SCOOP ON THE OSCARS: A Philadelphian Ex-Hollywood Insider’s Perspective

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THE REVENANT is Ralph Hirshorn's prediction to win Best Film at the Oscars this year (although not necessarily his favorite). Find out Sunday at Prince Theatre!

THE REVENANT is Ralph Hirshorn’s prediction to win Best Film at the Oscars this year (although not necessarily his favorite). Find out Sunday at Prince Theatre!

by Nathan Lerner
Were you able to score tickets to Los Angeles’ Dolby Center for the 88th annual Academy Awards festivities? If not, don’t despair. There is an appealing alternative, which is considerably closer to home.

The Philadelphia Film Society will mark the occasion with a gala evening on Oscar night. Held at the Prince Theater downtown, the event will be replete with a red carpet, small bites, drinks, as well as the Academy Awards ceremony projected onto the venue’s big screen.

Philadelphia native Ralph Hirshorn is an erstwhile elector of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which doles out the gold statuettes. In addition, he is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Film Society. It provides Hirshorn with a unique perspective on the Oscars themselves as well as the local celebration of the event.

In 1959, while matriculating as an undergraduate at Yale University, Hirshorn made a short subject that was distributed by Grove Press. Hirshorn characterized it as “an avant garde satire.” According to Hirshorn, “It was something of an underground hit.”

His university presented the film to the Screen Producers Guild for consideration for their Jesse L. Lasky Gold Medallion. At the ceremony, Hirshorn rubbed elbows with some screen luminaries. “I was presented with the award by Eva Marie Saint at a star-studded event at the Beverly Hilton,” he related. He also met Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, Jack Warner and Kim Novak.”

The student film served as springboard for Hirshorn. Columbia Pictures offered him a contract, which led to a few years in various positions. This included being a story editor, associate producer, and assistant to the head of production.

Hirshorn was a member of the Academy for about 30 years. He reminisced, “When I joined, the studios still sent employees as proxies for their chosen Award prospects.”

Describing the Oscar Awards ceremony, Hirshorn insisted, “It is not like going to anything else.”

However, Hirshorn conceded, “I actually attended very few of them.” He caviled, “The biggest problem is and was not being able to leave your seat.” Hirshorn qualified, “Although now, if you are in one of the balconies, where I always was, you can depart during one commercial break and return after another.” He added, “Starting a few years ago, there was a small bar for every aisle. Although, the show begins at 5 p.m. California time, a no-name attendee should occupy his or her seat one hour earlier.” Hirshorn asked, “Did I mention that it is formal?”

Hirshorn described the daunting logistics of attending. “Although the streets are blocked for use by official cars only, we got large window IDs. It is best to allow as much time as two hours to reach the theater and use a nearby free parking garage to save time, especially after the show.”

He clarified, “Although the favored mode of transit, at $85.00 an hour when I last visited, is black limousine, there are many luxury cars. The limos come from as far away as Las Vegas for the day. I chose to arrive in the Mitsubishi I rented at the airport. Hertz was proud!”

Hirshorn vividly recalled the 1960 Oscar race. “Columbia’s misguided hopes were on Pepe, a blatant ripoff of Around the World in 80 Days, which had previously won for United Artists.” He chortled, “I assure you I did not vote for it.”

Following the death of his father, Hirshorn abandoned his promising Hollywood career in order return home so that he could care for his mother and salvage the family business, the Hirshorn Co. This ultimately led to his resuming permanent residence back in Philadelphia.

In 1992, the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema was started by International House. As an avid cinephile with an industry background, it was only natural that Hirshorn would be recruited to become a member of its Board of Directors. In 2001, the Philadelphia Film Society was formed and assumed the production of the festival and presented an ambitious array of other events. Since its inception, Hirshorn has served continuously on the successor organization’s board of directors.

Hirshorn expressed enthusiasm about his involvement with the various iterations of the festival. “I have enjoyed its evolution from its creation and stewardship by the International House and its Board Chairman, Laurada Byers, (a former Chestnut Hill resident and continuing member of the current Board of Directors),” he said. He conceded, “There were some shaky independent times.” However, he touted the healthy current status of the Philadelphia Film Society, which he proclaimed as “a major cultural institution with two theaters, the Prince and the Roxy.”

With regards to this year’s crop of Oscar nominees, Hirshorn indicated that he was “quite happy.” He qualified, “There are always some worthy misses. There were a few Foreign Language oversights that really surprised me.”

He observed, “All in all, if the choices were as relatively even-handed then as now, I would not have quit the Academy.”

This year, some critics of the Academy have complained about the lack of diversity of the nominees. Some activists have advocated a boycott of the event. Hirshorn contended, “I think it is absurd to argue about diversity among the privileged few, especially after the Oscar was awarded to a film as mediocre as 12 Years a Slave, as recently as two years ago. It strikes me almost as pandering when at the same time, thousands of Blacks each year are unjustly pulled over by white policemen in order to be humiliated and occasionally incarcerated.”

In the past, Hirshorn has correctly predicted some real long-shot contenders. He asserted, “My best dark-horse call was Hurt Locker, when all the money was on Avatar.”

Regarding this year’s crop of contenders, Hirshorn asserted, “In my view, all of the nominated features deserved to be honored. Most are amazing, but my choice for Best Film Award would be Spotlight. It gets it across the board, including the subject, which could have been, and probably was for some, a turnoff. It should win for original screenplay.”

Putting aside his personal sentiments, Hirshorn concluded with a prediction: “I’m guessing the Best Film Award will go to The Revenant.”

The Philadelphia Film Society’s Awards Party & Screening will take place at the Prince Theatre (1412 Chestnut Street) on Sunday, Feb. 28, starting at 7 p.m.

For tickets and more information on the Philadelphia Film Society Awards Night, visit www.filmadelphia.org.

Nathan Lerner, the director of Davenport Communications, sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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3 Responses to INSIDE SCOOP ON THE OSCARS: A Philadelphian Ex-Hollywood Insider’s Perspective

  1. I always enjoy reading Nathan Lerner’s articles. It makes me feel as if I have insider information. Thanks for including me.
    Jackee Swartz

    Jackee Swartz
    February 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

  2. Enjoyed the article. Thanks for sending it to me. tv d

    Barbara Cooke
    February 27, 2016 at 4:08 pm

  3. Interesting views.

    Malikah
    February 29, 2016 at 2:04 pm

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