This year’s Academy Awards are far enough behind us that those who were truly interested can still name some winners. Those moderately interested can remember a few of the top categories, while those of us with no interest have, of course, no memories of any Oscars being handed out to anyone. In fact, the only “Oscar night” I can remember is the night I received one.
I was seated at Spanky’s bar in downtown Chapel Hill on a Saturday night in 1993. Back then, the whole bar section was raised on a platform about three feet above the rest of the downstairs. It was smoky in those days, too, really smoky. The undergrad smoker wannabes puffed away without inhaling. Such a smoking veteran that I’d quit by then, I simply shook my head at this transparent attempt at adulthood.
Spanky’s was also crowded, really crowded. A gang of standees four deepwannabes with a different wantbuttressed those of us lucky enough to be seated at the bar. Occasionally, an arm would push over my shoulder to accept a beer from the bartender. Reaching in, the refs would have called it. No whistle ever blew.
Another female arm reached in, but this one wasn’t retrieving; it was delivering. She plunked an Oscar next to my beer glass. “Finally! I’m recognized!” I shouted, my arms stretched toward the ceiling. Shouting nonsense in a noisy bar isn’t like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Spanky’s was noisy, really noisy, so nobody heard my jubilation and few noticed the statue. I folded my arms on the bar and leaned in to examine the little statue, eyeball-to-eyeball. Real? Fake? Either way, whose was it?
When I was in high school, my old man, a metallurgist, came home from work one day and said he had been to the R.S. Owens foundry in Chicago to help them with a production problem. They cast the Oscars there, he told me. “The Oscars? Really?” I asked. “Couldja get me one? A copy, I mean.” No, he’d said. The originals are heavily guarded, and copies aren’t made. A fake will get somebody in trouble.
Remembering dad’s story, I knew the statuette next to my Sierra Nevada must be the real deal. I leaned in further to read the engraving on the little copper plate on the basesomething about “Best Documentary Feature.” There was more, but Spanky’s didn’t invite extensive reading. The engraving looked professional, but the matchbook-sized copper tag appeared as if it had been hastily glued to the base. Even a fumble-fingered baton twirler would expect better.
I turned around, held the statue on my knee, and met the winners, a trio of young women. Crowd noise prevented me from hearing the full explanation, but I gathered that they were local, left-wing, radical filmmakers. They had exposed support by the Pentagon of the repressive Panamanian military. Their film, The Panama Deception, and its impact had earned their group the Oscar. I bought the victors beers until the bartender shouted last call. That’s one way to get a drink.