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Michelle Obama announced the best picture award for the film “Argo” live from the White House during the 85th Academy Awards Sunday. Secret negotiations led to Obama’s role in the awards ceremony.

Monica Almeida • New York Times ,

How Oscar met Michelle

  • Article by: Steven Zeitchik
  • Los Angeles Times
  • February 27, 2013 - 4:49 PM

 

On Feb. 14, a Hollywood delegation showed up at the White House. Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, film mogul Harvey Weinstein and Motion Picture Academy president Hawk Koch wanted to see if they could secretly work out the details for Michelle Obama to present best picture at the Oscars 10 days later.

Senior members of the first lady’s team met with the group, discussing a series of questions from the big to the picayune, according to a person present who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk about the meeting.

For instance, would the Obama daughters be in the room, as well? (No, as it would be nearly midnight, and there was school the next day.) Should the presentation happen in a White House screening room or a ceremonial space? (The latter; it had to feel presidential.)

The group spent hours scouting spaces at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and ironing out logistics. They left feeling confident the trick could be pulled off.

The result of that meeting was one of the more unusual Academy Award presentations in history — done from 2,500 miles away by a face associated with Washington, not Hollywood — and gave Sunday’s show both a jolt of surprise and, for conservative pundits who saw the move as an unbecoming publicity stunt, a degree of controversy.

“This has been an exciting year for movies,” the first lady said by satellite from the Diplomatic Reception Room on Sunday night, after taking the handoff from Jack Nicholson in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. “These nine [best-picture nominees] took us back in time and all around the world. They made us laugh, they made us weep and they made us grip our armrests just a little tighter.”

She opened the Oscar envelope and read “Argo’s” name for best picture.

A pitch from Weinstein

The moment capped an awards season that had seen an atypical level of Washington involvement.

Just a few weeks before, Michelle Obama had hosted 9-year-old best-actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis at a White House screening, offering praise for her film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Also at the White House, Vice President Joe Biden had discussed mental health policy with “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper. Former President Jimmy Carter had endorsed “Argo”; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had condemned “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Nor were D.C. fixtures unfamiliar to awards-show audiences this year: Six weeks ago, another film figure arranged for a presidential personality to appear at a Hollywood ceremony, when Steven Spielberg recruited Bill Clinton to introduce “Lincoln” at the Golden Globes.

But Clinton no longer occupies the world’s most famous residence. To land Michelle Obama, producers had to jump through a few extra hoops.

Several months ago Zadan and Meron had the idea for the first lady to appear, hoping it would lend a different dimension to the show, and called on Weinstein, a major Obama donor, for help. The executive broached it to the first lady’s team when he attended the inauguration in January. At that point, “Argo” and “Lincoln” were considered favorites, and both films enjoyed a prominent D.C. connection, he noted to them. (Weinstein himself had two best-picture nominees, but neither was considered a front-runner.)

The original thought was to have the first lady fly out to the ceremony on Feb. 24, but a White House dinner with the nation’s governors that night made such travel impossible. Plans for a satellite presentation were put in place.

Producers enacted a number of efforts to ensure secrecy. To reduce the risk of a leak, ABC News’ political bureau, rather than its entertainment division, was involved in the physical production. Producers and the first lady’s office also found a room that wouldn’t be needed all weekend, since technicians needed to begin setup on Saturday. The Diplomatic Reception Room — a space that has enjoyed myriad uses over the years, including the site for FDR’s fireside chats — fit the bill.

Over the weekend, an employee for PriceWaterhouseCoopers traveled to Washington with the best picture envelope, in keeping with the academy’s policy of zealously guarding the names of winners. (Nicholson had a second envelope on stage in case the linkup didn’t go as planned.) A spokesman for the academy did not reply to a request seeking comment on the Obama appearance.

The movie-lover-in-chief

The moment brought a level of novelty to a ceremony that many saw as flagging, and a degree of energy to a category whose winner was widely forecast. For the White House, it provided a platform at a show watched by more than 40 million people in this country and hundreds of millions more around the world.

But not everyone appreciated the effort.

Conservative bloggers were quick to pounce on the appearance. On the Washington Post website, right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin called the move “downright weird” and said it made the White House seem “small and grasping.” In a post on Breitbart.com, Joel Pollak labeled it “obscene.”

The criticism was met with a response from the liberal group Media Matters, which pointed out that both Ronald Reagan and Laura Bush had appeared on the telecast while they occupied the White House.

For its part, Obama’s office said that the first lady had little desire to make a statement as much as offer a general word of encouragement.

“The Academy Awards approached the First Lady about being a part of the ceremony,” Kristina Schake, communications director for Michelle Obama, said in a statement. “As a movie lover, she was honored to present the award and celebrate the artists who inspire us all — especially our young people — with their passion, skill and imagination.”

For those wondering if it’s a new trend, though, don’t count on it: At the moment, the fall 2013 roster of prestige movies doesn’t show many politically themed films.

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