El Paso is less than a two-hour flight from Hollywood. Culturally, the two cities may be worlds apart. But when it comes to the Academy Awards, which will be handed out for the 89th time on Feb. 26, the distance isn’t as far as it seems.
While there are no Oscar winners living in El Paso, there are several people with Sun City tentacles who’ve been spotlighted by the Academy.
El Paso-born Debbie Reynolds, who died one day after daughter Carrie Fisher left us last December, was nominated for only one Oscar and did not win. She was up for Best Actress for her performance as the spunky Molly Brown in 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” but lost to Julie Andrews for a little movie called “Mary Poppins.”
Reynolds, who was 84 when she died, did receive a special Academy Award in 2015: the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. She was recognized for her 54-year run as president of the Thalians, a charitable group that promotes awareness and treatment of mental health. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have chosen only 38 people for the honor, including Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope and Angelina Jolie.
This August, the El Paso Community Foundation’s Plaza Classic Film Festival will pay tribute to Debbie Reynolds, who appeared at the festival in 2010. Movie screenings will include “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
The biggest Oscar win by a former El Pasoan is the best actor statue that El Paso High School and Texas Western College (now UTEP) alum F. Murray Abraham won in 1985.
Abraham had been acting for several years, but wasn’t particularly well known when he was cast as 19th century Italian composer (and Mozart rival) Antonio Salieri in Milos Forman’s film version of the Peter Shaffer play.
“It would be a lie if I told you I didn’t know what to say because I’ve been working on this speech for about 25 years,” an exhilirated Abraham said after accepting the Oscar from none other than Shirley MacLaine.
When Abraham didn’t appear to immediately capitalize on the award with more high-profile roles, movie critic Leonard Maltin described the so-called Oscar jinx a “F. Murray Abraham syndrome.” But Abraham had the last laugh, building a long and successful career in theater, film (including Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and TV (Showtime’s “Homeland”).
Mexican-born actor Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca was only 8 months old when his mother, a Pancho Villa supporter, snuck him across the border to El Paso in a wagon. Anthony Quinn only lived in El Paso for a few years. Well after his parents moved the family to California in search of farm work, Quinn became a two-time Academy Award winner. His first best supporting actor Oscar was for playing Emiliano Zapata’s brother opposite Marlon Brandon in Elia Kazan’s 1952 classic “Viva Zapata!” His second came four years later for his portrayal of French post-Impressionon painter Paul Gauguin in “Lust for Life,” director Vincente Minnelli’s examination of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and times.
Sixty years after Quinn won his first Oscar, Hanks High School graduate Gigi Causey received her first, and so far only Oscar nomination. Causey was nominated with her husband, writer-director Andrew Bowler, for their 2011 live action short film “Time Freak.” They didn’t win, but Gigi’s done well for herself, including a stint as production supervisor on the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and the adoption of her first child with Bowler.
Another former El Pasoan, Chris Juen, has worked on several Academy Award-winning and nominated movies, including “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which won for visual effects and sound editing. He was a visual effects supervisor on the Peter Jackson epic and worked as a digital producer on 2007’s “Surf’s Up,” which was nominated for Best Animated Feature. Juen worked in various capacities on other Oscar-nominated titles, including “Contact,” “The Hollow Man” and “Spider-Man,” before leaving Hollywood to start his own production company in Fort Worth.
Several El Paso-connected movies have been up for Academy Awards. Some have won. Author Cormac McCarthy was based in El Paso when the Coen Brothers’ 2007 version of his novel “No Country For Old Men” won for best picture, best director, best supporting actor (Javier Bardem) and adapted screenplay. Some of the movie was shot in El Paso and Marfa.
Steven Soderbergh won Best Director in 2001 for his searing cross-border drug-trade drama “Traffic,” some of which was shot here. It also won for supporting actor (Benicio del Toro), adapted screenplay and film editor. Jessica Lange, who co-stars in the Ryan Murphy TV series “Feud” debuting in March, won best actress opposite Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 drama “Blue Sky,” some of which was shot in El Paso.
And while the only El Paso connection to Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Western “Django Unchained” is referential, it won for supporting actor (Christoph Waltz) and Tarantino’s original screenplay.
A handful of other locally connected movies have been up for Oscars, including 2015’s “Sicario,” some of which was set and shot here. It received three nominations, but didn’t win any Oscars. Some of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” was shot here. Its co-star Diane Ladd received a supporting actress nomination. Ellen Burstyn, who is about to make her directorial debut at age 84, received a best actress nod for her performance in the inspirational 1980 film “Resurrection,” partially shot at Indian Cliffs Ranch (part of the set is on display at nearby Cattleman’s Steakhouse) near Fabens.
Oscar fame also reaches one of our neighboring cities. Las Cruces playwright Mark Medoff’s brush with the Oscars came with a nomination for the 1986 movie version of his Tony Award-winning play “Children of a Lesser God.” Medoff and co-screenwriter Hesper Anderson were nominated for their adaptation of the play about a deaf young woman and the hearing teacher who tries to get through to her. It was one of five nominations the movie received, including best picture (Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” took home the statue). The film’s star, Marlee Matlin, did win best actress, making her the first and only deaf actor to win an Oscar.
As a kid, TV, movie and Broadway star Neil Patrick Harris, once attended a theater camp in Las Cruces with Oscar nominee Mark Medoff. A Ruidoso native, he hosted the 87th annual awards in 2015, the first openly gay man to do so. Harris, by the way, took a turn on Broadway in 2014 in the title role of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which was written by former El Pasoan John Cameron Mitchell.
Doug Pullen is the program director for the El Paso Community Foundation and its Plaza Classic Film Festival. He may be reached at 915-533-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.