Oscar voters: 99-year-old in academy 'never wanted to be a star'
At 99, Connie Sawyer is one of the oldest members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Conventional wisdom might say she's precisely the sort of voter apt to fall for “The Artist,” the French-made film about an old-time movie hero whose career runs into trouble with the advent of talkies. The movie is considered a front-runner for the best picture Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday.
But Sawyer, who was a 15-year-old living in Oakland in 1927, when “The Artist's” story begins, wasn’t so enamored of the black-and-white film. The movie was enjoyable enough, she says, but she frankly doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Sawyer’s been in show business for more than eight decades — she began working in stand-up comedy in Depression-era New York at the age of 19, after a childhood spent in dance lessons and traveling with her mother to see performers like Fanny Brice in San Francisco — and she takes her duty as an Oscar voter quite seriously.
Every year, Sawyer watches the movie screeners that are sent to her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the Woodland Hills retirement community that’s home to many show business veterans. Many of them she views twice.
On a recent afternoon visit, it was difficult to miss the “For Your Consideration” DVDs scattered around her living room among photographs of her children and grandchildren, birthday cards on display and a painting of her beloved dog Mitzi, named after Mitzi Gaynor.
That’s in addition to juggling a steady work schedule that’s included small parts in films like “When Harry Met Sally” and the R-rated drug comedy “Pineapple Express,” in which she played the grandmother of James Franco's character. The actress also has appeared in several TV shows including “ER” and “Home Improvement,” though she recently lost out on a small part on the NBC comedy series “Parks & Recreation.”
Sawyer joined the academy after appearing in Frank Capra’s 1959 film “A Hole in the Head” with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson. Sawyer says that even then, she’d been interested in joining the prestigious organization for some time, and she recalls Sinatra telling her, “Don’t worry about it, kid, you’ll get in.”
Sawyer says she has no regrets about never winning an Oscar of her own — the manageable scope of her career allowed her to raise two daughters, Lisa and Julie, and spend time with four grandchildren, including one who followed in her footsteps, Sam Dudley, who is an actor and director for New Orleans’ NOLA Project, currently preparing to direct a Shakespeare in the Park performance of “As You Like It.” Sawyer was married for 10 years to film producer and distributor Marshall Schacker before the couple divorced.
“My mother was very down-to-earth,” Lisa Dudley, 57, said. “She just let me know how hard it was [to have a successful acting career]. She said, ‘Go to college, do something steady.’”
“I’m not a dreamer. I’m a realist,” Sawyer said. “Life is fun — that has nothing to do with whether you become a star or not.... And if the parts aren’t too large, I can go around talking to everybody. It’s like going to a party.”
When she’s not acting, Sawyer stays busy with motion picture home activities, including taking art classes, going on field trips to horse races and conducting interviews on a show on the retirement community’s TV station. She’s also writing an autobiography titled “I Never Wanted to Be a Star, and I Wasn’t.” But she devoted a good deal of her time in recent weeks to preparing to fill out her Oscar ballot.
Her best picture vote went to director Martin Scorsese’s 3-D family adventure “Hugo,” which she’s seen three times. In the lead actress category, she chose Meryl Streep — “the best actress in America,” Sawyer said — for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the biopic “The Iron Lady.”
For lead actor, the category in which “The Artist” star Jean Dujardin is favored by some, Sawyer picked Brad Pitt for his starring turn as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane in the baseball drama “Moneyball.” The film, she said, “was the best work he’s done.”
“The Oscar is the most legitimate movie award there is in the whole world,” Sawyer added. “If movies are good, they’re going to get nominated. If they’re not good, they’re not going to get nominated. [Academy members] are pretty honest.”
— Emily Rome
Photo: (Top) Connie Sawyer in her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Country House, surrounded by birthday cards and photos of family and friends. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times. (Bottom) Sawyer in her early 20s. Credit: James J. Kriegsmann