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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Backstage tales from the Oscar circuit

January 8, 2009 |  1:50 pm

Oscar_2The great thing about going to an Oscar party is that it's actually the one place where -- thank God --you don't have to talk about the Oscars. Maybe people think it comes off tacky -- perhaps desperate would be the better word -- but it's the one subject that never seems to come up over cocktails and canapes. So I actually had a grand time last night at UTA agent Jeremy Zimmer's Brentwood home, which served as the staging ground for a delightfully informal bash honoring the much-decorated screenwriter Peter Morgan, who is riding high right now with "Frost/Nixon," which he adapted from his play and which is a top contender for an Oscar best picture nomination.

Morgan was so besieged by admirers that I barely got in more than a quick hello, but luckily there were plenty of other luminaries on hand, from Variety's Peter Bart -- who always looks so at home at these events that you'd think the party was for him -- to Universal's Marc Shmuger and David Linde, who looked entirely too relaxed and jovial to be actual studio chiefs, perhaps because with "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk" (from their Focus subsidiary), they have two movies that look like locks for best picture nods.

Also on hand, among the crush of agents and filmmakers, was the producer Mark Gordon, a great Hollywood wit who always comes armed with self-deprecating tales of life in the producer trenches. We tend to see each other only at parties, but we have one of those odd ties that bind -- his daughter and my son are exactly the same age, having been born on the same day, so we reconnect by boasting about their childhood (soon to be adolescent) passions. Gordon did have one complaint: Every time he goes to the L.A. Times website to read my blog, his computer crashes. "It never happens when I go to read sports or political stories, just your blog," he said. "It's weird -- even my IT expert can't figure it out." It sounded very fishy to me. "Who's your IT expert," I asked. "Nikki Finke?"

Outside, by the bar, I ran into Albert Berger, another talented producer ("Little Miss Sunshine") who's been working on a host of music documentaries, one focusing on '70s-'80's-era L.A. bands (including X and the Knitters), another about the Band's legendary drummer, Levon Helm. He's also developing a biographical film about Jerry Garcia's pre-Grateful Dead days and a project based on a story by Chicago blues great Mike Bloomfield.

Of course, how could you go to a "Frost/Nixon" party without saying hello to Ron Howard, who turned out to have some inside scoop on a story far more important than any mere Oscar nomination. So keep reading:

HowardWearing his trademark baseball cap, Howard brought me up to date on the careers of his various kids. His daughter, Bryce, is already carving out a nice niche as an actress. Another one of his daughters, Paige, just got a part in a Greg Mottola film. His youngest son, Reed, is co-captain of his college golf team at the University of South Carolina. I asked Howard if it were true that he'd actually cast his first vote in a presidential election for Richard Nixon. "True," he sheepishly admitted, though he redeemed himself this October by staging a great comic video endorsement for Barack Obama, even taking off his baseball cap to show off his bald pate.

Howard and I are big baseball fans -- the first time I met him, back in the 1980s, we went to a minor league baseball game in Montana, where he was filming "Far and Away." So his first question to me was not "Do you think I'll get a DGA nomination? -- which he did today -- but "Do you think the Dodgers will sign Manny Ramirez?" As it turns out, Howard had far more insider knowledge than I did, because he's pals with Dodger Manager Joe Torre, who told him that he loved Manny's hitting and impact on the team but was concerned about whether Manny's legs would hold up playing left field in the National League. Torre figured he might be a better fit in the American League, where Manny could DH more often.

Both Howard and I would love our sons to be successful in sports, but we worried about the long odds of really making it. Perhaps they should be pointing toward something less pie-in-the-sky, like -- ha, ha --going to film school or working in the UTA mail room. Howard found himself sitting with former Lakers coach Pat Riley one night and asked him for advice: How realistic was it for his son to pursue his dream? "Don't worry about it," Riley told him. "He'll figure it out for himself. The game will tell him." Of course, Riley has lived a charmed life, always quitting his coaching jobs before anyone could fire him, so I'm not sure how much faith to put in his advice.

Still, I was going to share his words of wisdom with one of the other agents at the party ("Fire your client before they can fire you") when I found myself deep in conversation with the most interesting person at the party -- Jill Robinson, a lovely older woman who turned out to be Jeremy Zimmer's mom. A SoCal girl who'd grown up just blocks away from where her son lives today, she'd just moved back to L.A. after spending 25 years as an expatriate in London. Though I suspect the story is more complicated than the short version I got at the party, she said she was in London several years ago, watching TV, when she saw an interview with a young American politician she'd never heard of before --Barack Obama.

A writer herself, she went out and bought his book, "Dreams of My Father," and was hooked. Inspired by Obama's whirlwind ascendancy, she decided it was time to move back to the States. "Imagine," she told me, on learning that I was a writer myself, "to have a president who's a better writer than most of the people who do it for a living. And taking over from a president who barely knew how to read. Is this a great country, or what?" I nodded my head in agreement, keeping to myself the delicious irony that when it came to writing, no past president churned out more books than Richard Nixon himself, which didn't stop him from leaving the White House in disgrace. It makes you wonder if this whole writing racket is a little overrated, although Nixon's tumultuous efforts to salvage his reputation surely gave Peter Morgan some of the best possible material a writer could ever hope to have fall in his lap.

Top photo: Replica Oscar statues for the red carpet. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times. Lower photo: Ron Howard (left) and Michael Sheen on the set of "Frost/Nixon." Credit: ralph Nelson / Universal Pictures

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