In sorting through a box of old photos the other day, trying to organize stuff in albums in a timely fashion (I'm currently in the 1980s), I came across an image of my mom beaming her 100-watt (or 23-watt in the current CFL energy-saving equivalent) smile as she cradled an Oscar in her hands. It was a real, honest-to-Mr.-DeMille Academy Award. The golden plating on its shapely 13-inch-tall figure glinting in the camera flash -- probably from my kid-sized Instamatic with one of those disposable flash cubes that, even spent, looked like some kind of precious jewel.
At first I thought I'd write something about this image for today's column because, after all, it's Oscar night, and I've only seen one of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year so I can't make even slightly educated picks (I vote for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" ... what -- too late?).
But as I actually examined the shot, I realized I had nothing else to say about it anyway because I couldn't recall where it was taken or why my mom was holding the coveted prize which was, as far as I know, not hers. Was she stealing it? Not a good idea to pose for a photo op on the way to the getaway car, Mom. But darnit, she's gone now, and I can't ask her.
If only I'd followed advice from wise scrapbookers and written the date and caption on the back of the photo. But no.
Movie magic, mystery
The background in the scene only magnified its mystique. The award was not near a glass museum case or the mantle in a celebrity's home. Instead it was in a rather dull-looking office. To my mom's right in the photo is an electric typewriter (this was definitely the '80s). Behind this are some file cabinets up against a brick wall and a couple of tall shelves with markers on the sides, library-style. The image is too small and blurry to see the name of the Oscar recipient, and I doubt even the experts on "NCIS" could zoom in and extrapolate enough data to solve this mystery wrapped in delicate fingers and imprinted on Kodak paper, such as it is.
Something in the back of my mind said there was a connection to Foothill College in Los Altos -- perhaps we'd toured some campus museum or point of interest? I know I was there, too, but it's all just a vague memory, like a dream sequence in "Dreamscape" (1984) which was just like "Inception" (2010) only with Eddie Albert instead of Leo DiCaprio. I'd surely think I was the "One" who "Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and smacked into a tree and made it all up -- if it weren't for this photo.
Intrepid reporter that I am, just like Clint Eastwood in "True Crime" (1999) but without the snarl, I called all those people out there in the dark or possibly a sunny room at the Foothill public relations office and posed my strange question. Luckily, the very nice Lori Thomas answered and didn't hang up on me or even laugh. "Oh we love strange questions," she said. "People call here asking things like, 'When's the next eclipse?' We're basically the Alex Trebek office of trivia."
She offered to check around. Then agonizing hours passed, and I used the time productively to regale my captive audience of co-workers with the tale, only to be regaled right back with other Oscar-related stories. One guy's brother married the granddaughter of actress Jane Wyatt, who my friend thought had won an Academy Award but turns out it was three Emmys instead. (Do three Emmys make one Oscar?)
An editor's priest in Salinas adopted a dog from Doris Day's animal rescue group and got to meet the star. And another friend shared a news story about a guy from Pixar who is known for dressing his two Oscars in Barbie-doll clothes.
I also used the time to scour the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' research and preservation database (www.oscars.org) where you can find who won what award for anything. But nothing related to Foothill came up.
Then I got the call. Lori said the college had indeed had an Oscar! Briefly. In the early '80s. A couple of retired profs remembered former Foothill art and film instructor Barton DePalma -- brother of famed director Brian DePalma ("Scarface," "Carrie," "The Untouchables") -- had possibly borrowed the statuette and brought it in to the faculty offices for a few days to show it off. "I'm willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that was it," Lori said.
I'll take the doughnuts, Lori, but there's still more mystery. Whose Oscar was it? It wasn't Brian DePalma's -- he's racked up some Golden Globes (and even five Razzies) over the years, but has been snubbed by the Academy. Sure, it could have been an obscure Oscar for something like "development of a system of xenon arc lamphouses" and "engineering of fluid-damped camera heads," but there didn't seem to be anything at all for any of DePalma's films except a best supporting actor win for Sean Connery in 1987 for "The Untouchables," but that didn't match the time frame. If it had indeed been something Sean Connery had touched, my mom definitely would have stolen it.
I tried to call Barton DePalma, who may or may not live in Menlo Park and/or New Mexico, according to the Internet. I left a couple of messages/crank calls here and there. So we'll see what comes of that.
But even that won't tell me why my mom and I were at Foothill in some dull faculty office in the first place and why somebody let her hold an award of unknown ownership that just happened to show up for a random campus visit to be captured on my camera and eventually end up in my burgeoning old-photo box and this column.
Still a cool memento, though. My mother had not won the Oscar, but for a moment in time it surely belonged to her.
Perhaps an honorary lifetime achievement award for putting up with me.