How producers got Michelle Obama for the Oscars

How producers got Michelle Obama for the Oscars
She may not have walked the red carpet, but Michelle Obama - all bangs and biceps and bling - had her own star turn during Sunday night's Academy Awards, when she announced the winner for best picture via satellite from the White House.

Barely moments after Obama's late-night revelation of the fate of the nominated best films, the question of whether it was proper or dignified or awesome for the first lady of the United States to dirty her hands with a motion picture envelope disintegrated into a predictably partisan rhubarb.

But this seemed to matter little to the White House, where both President Barack Obama and the first lady seem untethered from the safety net of a political campaign, and free to pursue their respective agendas.

"The Academy Awards approached the first lady about being a part of the ceremony," said Kristina Schake, a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama. "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."

The idea to have Michelle Obama participate in the ceremony was hatched by the producers of the show, with a big hand from the film executive Harvey Weinstein. She agreed right away, but secret negotiations, including a final one involving a stealth flight from Los Angeles to Washington a few weeks ago to finalize details, ensued.

"Literally from the first day we were hired we thought, 'How can we make this special?"' said Neil Meron, who was hired last fall to produce the Oscar event with Craig Zadan. "We were hoping Obama would win so we could have our plan executed."

After the election, they decided the plan would need a fast track, lest it get stuck in the bureaucratic maw of the East Wing, so the two approached Weinstein.

"We were very aware that Harvey was close to the Obama family," Zadan said, "and if we went through normal channels the odds were small it would happen."

Weinstein reached out to the White House, originally with the idea of having Michelle Obama be a guest at the awards show. The plan was for her to sneak backstage to morph into a secret Oscar presenter. But because the first lady had a conflict that night - the governors would be in town for a White House gala - the idea of a remote play was born.

(Others involved with the process insist that the idea was actually that of Weinstein's teenage daughter, Lily, but like most Hollywood stories, one picks one's own ending.)

Only two top executives at ABC knew of the plan, along with the actor Jack Nicholson, who was charged with presenting Obama from the stage in Hollywood. Meron and Zadan were given a private jet for the flight to Washington, although to avoid suspicion they told people they were going to New York.

Obama, wearing a shimmering gown designed by Naeem Khan, was hand-delivered the shiny classified envelope containing the winner - "Argo," the Ben Affleck-directed film about a CIA plan to rescue Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis - by Bob Moritz, the U.S. chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which certifies the awards. White-gloved White House military social aides stood in the background.

The first lady's Oscar turn followed her appearance last week on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," where, to kick off the third year of her Let's Move exercise campaign, she presented the "Evolution of Mom Dancing."

But Washington was as absorbed about the propriety of a first lady having such a central role in the Oscars, suggesting it was less proper than, say, a president throwing out a baseball pitch or flipping pancakes in Iowa in the courting of voters.

"Now the first lady feels entitled," said the Washington Post conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, "with military personnel as props, to intrude on other forms of entertaining, this time for the benefit of the Hollywood glitterati who so lavishly paid for her husband's election."

Others were more charitable. The website Slate pointed out that Laura Bush taped a "What Do the Movies Mean to You?" segment for the Academy Awards while she was first lady in 2002, and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the 13th Academy Awards ceremony by addressing the nation and the crowd at the Biltmore Hotel.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service

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