And the Winner is… Poles Who Won Oscars
default, And the Winner is…
Poles Who Won Oscars, Janusz Kaminski holds his Oscar for Best Cinematography as he poses with actress Uma Thurman at the 71st Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 21st Ma, center, janusz_kaminsk-en.jpg
Brilliant composers and directors who inspired generations of filmmakers...
An inventor who transformed the sound of Hollywood. A cinematographer who revolutionised the way we speak about World War II. An animator who was arrested immediately after the Oscar ceremony. A filmmaker who swept Hollywood off its feet. Culture.pl presents Polish Oscar winners!
5 Fascinating Highlights of Polish Oscar History
1942: Leopold Stokowski – Academy Honorary Award for the soundtrack of ‘Fantasia’
Although Stokowski claimed he was fully Polish, he was, in fact, born into an Irish Polish family. He never spoke Polish and spent all his life in the West. He lived in London and later moved to the United States, where he was the head of the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years (from 1912 to 1938). A genius, a showman, and a musical celebrity of his time, he was the first Pole to be awarded an Oscar. An unusual Oscar, because it was actually a consolation prize. But let’s start from the beginning…
Stokowski’s co-operation with Walt Disney began by chance. One day, they met at a Beverly Hills restaurant. The conversation about a new Mickey Mouse animation ended with Stokowski's proposal that, together with his orchestra, he would record the film's soundtrack for free. This is how the idea for Fantasia, a short animated film illustrated with masterpieces of classical music, was born.
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Stokowski was responsible for the music – he chose the pieces and was in charge of the final result. The audience had mixed feelings about the movie. Critics attacked the film and accused it of cliché and kitschy animation, which seemingly didn’t go well with the classical music chosen by Stokowski.
Fantasia hit the screens in 1942 and its creators received special awards during the Oscar ceremony. One of the statuettes went to Stokowski, who was awarded ‘for [his] unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualised music in Walt Disney's production Fantasia, thereby widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form’.
1954: Bronisław Kaper – Academy Award for Best Original Score for ‘Lili’
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Bronisław Kaper holds his Oscar for Best Original Score for ‘Lili’, directed by Charles Waters at the 26th Annual Academy Awards on 25th March 1954, photo: East News; A still from ‘Lili’, photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) / Entertainment Pictures / Forum
Leopold Stokowski wasn’t the only Polish musician to win an Oscar. The next ‘Polish’ Academy Award came 12 years later, and it went to Bronisław Kaper, one of the most talented and cherished Hollywood composers of his time. In fact, he was nominated for the award four times, but only once did he win the golden statuette. And his victory wasn’t at all obvious.
In 1954, Kaper was in the Oscar race with great artists: Hugo Friedhofer (Above and Beyond), Louis Forbes (This is Cinerama), Morris Stoloff and George Duning (From Here to Eternity), as well as Miklós Rózsa, nominated for the music to Julius Caesar. The last rival was the biggest threat to Kaper’s victory. A Hollywood music superstar, Rózsa received as many as 17 (!) nominations for an Oscar between 1941 and 1962 and won three times. In 1954, however, he had to acknowledge the Pole's victory.
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In an interview with Zbigniew K. Rogowski in his book Oni i Hollywood (They and Hollywood), Bronisław Kaper described the rivalry with the American Hungarian composer:
During the Oscar ceremony, we were seated next to each other; he was seated closer to the stage. At one point, he said: ‘Bronek, let's change places, so you won’t step on my shoes when you go to get your Oscar’. I replied: ‘Maybe you will get it’. He said: ‘Don't bother, everyone knows that you will leave with an Oscar today’.
And he did. Maybe because after the Lili premiered, all Americans, including those in Hollywood, were humming his song Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.
1978: Stefan Kudelski – Academy Award for Technical Merit & 1990: Stefan Kudelski – Gordon E. Sawyer Honorary Award
In the words of April Fehling from NPR:
While few outside the film and radio industries may recognise the name Stefan Kudelski, his Nagra recorder — meaning ‘will record’ in Kudelski's native Polish — transformed the world of sound recording for radio, television and film.
It was 1951, when Stefan Kudelski, a 22-year-old engineer, invented a piece of recording equipment which changed cinema and television forever. For Hollywood sound engineers, his Nagra was a true blessing – his small device was easy to move and hide, so you could record sound in difficult conditions.
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Even years later, when newer, more competitive devices appeared on the market, cinema people continued to choose the Nagra, typically using it to record louder sounds, such as guns shots. Given that, it’s not surprising that the Polish engineer received two prestigious awards from the members of the American Film Academy.
But the Nagra wasn’t a gadget reserved for filmmakers. The reel tape recorder sparked interest among intelligence agencies as well. CIA and NASA asked Kudelski to create several devices for them. The Nagra was also used by Polish intelligence officers as the most reliable sound recorder at the time.
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1983: Zbigniew Rybczyński – Best Animated Short Film for ‘Tango’
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Kristy McNichol and Matt Dillon pose with Zbigniew Rybczyński, the winner of the Best Animated Short Award at the 55th Academy Awards at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles, California; 1983; photo: Michael Montfort / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
The case of Zbigniew Rybczyński is one of the most flamboyant Oscar stories in the history of the Academy. Only very rarely does an Oscar laureate get into a fight with policemen on the day of the award ceremony, get arrested, and soon get released, becoming the hero of his cellmates.
When Rybczyński finished Tango in 1980, he did not expect an Oscar nomination. Two years later, he was already living in Vienna, where the Austrian authorities granted him political asylum. That’s where he was informed that Tango was amongst the films nominated for the most important international film award. Rybczyński received a visa; the Academy also sent him an invitation to the gala and ... a one-way ticket. The problem was that Rybczyński could not afford a return ticket. He wouldn’t have gone to the United States if not for his friends, who arranged a fundraiser for him.
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So, he went to the US – and even got the prize – but the glamorous Oscar evening soon turned into a nightmare. After receiving the statuette, Rybczyński went out to have a smoke. On his way back in, he turned into the wrong corridor, and the police, on alert for a terrorist threat, arrested him. The incident would have ended on the spot were it not for the fact that Rybczyński couldn’t speak English at the time. Not only did he fail to explain the whole situation to the policemen, he also kicked two officers in the crotch.
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That is how the newly-awarded Oscar laureate ended up at the police station. He was released on the following day. And because his story had already been described by several local newspapers, he became a true celebrity – especially for the prisoners, who appreciated that the Polish artist didn’t go down without a fight.
1994: Allan Starski & Ewa Braun – Best Art Direction/Set Decoration for ‘Schindler’s List’
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Allan Starski and Ewa Braun, holding their Oscar for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration for 'Schindler's List', directed by Steven Spielberg; 1994; Chopin Airport in Warsaw; photo: Sławomir Kamiński / AG
Poles had to wait for another Oscar until 1994, when the award went to Allan Starski and Ewa Braun. But yet again, there were some complications along the way. Starski almost didn’t make it to the gala at all.
On the day of the ceremony, Starski left the hotel and stepped into a chartered limousine to go to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the party was taking place. Soon after, the driver asked him for directions, as he lived in Pasadena and didn’t know the streets of Los Angeles. Instead of using a map, the driver followed another ‘Oscar limousine’. The problem was that instead of going to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, that car was heading to the house of one of the guests of the Oscar gala, who had forgotten to bring their invitation. Finally, both cars set off for the evening gala from the other side of the city.
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Luckily for Starski, things went better during the gala itself. That evening, Allan Starski and Ewa Braun were awarded an Oscar for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler's List won seven awards in total. The Polish artists were competing with some outstanding filmmakers, such as Dante Ferreti and Robert J. Franco (The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese), Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs (Orlando by Sally Potter), Lucianano Arrighi and Ian Whitaker (The Remains of the Day by James Ivory), as well as Ken Adams and Marvin March (Addams Family Values).
1994: Janusz Kamiński – Best Cinematography for ‘Schindler’s List’
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Janusz Kaminski winning the Oscar® for Cinematography for "Schindler's List"
It was not the only Polish Oscar of the evening. Janusz Kamiński, a cinematographer who would work frequently with Steven Spielberg in the following decades and become one of the biggest names in Hollywood cinematography, also received his first Academy Award.
In Schindler's List, Kamiński kept it simple. Instead of using modern techniques, he chose to film by hand and discarded aesthetic perfection with his raw footage. All these factors contributed to the creation of a cinematic atmosphere which made the movie one of the most important Holocaust films in the history of American cinema.
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Schindler's List was one of the frontrunners of the 1994 Oscars. Nevertheless, Kamiński had strong opponents in the race for the Best Cinematography: Conrad Hall (Searching for Bobby Fisher), Gu Changwei (Farewell My Concubine), Michael Chapman (The Fugitive), and Stuart Dyburgh (The Piano). Janusz Kamiński recalled the Oscar gala:
I was happy to be there. I didn't think I could win. Conrad Hall made a magnificent film. Dyburgh's cinematography was truly awesome. I thought that one of them would win, but secretly I dreamt that maybe...
Soon his dreams came true and in his Oscar speech, Kamiński confessed that ‘being able to visually tell the story of Schindler's List has been the most important event of [his] professional life’.
1999: Janusz Kamiński – Best Cinematography for 'Saving Private Ryan'
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Janusz Kaminski holds his Oscar for Best Cinematography as he poses with actress Uma Thurman at the 71st Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 21st March 1999, photo: East News / AFP
Kamiński and Spielberg's long time co-operation resulted in various cinematic projects. One of their best works is Saving Private Ryan, a masterpiece, which brought Kamiński the second Oscar of his career.
Kamiński's inspiration for his one-of-a-kind visuals of Saving Private Ryan were photos of D-Day taken by Robert Capa, one of the most famous war photographers and photojournalists. Something went wrong while developing the images, and the film was destroyed. Only eight blurry images of the soldiers survived. They became the inspiration for the creators of Saving Private Ryan, who later desaturated the colours in their movie.
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Spielberg and Kamiński aimed at making the struggle of war as authentic as possible. When the camera lenses got splashed with water or blood, they didn’t stop filming. This is how they created one of the most famous and striking war films in the history of cinema, which captured the hearts of both audiences and people from the film industry.
While Kamiński's Oscar for Schindler's List might have been a surprise, in the case of Saving Private Ryan, it was obvious that the Pole would win in his category. Even despite his strong opponents – like John Toll, nominated for his extraordinary work on Malick's The Thin Red Line.
2000: Andrzej Wajda – Honorary Oscar for Five Decades of Extraordinary Film Direction
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Andrzej Wajda and Jane Fonda posing with the Oscar in Los Angeles, 2006, photo: Reuters Photographer / Forum; Andrzej Wajda with the Oscar in Los Angeles, 2006, photo: Jim Smeal / WireImage / Getty Images
Kamiński, who had already won two Oscars at that point, wanted to contribute to another ‘Polish Oscar’, this time for Andrzej Wajda. In an interview with Bartosz Michalak, he said:
Paweł Potoroczyn, a consul responsible for Polish culture in Los Angeles, came up with the idea to do something so that Andrzej Wajda would finally get an Oscar. He called me and said that he would like to organise a promotional campaign.
In 1999, Potoroczyn attended the Freedom Film Festival, where they awarded the Andrzej Wajda prize. During the ceremony, a letter from Spielberg was read. It consisted of only four words: ‘To Andrzej, my inspiration’. These words inspired Potoroczyn to fight for the Honourary Oscar for the Polish master of cinema. In an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza daily, he reminisced:
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All I had to do was kick the one pebble that caused the avalanche.
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At Kamiński's request, Steven Spielberg wrote a letter to the members of the American Film Academy, who welcomed his proposal to reward Wajda for lifetime achievement. Wajda, who already had received three Oscar nominations for the Best Foreign Film (The Promised Land, The Maids of Wilko, Man of Iron), received the Academy Award in 2000 and gave perhaps the most famous Polish Oscar speech.
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After the ceremony, he said in an interview with Rzeczpospolita (Republic) newspaper:
I think that the Academy waits for a person to get old enough in order to give them an Oscar. They probably reached the conclusion that I'm an old man and that I'm ending my film career with ‘Pan Tadeusz’. Little did they know that I was just about to start.
2003: Roman Polański – Best Director for ‘The Pianist’
Roman Polanski winning the Oscar® for Directing
In a documentary about his life, the Polish director Roman Polański said:
If a film reel was to be placed on my grave, I'd like it to be ‘The Pianist’.
It was The Pianist that brought him an Oscar for directing. Earlier, he had been nominated twice: for the screenplay for Rosemary's Baby and for directing of Chinatown and Tess. In fact, the movie got three awards in total: Adrien Brody was named Best Actor and Ronald Harwood was honoured for the Best Adapted Screenplay.
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Polański could not attend the Oscar ceremony. Due to accusations of rape of a minor and an unfinished judicial process, the director could not enter the United States. He received the prize in September 2003 during the Deauville Festival from Harrison Ford, who had presented the prize during the Oscar gala several months before.
Polański competed with other masters of contemporary cinema: Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York), Stephen Daldry (The Hours), Pedro Almodòvar (Talk to Her) and Rob Marshall (Chicago).
2005: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek – Best Original Score for ‘Finding Neverland’
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Polish cinema didn't have to wait long for another Oscar. In 2005, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek received his own award. An outstanding composer, known for his soundtrack to Agnieszka Holland's films (Total Eclipse, Washington Square, The Third Miracle), he was awarded by the Academy for his soundtrack to Finding Neverland – a movie about James Barrie and a friendship that inspired the creation of Peter Pan.
I knew that it was a special movie. James Barrie and Peter Pan are important symbols in Anglo-Saxon culture and work on this movie was a truly unique experience for me, as a composer from Poland. This extraordinary atmosphere was present on the set of Finding Neverland from the very beginning.
Finding Neverland, directed by Marc Foster, was a huge blockbuster, and it received seven Oscar nominations: for Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Costume Design, Best Achievement in Film Editing, Best Achievement in Art Direction, Best Actor (Johnny Depp), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. The only Oscar for the movie went to Kaczmarek, who later composed music for outstanding films such as The Visitor by Tom McCarthy.
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2008: ‘Peter & The Wolf' – Best Short Animated Film
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In 2008, when Peter & The Wolf, directed by Suzie Templeton, received an Oscar for the Best Short Animated Film, the Se-ma-for animation studio in Łódź had reason to celebrate. On the 25th anniversary of the award for their Tango, the studio had yet another Oscar victory.
Se-ma-for was the co-producer of the film, which was a puppet version of the ballet by Sergei Prokofiev. They created a whole forest in the halls of the Łódź Film Centre and the Se-ma-for studio: it was 22 metres long and 16 metres wide, with a 360 degree horizon, 1,700 trees and thousands of shrubs, grass and stones, as well as a sky. The set was designed by Marek Skrobecki and Jane Morton. The cinematographers were Hugh Gordon and Mikołaj Jaroszewicz, Kamil Polak and Artur Zicz were responsible for visual effects, and Adam Wyrwas and Krzysztof Brzozowski were responsible for the animation.
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In her Oscar speech, Suzie Templeton said:
This is for everyone. This is for our fantastic crew and this is for everybody who worked so passionately on our film to make our dream come true.
2014: ‘Ida’ by Paweł Pawlikowski – Best Foreign Language Film
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In a conversation with Vogue, Paweł Pawlikowski recalled the process of filming Ida, one of the biggest Polish movies of the last decade:
When I started filming ‘Ida’, I was tired of typical cinematic methods: unnecessary camera movements, cuts, lighting – all that ‘film grammar’. I wanted to make a somewhat suicidal and boring movie – I wanted to capture everything in static images. I thought that ‘Ida’ was perhaps going to be my last film, and I did not want to court the audience, but somehow people still wanted to watch.
In 2014, Ida, a story about a young woman who is preparing for monastic ordination and her journey towards self-discovery, met with an enthusiastic reception around the globe. Pawlikowski's film was listed among the best productions of the year and won more than 100 awards and nominations (including an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski).
But Pawlikowski's victory wasn't a sure thing. Among the nominees, there was another great film – Leviathan by Andrei Zvyagintsev. It was a dramatic story about an individual destroyed by omnipotent authorities. The political controversy accompanying its Russian premiere only increased the Oscar buzz around the film. And yet, the Academy Award went to Paweł Pawlikowski, who was appreciated for his modesty and poetic tone in the very capital of cinematic vanity. In his Oscar speech, the Polish director said:
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How did I get here? We made a film about – as you saw, black and white – about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation. And here we are at the epicentre of noise and world attention. Fantastic, you know, life is full of surprises.
Is Poland due for another Academy Award? All we can do is wait and see!
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Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, trans. AJ
Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Sources: ‘Polskie Oscary’ by Bartosz Michalak (Warsaw, 2000); gloswielkopolski.pl; vogue.pl