Detroit at the Oscars

Revisiting times the Motor City and metro Detroit made an appearance at the Academy Awards (whether you knew it or not).
Photograph courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

March 10 marked the 96th Academy Awards. To celebrate, we’re looking back at a handful of metro Detroit and metro Detroiter appearances at the Oscars. Not only do we boast incredibly cinematic architecture and landscapes, but we have tons of talented and creative neighbors. With state House and Senate legislation proposed last year that would bring back the film tax credit, we’re holding out for a local filmmaking renaissance that sweeps future ceremonies.

Telecast Moments and Nonmoments

Kim Hunter wins best supporting actress for her role as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1952)

Kim Hunter was absent the night she bagged her first Oscar, for her unforgettable performance alongside a young Marlon Brando. Her friend Bette Davis did her best to approximate a Hunter speech: “She would say: ‘How wonderful, how grateful, and thank you very much.’”

Hunter was born in Detroit and lived in Highland Park until her family moved to Miami Beach by the time she was 10. Around age 8, she auditioned for a show on WXYZ, which she recalled in a 1971 interview with the Detroit Free Press. At the time of the interview, she was in town for a stage production at the Fisher Theatre.

“Coming back — my God, the names! The Penobscot Building! Hudson’s! That’s all a large part of my memories,” she said.

Ellen Burstyn wins best actress for her role as Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975)

Ellen Burstyn (left of Kate Hudson) in 2001. That year, she was nominated for her role in Requiem for a Dream. // Photograph courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Ellen Burstyn was also absent the night she won her first Oscar. She was in New York, acting in the Broadway play Same Time, Next Year, and director Martin Scorsese accepted the award on her behalf. Kind of a shame, considering she’d been practicing her Oscar speech since she was 7 years old and living in Detroit.

She and her older brother, Jack, attended St. Mary’s Academy in Windsor, Ontario, a Catholic boarding school demolished in 1977. At 13, she began modeling for Crowley’s department store in downtown Detroit, and she later modeled for its competitor Hudson’s in her late teens. She went to Cass Technical High School, where she was a cheer captain, but dropped out her senior year and eventually moved to New York.

Burstyn was nominated for two previous roles and would be nominated three more times. At the 1977 ceremony, she introduced then-breakout star Sylvester Stallone. That night, Rocky won three awards, including best picture.

Robin Williams wins best supporting actor for Good Will Hunting (1998)

Robin Williams (left) holds hands with host Billy Crystal at the 2004 Academy Awards ceremony. // Photograph courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Following three empty-handed Oscars departures since 1987, Robin Williams’s role as lovable therapist Sean Maguire finally earned him his first (and only) Academy Award.

The late actor delivered a very on-brand speech — kind, humorous, and self-deprecating. His final thanks went to his deceased father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams,“the man who when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Wonderful, just have a backup profession like welding.’”

Robert worked in Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln-Mercury Division and moved the Williams family to metro Detroit in the late ’50s, where Robin spent much of his childhood. The family lived in a Bloomfield Hills home on Woodward and Long Lake. He attended Detroit Country Day School, where he was on the soccer and wrestling teams.

Bowling for Columbine wins best feature documentary (2003)

Michael Moore arrives at the 2003 Academy Awards. Later that night, he would win Best Documentary Feature. // Photograph courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

OK, not technically metro Detroit, but we couldn’t resist. At the 75th ceremony, Flint native and director Michael Moore won his first and only Oscar.

Capitalizing on the moment, Moore rounded up the other nominees and took to the stage to deliver what was — at the time — a relatively controversial speech criticizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq that had commenced just days earlier, calling out President George W. Bush by name.

“We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons,” Moore belted, as a mix of boos and cheers began to erupt from the audience. “We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush!”

“Lose Yourself ” wins best original song (2003)

Eminem delivers a surprise performance of “Lose Yourself” at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020. // Photograph by Blaine Ohigashi

Eminem made history in 2003 when his “Lose Yourself” became the first Oscar-winning rap song. But much like the odds were stacked against 8 Mile’s main character, Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, in his quest for rap stardom, it seemed unlikely that the film’s theme could snag the award.

One of the biggest doubters was Em himself, who skipped the ceremony altogether, admitting in a 2007 Shade 45 interview he thought the song had “a snowball’s chance in hell” of winning at the time. He had already drifted to sleep at home when his co-writer Detroit musician Luis Resto took to the stage to accept the award (Jeff Bass, the third co-writer and a fellow Detroiter, who created the song’s driving guitar riff, was also absent — his wife had just given birth).

Resto’s unbuttoned sports jacket parted to reveal a red Pistons jersey with the number 33, worn by the team’s fo mer forward Grant Hill. Seventeen years later, the rapper showed up to deliver a surprise performance of “Lose Yourself” at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.

Searching for Sugar Man wins best feature documentary (2013)

Producer Simon Chinn (left) and director Malik Bendjelloul hold their Oscars for Searching for Sugar Man. // Photograph by Todd Wawrychuk

In 2012, countless U.S. moviegoers were introduced to musician Sixto Rodriguez via Searching for Sugar Man. The documentary revealed that the obscure, soft-spoken Cass Corridor folk singer had risen to Bob Dylan-level superstardom in South Africa in the 1970s (and in Australia, though this fact didn’t make the cut), unbeknownst even to him for some time.

Director Malik Bendjelloul and producer Simon Chinn accepted the award; Rodriguez was absent. “Rodriguez isn’t here tonight, because he didn’t want to take any of the credit himself,” Chinn said in his acceptance speech. “And that just about says everything about that man and his story that you want to know.”

Bendjelloul would die tragically by suicide about a year later at the age of 36. Rodriguez passed away in 2023 at 81, old enough to see his songs finally receive their due domestically.

Oscar Locations

Out of Sight (1998)

Poster courtesy of Universal Pictures

The crime thriller/rom-dramedy is set partially in Detroit, where much of the principal photography took place. Scenes include a boxing match filmed in Detroit’s Fillmore theater (then the State Theatre) and a steamy dinner scene with characters Jack (George Clooney) and Karen (Jennifer Lopez) in the Renaissance Center’s rooftop restaurant. It received editing and writing nominations in 1998.

8 Mile (2002)

Poster courtesy of Universal Pictures

Set and largely shot in Detroit, the film features iconic locations like Detroit’s New Center Stamping plant, The Shelter under St. Andrew’s Hall (where Eminem used to compete in real-life rap battles), the Michigan Building (where a parking lot rap battle takes place), and the giant cow head on Mack Avenue in Detroit (which B-Rabbit and his crew bombard with a paintball gun). When B-Rabbit goes to hip-hop station WJLB in hopes of furthering his career (only to discover his girlfriend stepping out on him), he enters the lobby of the Penobscot Building — the real-life lobby for WJLB’s studios before it relocated to Farmington Hills.

Transformers (2007)

Poster courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Detroit’s iconic Michigan Central Station plays the role of the Beaux-Arts building in Michael Bay’s debut franchise title. Bay would return to Detroit to shoot several of the sequels, including fellow Oscar nominee Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), in which many iconic landmarks can be glimpsed, including the Fisher Building lobby, Michigan Central (again), and Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester. Since 2007, the Transformers films have received three nominations for sound mixing, two for visual effects, and one for sound editing.

Ides of March (2011)

Poster courtesy of Universal Pictures

The political thriller starring George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman took full advantage of Michigan’s then generous tax credits — with key scenes shot at Detroit’s Cliff Bell’s and Firebird Tavern, The Dearborn Inn, Nick’s Country Oven in Clawson, and Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. The film was nominated for best adapted screenplay in 2011.

This story is from the March 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.