I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh since going with our downstairs neighbors to see Dead Again in 1991. His agility impressed us – he played two parts, each from a different era, and directed the film. In 1994 I took my ninth grade class on the subway to a theater to watch his filmed interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Jamie and I also spent New Years’ Eve 1996 at the Paris Cinema on Fifty-eighth Street watching a midnight showing of his filmed version of Hamlet. I read interviews with him and slowly he became one of those actors that you feel – mistakenly – that you know. That was why when the 84th Academy Awards screeners began filling our mailbox I especially looked forward to seeing My Week with Marilyn. Yes, I knew Michelle Williams was America’s Sweetheart and Eddie Redmayne was an up-and-comer but I wanted to see Branagh play Sir Laurence Olivier. Despite the New York Times’ critic claiming he was miscast, I thought Branagh did a terrific job bringing Olivier to life, enunciating his consonants crisply and standing as upright as a toy soldier as he evinced his displeasure with Marilyn’s theatrical slovenliness.
As we dressed for the annual The Night Before the Oscars Party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I mused aloud to Jamie what actors and directors might attend the party that night. It was an incredibly strong year for films and performances – The Artist, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Warhorse, The Iron Lady, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hugo, The Ides of March – and I was hoping that I would get the chance to speak to some people whose work I admired. Mostly, I wanted to meet Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Even as I dropped my cellphone, lipstick, and drivers license into my tiny, red, Kieselstein evening bag, I tried to keep my excitement in check. Rather like Lucy Ricardo, my introductions to movie stars had rarely gone well; completely unwittingly I had pissed off both Kitty Carlisle Hart and Rosemary Clooney. Helen Mirren had once looked me up and down at a party and said, “Nice jacket.” At an East Hampton antiques fair Sarah Jessica Parker grew snippy when I refused to sell her a 1940s Bakelite purse I was carrying. The only ones who had ever been remotely nice to me were older men like Roger Moore and Christopher Walken. Well, I thought snapping my purse closed, Kenneth Branagh is older than I am and a man so maybe I could coast a little farther on the minuscule amount of luck I had.
Perhaps because the films were so strong that year, everyone was in a good mood and chose to attend the event. It took four red light series to turn into the hotel’s drive and another half hour to make it to the porte cochere where the valets ran about madly.
There were more photographers than usual and a longer line at the attendance checkpoints than the year before. Even after providing our identification and receiving our admission packets, we were checked again by armed security and ushered politely but firmly past the horde hanging around the lobby scanning the crowd for famous faces.
In the crush of the first vendor room HP employees attempted to stuff flash drives into everyone’s hands and whoever accepted one was herded into a velvet-roped area filled with laptops. Squashed against each other, each participant was led to a laptop and instructed to insert the flash drive. If the screen lit up, you won. Since Jamie has no patience for things like this, he had shoved his admission book and flash drive into my hands but remained behind me in the crowd, probably because it was so dense he couldn’t find his way to the bar where his friends waited.
When my turn came, I faced the laptop and inserted the flash drive. “Ask about the new HP Envy!” flashed across the black screen in kelly-green letters.
“Aw, sorry,” mumbled the HP employee attempting to push me out of the way so someone else could try.
“Wait!” I exclaimed shoving his hands away. “I have my husband’s; he hates to do this kind of stuff.”
Sighing, the HP man pointed me toward the flash drive portal on another machine and upon connection the screen lit up with purple letters exclaiming “Congratulations! You win!”
I turned to the grumpy employee. “I won! Did I really win?”
He peered at the screen. “Yeah, you did,” he said amazedly.
“So what did I win?”
He pointed to the shiny, new, black, all glass HP Envy laptops. “One of these. Here is your voucher. Pick it up on your way out.”
I was delighted and all but overcome with excitement. “Really? That is so cool! I never win anything!” I spun around and faced Jamie and began to jump up and down and beat on his chest singing, “I won! I won! Can you believe it?”
An crisp English/Irish accent responded, “No, I can’t but I am delighted for you.”
My head snapped upward. It was Kenneth Branagh. Overcome with shock and embarrassment I grabbed both of his upper arms and began babbling. “Sir Kenneth? Oh my God, I am so sorry! I thought you were my husband. He was right behind me and all of you are in tuxedos and look alike.”
He pressed his lips together and stared at me.
I was mortified. “Yes, well, I should probably be going . . . Good luck on the Oscar . . . We really enjoyed the film . . .” Feeling like an idiot I released his sleeves and began to turn my burning face away then felt myself stop. No, I had wanted to meet Kenneth Branagh and meet him I had, so I wasn’t going to miss my chance. I turned back. “Sir Kenneth?”
He turned his graying blonde head to peer at me with dark brown eyes.
“I am sorry I pounded on your chest but I am not sorry, too. I have been a fan of your work since Dead Again and I’ve seen nearly everything you’ve done. I really hope you win tomorrow night. You truly embodied Olivier for me.”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “A fan since Dead Again? That’s a long time. Thank you for your good wishes and I am glad you won.”
I was, too. The next night, however, I felt bad because he didn’t win Best Supporting Actor; Christopher Plummer did. Despite this or maybe because he was so gracious to me, I still watch every film Kenneth Branagh makes.