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Year: 1987 (60th) Academy Awards
Category: Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award
Winner: Billy Wilder
Presenter: Jack Lemmon
Date & Venue: April 11, 1988; Shrine Civic Auditorium
Thank you very much. I understand that this is the most prestigious award you can get, with the possible exception of the Nobel Prize, of course. I would like you to take this [removes trophy from the podium and hands it to Jack Lemmon] because I have a feeling this is gonna break.
I would especially like to thank—after having thanked the governors of the Academy and the members, and all the millions of fans I have all over the world, in the civilized parts of the world—I would very much like to thank one specific gentleman without whose help I would not be standing here tonight. I have forgotten his name but I have never forgotten his compassion. He was the American consul in Mexicali, Mexico.
Now, imagine it's 1934. It's a year after the Hitler putsch. We are all in exile: Zurich, London, Paris. Then I get lucky. I sell a story to Hollywood and I get the visitor's visa for six months. Then I come here and start working, but six months go by very, very fast. Well, I don't want to leave. I would like to stay in America. So, I am being told that I need an immigration visa, for which reason you—I mean, you have to leave the country, get the immigration visa and then come back in order to re-enter with the proper papers. So I go to Mexicali which is the closest American consulate right across the border from California. And as they showed me into the office of the consul I was drenched in sweat. It was not the heat. It was just the panic, the fear. I knew that I needed a whole bunch of documents: affidavits, official proof of former residence, sworn testaments that I had never been a criminal or an anarchist. I had nothing, zilch. Just my passport and my birth certificate and some letters from a few American friends vouching that I was harmless. It looked hopeless.
The consul—he looked a little bit like Will Rogers—examined my meager documentation. "Is that all you have?" he asked. And I said, "Yes." I have to explain that, you know, I had to get out of Berlin on very short notice, like twenty minutes. A neighbor had tipped me off that two men in uniform had been looking for me. I had just enough time to throw in a few things in the suitcase and get on a night train to Paris. The consul just stared at me and said, "I mean, how do you expect me to, with just those papers?" And I told him, I tried to get them from Nazi Germany but they just would not respond. Of course I could get them if I went back to Germany, then they would put me naturally on the train and ship me off to Dachau. So, he just kept staring and staring at me and I was not sure whether I was getting through to him. I have heard of whole families who have spent years there waiting for the visa and other guys who never got in. And believe me, I wanted to get back to America. It looked bad.
So we just sat there and stared at each other, the consul and I, in total silence. Finally he asked me, "What do you do? I mean professionally?" And I said, "I write movies." And he said, "That so?" He got up and started pacing, kind of behind me, but I felt that he was measuring me. Then he came back to the desk, picked up my passport, opened it, and took a rubber stamp and went [thumps twice on the podium], handed me back the passport and he said, "Write some good ones."
That was fifty-four years ago. I've tried ever since. I certainly did not want to disappoint that dear man in Mexicali. And you know, as I look back, you know, I've lived a charmed life. I never expected something like this, like the Thalberg Award. You are without any doubt the most generous people in the world. And I hope you're watching, I. A. L., because part of this is yours. So get well, will you? Thank you very, very much.
© Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences[Note: All winners are present except where noted; NOT all winners may have spoken.]