Oscars 2021: Union Station will transform into a ‘star location’
USA TODAY’s Bryan Alexander explains why Union Station in Los Angeles is far from an unlikely home for this year’s Academy Awards.
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When Oscars producer Steven Soderbergh decided that the pandemic-altered 93rd Academy Awards would play out more like a movie than a televised awards show, he was aware star talent – Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Zendaya and more were ready to suit up as presenters.
But the “Ocean’s 11” director needed a star location for the biggest night in movies (Sunday, ABC at 8 EDT/PDT), landing at Los Angeles’ Union Station.
A bustling Amtrak and regional transportation hub for the Oscars? It’s actually a stellar choice since the architectural gem offers beauty and grandeur – especially with the Grand Waiting Room and Historic Ticketing Hall, where most of the ceremony will take place. The hall’s 62-foot vaulted ceilings and tree-filled outdoor patios also prove beneficial for health and safety for the in-person event amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of all, Union Station has got Tinseltown in its DNA, with an IMDb page of TV and movies that would make The Rock jealous.
“The appropriate irony is my first impressions of Union Station in its physical grandeur are from seeing it in movies,” Soderbergh said at a press conference Saturday. “That was certainly part of the reason I proposed it as a possible venue for this year’s show.”
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The nearly 82-year-old station is even about to show off a Hollywood face-lift, with an eight-year restoration of its historic ceiling completed in time for Sunday’s show.
“Union Station is and always been a star – in architecture, in Los Angeles history, and as a stars in movies,” says movie historian Marc Wanamaker.
Designed by the father-son architect team of John and Donald Parkinson, Union Station opened with a three-day celebratory event in 1939 that tied in with a locomotive-led parade promoting Cecil B. DeMille’s train-centric Western “Union Pacific.”
The new hub inserted itself directly into the Hollywood game by bringing the biggest stars into town by rail – unfailingly into a phalanx of waiting newspaper photographers ready to promote the arrival.
“The railroad companies made sure the stars used the station to come and go, so people would say that if it’s good enough for Gloria Swanson, I want to ride that train,” says Wanamaker.[embedded content]
In 1950, box-office star William Holden and “Sunset Boulevard” Oscar nominee Nancy Olson starred in, literally, “Union Station” the movie. The crime noir drama was shot almost entirely on location, portraying Chicago’s station by the same name.
Union Station has frequently starred in momentous train departures moments: Grand Central Station for Ben Affleck’s World War II pilot in 2001’s “Pearl Harbor” and seeing off a New York-bound championship racehorse in 2003’s “Sea Biscuit.” Preston (Ethan Embry) kissed Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) at Union Station rather than get on a Boston-bound train in the romantic conclusion of 1998’s “Can’t Hardly Wait.”[embedded content]
Christine’s (Alison Lohman) last happy moments on Earth were spent store dress shopping in Union Station’s Grand Waiting Room before being pulled eternally away on the tracks in the shocking end of 2009’s horrifying “Drag Me To Hell.”
Catch these Union Station cameos if you can
But the station is far from a one-note actor. David Rockwell, the architect and production designer preparing the building for the Oscars telecast, cites the “mish-mash” of architectural styles the property boasts – Art Deco, Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne – that allows for role flexibility.
“One of the reasons it’s been so successful as a film location is that iconic look from the exterior,” says Rockwell. “But when you walk in, it almost feels like time stood still. It feels like you’re in a ’40s movie with those grand open spaces and these beautiful exterior courtyards.”
Union Station has carried its grandeur into fictional dystopic futures, doubling as Dr. Crane’s carnival courthouse in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” where villain Bane’s enemies were tried.
“Blade Runner” production designer Lawrence G. Paull was nominated for an Oscar for his groundbreaking, bleak Los Angeles, with Union Station serving as an unforgettable police station. In Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s con artist woos Elizabeth Banks in the train station’s halls made to look like a Miami bank.[embedded content]
The Coen Brothers’ cast the station in their 2016 ode to Hollywood “Hail, Caesar!” as the movie’s fictional movie studio (called Capitol Studios), while 2003’s “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” transformed the space to Demi Moore’s villain Madison Lee’s impressive lair.
These are just a handful of appearances for a transportation center that is breathtakingly moving.
Even through the Oscar lead-up, the train station has remained fully functional for commuters. The Academy has kept the Ticketing Hall, the Grand Waiting Room along with the north and south patios under wraps. Rockwell says the signature 40-foot windows in the hall will allow the early evening sun to light the assembled stars, who will sit at small, lamp-lit tables for two.
“We’re creating this beautiful room within the room, using it to create a portrait gallery for the nominees, but allowing people to see the building beyond,” Rockwell says. “This show will also celebrate a landmark, this beautiful building that people will get to discover.”