Sound mixer Kevin O’Connell, who has worked on films such as Top Gun and Transformers, had a rather bittersweet distinction in Hollywood — he held the record for the most Academy Award nominations without a single win.
That streak finally came to an end at the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday. After 21 nominations spanning 33 years — his first coming in 1984 for the classic tearjerker Terms of Endearment — O’Connell finally heard his name called for Mel Gibson‘s directorial comeback Hacksaw Ridge.
“Thank you so much! I can’t even tell you what this means to me,” O’Connell said in his acceptance speech, going on to thank his colleagues, Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson, and his family, including his late mother.
“A special thank you tonight to my mother, Skippy O’Connell, who 39 years ago got me a job in sound,” O’Connell said. “And when I asked her how I could thank her, she told me, ‘You can work hard. You can work really hard, and someday you can win yourself an Oscar, and you can stand on the stage, and you can think me in front of the whole world.’ Mom, I know you’re looking down on me tonight, so thank you.”
But leading up to the awards show, O’Connell wasn’t so sure this would be his year. “I think we have a better shot in years past,” he recently told NBC News. “It’s a difficult category because there are so many really good movies. But we’ve also been nominated for best picture, best actor, best director and that means the Academy folks in general like the movie.”
Those mentions in the big categories had the 59-year-old remaining “hopeful this year.”
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The so-called Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards, referring to the actress who took 19 tries before finally winning an Emmy for her role on the soap opera All My Children, says he’s kept his 20 prepared acceptance speeches in a drawer.
“The acceptance speech always changes over the years, but the one constant would be thanking my mother for getting me into this business 40 years ago,” he said of his mom, Skippy O’Connell, who died on the night of the 2007 Oscars. “She was in the hospital and insisted I go to the ceremony because she would never want me not to go.”
After losing for the 19th time, he was able to see her mother before she passed away.
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O’Connell’s mother, who worked her way up through Fox studios to be the assistant head of the sound department, encouraged him to try out the profession after he worked as a firefighter for a year.
He started working in 1978 as a machine room operator at Samuel Goldwyn Studios, where he worked on films such as Grease, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“Time is money and the stages were expensive and I’m a 23-year-old guy sitting there working on Poltergeist with Steven Spielberg sitting behind me,” O’Connell told NPR. “It was nerve-wracking, I have to say. It was really nerve-wracking.”
Over the years, he’s become a master of the craft. Though the Best Sound/Sound Mixing category tends to favor musicals — in this year’s case, La La Land poses a threat — O’Connell explains that a war movie is full of its own challenges.
“What a lot of people don’t understand about what we do is that when they shoot the battle scenes, it’s a bunch of guys running around, basically, a dirt field the size of a football field and all of the explosions are props, the guns are props, none of it makes the noises that it does,” he told ABC News. “The only parts of the original tracks that we were able to keep were very small pieces of the dialogue. Other than that, every single explosion, gunshot, ricochet, bullet whizzing sound, footstep, everything has been recreated with period authentic weaponry to create what was essentially the Battle of Okinawa.”
O’Connell said the sound team carefully went over different sound effects for months to fully immerse audiences watching Hacksaw Ridge, mixing the dialogue with the music and the effects so they would believe every gunshot felt authentic.
“Most people think it’s sort of a technical thing, but it’s really not,” he said. “It’s a very artistic craft.”
The Academy Awards kicks off live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET pre-show and 8:30 p.m. ceremony. See all the Oscar nominees and get your own ballot here!