Morton Grove Native Scores Oscar with Alice in Wonderland
Proud parents Pat and Mary Ann watch at home in Morton Grove as their daughter Karen O'Hara accepts an Oscar in Los Angeles.
Newly-minted Oscar winner Karen O'Hara, who grew up in Morton Grove, was almost sure the set decorator from Inception would take home the gold statuette, she said in an interview from her Pasadena, CA home on Thursday.
“I was shocked,” she said, when Tom Hanks read her name and that of Robert Stromberg, the set designer she worked with on Alice in Wonderland.
She rose from her seat, wearing a gown and heels borrowed from a next-door-neighbor. (She had wanted to wear the same dress she bought for the BAFTA awards, but her friends nixed the idea. “What if people Google you and you’re wearing the same thing?” she said they told her.)
“I was speechless, and started to feel like I might cry,” she said. “But when I was walking down the aisle I managed to pull myself together.”
Her date was husband Ken Turek, who also works in the art department on films and commercials.
“When I got up there, the stage was a lot smaller than I thought,” she said, “and more comfortable.”
In the briefest of remarks, she thanked director Tim Burton, who she said hasn’t gotten the kind of recognitions she thinks he deserves.
“His work is really sort of a singular vision,” she said of Burton, who also directed Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and The Corpse Bride. “He does a lot of his own drawings and is a very talented artist in his own right and very supportive of other artists.”
Backstage, O’Hara said she was delighted to reconnected with Hanks, who she worked with on the films Philadelphia, Castaway and The Polar Express.
It was the second Oscar nomination for O’Hara, who got her first nod in 1986 as a set decorator for The Color of Money. That film was set in Chicago, where she got her start in the industry.
Excitement in Morton Grove
"A scream, more than a cry," was the reaction at the Morton Grove home of parents Pat and Mary Ann O’Hara, Pat said. They were just as surprised as Karen when she won, because she told them Inception had already won the BAFTA award in her category and probably was a shoo-in for the Oscar.
Watching with them at the family home on Crain street were one of her six siblings, Gary O’Hara, and his family, who live in Boilingbrook.
Born and raised in Morton Grove, Karen O'Hara graduated in 1972 from St. Louise de Marillac High School in Northfield and in 1977 from the University of Chicago at Illinois with a degree in communications design.
Growing up, she never dreamed of working in movies or winning an Oscar.
“Back then I didn’t even know the job I have existed,” she said.
Growing up with four brothers and two sisters did help prepare her for one of the most important parts of her job working with actors, directors and productions designers: diplomacy.
“With seven of us, we were always trying to get along and make things work,” O’Hara said. “Film is a collaborative process that requires you to rely on other people, communicate and to ask for help when you need it.”
An impressive career
Being from a large family, she said, “set me up for a collaborative media.”
Beyond that, dad Pat was in commercials -- an ad man -- and she started her film working in commercials and continues to work in the medium.
Her film work, which also includes A Christmas Carol, Spiderman and Silence of the Lambs, involves long stretches of 14 or 15 hour days. She’s responsible for the way everything about the set and every prop looks, and in films like Alice in Wonderland, is responsible for helping reproduce them in 3-D.
Actors sometimes add things to the script that can throw curveballs at set decorators.
For example, when Johnny Depp decided rather than have the Mad Hatter walk around the table, he would walk across it to greet Alice, it meant O’Hara had to find triplicate pieces of all the dinnerware he’d be smashing for each take.
“It can make things interesting,” she said.
After the awards ceremony, O’Hara said she went to the Oscar-sponsored Governor’s Ball, mainly because she was starving to death.
“I started early in the morning with the hair and the makeup and the dress and this and that,” she said.
Disney, which produced Alice In Wonderland, sent over an itinerary early in the week and then, Cinderella-coach style, a limousine to pick her up.
“They make the whole process as easy as possible,” she said.