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A 'below-the-line' Oscar winner

Gene Allen's Newport home speaks more of his love of painting than his starry history with the Academy Awards.

February 21, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Gene Allen, 94, an Oscar-winning art director, with a sketch he did of himself, bottom center, which was taken from a photo his father took of him at a young age. In 1964, Allen and Cecil Beaton won the Academy Award for color art direction in "My Fair Lady."
Gene Allen, 94, an Oscar-winning art director, with a… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

Gene Allen's home on the Balboa Peninsula offers so much to delight the eye that it's easy to hide a small object inside it.

Even an Academy Award.

The longtime Newport Beach resident, who lives in a condo overlooking the Rhine Channel, doesn't make too much of his Hollywood past — at least in terms of decoration. His studio looks like that of any master painter, with canvases depicting his hometown and Catalina Island hung snugly along the walls.

If you visit Allen's abode hoping to see the Oscar, you won't find it on top of a shrine. Allen, who served two terms as Academy president and won best art direction-set decoration for "My Fair Lady" in 1964, keeps the prize in a living room cupboard where the sea breeze won't damage the metal. Packed alongside it is another nugget from the old days: a cigarette case etched with the words, "Dear Gene — Now I tell you, I have designs on you. Love, Marilyn."

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Yes, that Marilyn. Allen, 94, mingled with a great many stars during his time in Hollywood. But through all those years, he remained what he is now when he sits down to paint in Balboa: a dedicated artist and craftsman, not a marquee name.

"They have what they call above-the-line and below-the-line budgets," he said last month in his studio, which boasts a chair Henry Fonda and James Stewart used in "The Cheyenne Social Club." "Below-the-line are all the technicians, cameramen, editors, art directors and other people, and so I've always been a below-the-line guy with everything. But I'm the only president of the Academy ever — now past president — who was a below-the-line thing."

Sunday morning, most likely, Allen will be in the middle of a painting. He works prolifically by his window, turning out portraits, landscapes and cityscapes that he mostly keeps or gives to private collections. Often he returns to favorite subjects; some of the pictures on his wall show the exact same scene painted at different times of the day, with his brush carefully capturing the light.

Sunday evening, though, Allen will take his place with Tinseltown royalty. Every year since 1955, he's attended the Oscars — that first visit coming when he was nominated for best art direction-set decoration for "A Star Is Born." It took three nominations for him to finally snag the gold, which he shared with Cecil Beaton and George James Hopkins.

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