Flashback: Anna Paquin wins an Oscar

As more than a billion people worldwide watched on, the nervous gulps lasted for a full 21 seconds on a Los Angles stage.

The left hand fidgeted around the lectern, the right hand firmly grasped the prize.

In Wellington, so many politicians had rushed from Parliament's debating chamber to watch the broadcast, bells were ringing them back so a quorum in the House could be reached.

Then, in the distinct accent of an 11-year-old girl from the Hutt Valley: "I would like to thank the Academy ... ".

Anna Paquin, 11, had won an Oscar for best supporting actress in Jane Campion's The Piano.

She was the first New Zealander to win an Academy Award for acting and the second youngest person ever to win an Oscar, second only to Paper Moon's Tatum O'Neal in 1974.

Paquin reportedly still has the statuette sitting in a bedroom cupboard.

In a less-official record she had suffered, then overcome, one of the Oscars' most endearing cases of nerves to deliver a flawless speech.

The date was March 22, 1994 – 19 years ago this week. The film itself – which also won Holly Hunter a best actress Oscar and Campion one for best original screenplay – was released in 1993.

Paquin was up against a weighty field: Emma Thompson for In the Name of the Father, Winona Ryder for Age of Innocence, Rosie Perez for Fearless, and Holly Hunter. Hunter would win a best actress Oscar that night for her starring role in The Piano, but was also nominated in the supporting actress category for The Firm.

It is likely the 11-year-old Lower Hutt girl didn't rate her own chances.

After all, till The Piano – a role she only auditioned for by chance when she went along with her older sister – her only acting experience had been in a school play, as a skunk by some tellings.

Backstage, she told reporters it was "pretty cool" to win.

She was asked, what next?

"What do you mean?" came her bewildered reply. Evidently it wasn't a famed late-night, post-Oscar party. Hollywood success was on the cards however.

Years later, when Paquin won a Golden Globe for her role in vampire television series True Blood, she reflected back to that night in 1994.

"I don't even remember that, it was very blurry and crazy," she said. "This is quite blurry and crazy, too, but at least I'm old enough to drink and stay out past 10pm."

For Paquin's agent in New Zealand, Gail Cowan, memories are clearer.

"[An] unforgettable period of my life," she recalled this week. "It was the classic baptism by fire as an agent and the learning curve was nothing less than vertical."

Cowan remembers crowding around a television at the Double Happy talent agency offices in Blair St, central Wellington, to watch the broadcast.

"It was all so surreal at the time ... being an Irish Catholic, I don't think you rate your chances at the time."

When presenter Gene Hackman announced Paquin's name the office erupted into an uproar, followed by the tension as the young Paquin started her speech: "You are holding your breath with her, willing the words out of her mouth."

Sure enough, the Aussies were quick to lay claim to the win – "Our Oscar Triumph," The Australian newspaper trumpeted above a photo of Paquin and Campion.

(In fairness, Campion was living in Sydney, the film was produced by an Australian and financed by the French – all criteria which, ironically for such a New Zealand tale, ruled it out of contention for the New Zealand Film and Television Awards.)

Hollywood was soon beckoning, Cowan remembers. "I remember Anna's mum coming to pick up the scripts, there would be piles of them."

Evidently the right choices were made as a string of movies followed, and, of course, the highly-successful vampire television series

Paquin these days has baby twins and is married to her True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer.

The Dominion Post