With Easter and Passover looming - Americans are this week anticipating one of the holiest weeks of the year. But as usual Los Angelenos are ahead of the American curve. This weekend saw legions of the natives of this town intimately engaged in the most important spiritual quest of the year. The search for the ultimate Oscar party. This is a brass ring that brings the only currency that really counts in Hollywood. Being on "The List."
The trend for scenesters this year has been away from the frantic pub-crawl journeying from party to party - always seeking a greater celebrity quota. In 2002 the thing to do was find one hot party and stick to it through thick (Oscar-winners) and thin (Blockbuster Award nominees.)
Drawing on previous years' experiences I picked what I thought would be one enjoyable party for each of the two holy nights. (Oscar is observed in L.A. on the Saturday and the Sunday night.)
In past years most studios held their bashes on the big night itself. A chance to fete the stars of their movies - perchance to revel in their win. But there's nothing damper than a ballroom full of disappointment - thus was born the pre-party. The night-before 'do' - when hopes are still unpunctured by the cruelties of the voters. The daddy of these parties is the annual "Max Awards" event - thrown by Miramax Films.
This year's party on Saturday was the fifth such occasion - and the glitterati were out in full force. The location had switched from its previous home at the genteel Beverly Wilshire Hotel to the trendier Mondrian Hotel - with mixed benefits. The hotel that is home to Hollywood's Sky Bar is filled with impossibly good-looking people. As one walks in the lobby one is surrounded by slickly handsome young gigolos in tan suits with brilliant white tee-shirts and matching teeth. These are just the bellhops. Inside the party is a veritable crush of movers, shakers and their significant others. (Usually a lawyer or an agent.)
Like the Rutles song which spoofs the Beatles' psychedelic lyrics ("spending your day in the colorful way - blue upon blue upon blue...") most of the partygoers are dressed in black-upon-black-upon-black. To wear a color is dangerous. it might be the wrong one. The only other acceptable hue is white - for the very young or dangerously tanned.
Everywhere one looks there are familiar faces - and at every turn one learns something unexpected. I for one had no idea that Marisa Tomei hates cilantro and has a best friend whose very e-mail address promulgates a similar disdain for that pungent herb. I didn't know that Rip Torn was rooting for Sissy Spacek because they were first cousins. He did explain it to me carefully. And his very attractive lawyer nodded to let me know that this was legitimate information.
Dominick Dunne seemed very relaxed for a man who was in "another town not his own." Perhaps it was his ringside seat next to the empty table that bore the simple legend "Reserved - Paltrow." Everywhere around me were Gwyneth lookalikes wearing the Paltrow hair-do and the white shirt with its mixture of cleavage and 'sleevage.' This of course was Gwyneth Version 2001. (It remains to be seen if the followers will adopt her 2002 Oscar ensemble.)
"Austin Powers" director Jay Roach was actually unencumbered by an entourage and spoke enthusiastically of completing the latest film in the series. He was especially excited about the performance of Michael Caine as the father of Austin Powers. It was like experiencing a live in-person 'Coming Attraction' for the movie. I was instantly ready to plonk down my $8 - but alas we'll have to wait till the Summer.
While several young actressy types dressed up as Gwyneth - there were even more young actor types dressed down as "Ben" or "Matt" as in Ben Affleck or Matt Damon. If you were the right end of 32 - it's a look. The only difficulty is that if you haven't got the cheekbones (or had the rehab experience) of an Affleck - or a cute Winona Ryder on your arm as Damon did for a couple of years (he got out just in time) then it screams "wannabee."
The very best aspect of this party are the skits and presentations which are hosted by Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. Drafting in Oscar nominees and playing with key scenes from the year's designated Best Pictures and other recent flicks - the sketches are a very rare glimpse of Hollywood laughing at itself. Perhaps that's enhanced because the guiding spirits of the two Weinstein brothers are so irredeemably New York-ish.
There were a slew of in-jokes about movies, famous actors, directors, executives and of course the larger-than-life Weinsteins. One blinked and saw Benjamin Bratt as a narrator interacting with Neve Campbell - who mimed John Nash vacationing in Key West with Rupert Everett. Blinked again and there was Dame Judi Dench in outrageous wig starring in "Out Of The Bedroom" with Jim Broadbent.
Sting - who later wowed the audience with his acoustic rendering of his song from "Kate & Leopold" remarked that what the skits captured were the very height of a bawdy English stage tradition - the pantomime - universally called "panto." The performances and the jokes being less important than the fun that the stars have in delivering their hokey lines in such a gloriously unrehearsed end-of-term school play atmosphere.
Sending up the Miramax/HBO production "Project Greenlight" - in which Ben Affleck and Matt Damon mentor a young filmmaker - the pair did a videotape piece in which they help a New York filmmaker realize his ambition of making a movie. But the novice director is actually Martin Scorsese - and his project is the $100 million plus "Gangs Of New York." (He eventually 'settles' for casting someone called Leonardo.) The scenes play brilliantly. Affleck, Damon and especially Scorsese effortlessly spoofing their own personas and known foibles.
The highlight of the sketches was undoubtedly the finale. For several years a highly combative battle has been waged each Oscar season between Harvey Weinstein's Miramax and the DreamWorks studio - whose film operations are spearheaded by Jeffrey Katzenberg. One year it was "Shakespeare In Love" versus "Saving Private Ryan" - then "American Beauty" versus "Cider House Rules." This year their duel was between "A Beautiful Mind" and "In the Bedroom." So Weinstein and Katzenberg good-naturedly decided to duke it out verbally - dressed as gladiators - with Christina Applegate posing as Universal Studios boss Stacey Snider - trying to mediate between these two feuding lads in a kiddie anger management session. The two executives were both given teddy bears representing each other. "Use your bear to express your feelings about each other nicely" urged their mediator. Weinstein promptly tore the head off his "Jeffrey Bear."
Weinstein and Katzenberg were a cut-up. Hammy but full of relish they traded venal insults about each other's films, friends, body shapes, personal preferences et al. "How's it feel to be kept afloat by your brother's movies?" asked Katzenberg (referring to the huge success of Bob Weinstein's "Scary Movie" franchise.) "That's rich coming from a guy who's always being baled out by Steven Spielberg!" (a reference to Katzenberg's DreamWorks partner.) And so it went... barb-on-barb-on-barb. Some of the world's most illustrious actors such as Martin Landau, Sissy Spacek and Judi Dench howled as the men who hire them sent themselves up.
The evening's only disappointment was the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow didn't show. She was doubtlessly stuck at Target looking for that perfect Oscar outfit.
But as the guests dwindled reluctantly into the brisk West Hollywood night - the mood was exultant. The industry had had the courage to mock itself.
For Oscar Night itself - there is only one real party to go to - unless of course one is on "The List" for the Vanity Fair party. Since Vanity Fair is like a capricious teenage girl - ten minutes out of the limelight and you're old hat - I decide to eschew that bash. (In full disclosure I should probably also mention that I was utterly not invited to it.)
But far more fun than fighting through that over-crowded throng (which apparently suffered a power outage at 1.00am as Russell Crowe's disappointment sucked up vast amounts of ions in the atmosphere) was to trundle through the goofily-relaxed charm of the annual "Night Of A Hundred Stars." This bash, organized by super-agent Norby Walters, is held every year at the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel as a fund-raiser for film preservation. The organization it supports is headed by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen - and the event captures the spirit seen on TV at the Golden Globes - and indeed how the Oscars were originally staged. A big ballroom full of people chowing down as they watch the event. Of course it's a big screen TV they're watching - but the people are even more interesting than most of the awards anyway.
It's a giddy mixture of A-list stars (on hiatus from A-list projects) such as Martin Landau, James Cromwell and director Richard Benjamin - all the way through to the staples of America's pop-cultural heartland. Where else could one rub shoulders (and more) with Anna Nicole Smith and then walk into Pat Morita and perennial film baddie Robert Davi (that guy with the moon-crater complexion.) Or watch Dallas star Charlene Tilton (who played the Ewing Family teenage vixen Lucy) tucking into 1500 calories of dessert while Cameron Diaz was wisping on to the Oscar stage like she'd barely consumed 1500 calories in her entire life. "I deserve this honey!" cooed Charlene. "I must have done a hundred interviews out there and I missed muh dinnah!"
"Out there" was the spacious lobby to the ballroom where camera crews from Honolulu jostled with tabloid paparazzi and live webcasters to hear what movie legends such as Bo Derek thought about the "Lord Of The Rings" cinematography.
"Wow! That's a good one!" I hear one photographer exult. I just got Pat Boone and Bruce Davison in the same shot! That's two-for-one! I working it baby!" (I was careful to transcribe this utterance word-for-word.) This was obviously some sort of technical talk that I was not able to comprehend. But he was indeed right about the stars he'd snapped. I approached Pat Boone and found that he was wearing what appeared to be a shiny white plastic tuxedo with a red PVC vest. To my amazement these objects were real. Flaunting political correctness with his usual charm Boone referred to the endangered species he was wearing: "My jacket's made of rare albino vinyl. We had to kill the last one..."
The whole event has a heady atmosphere. It's as though one is living on acid inside the Nick-At-Nite vaults.
Occasionally there were moments of serendipity. I was watching the big screen when the drama of Woody Allen's surprise appearance hit the crowd. They seemed to draw a collective breath and started cheering. I was standing right by Sid Caesar - who of course had given the young Allen his first break - as a writer on "Your Show Of Shows." Caesar "kvelled" (there is no other word for it) to see his protege delivering such a routine and capture the New York spirit. "I'm so proud..." he murmured when I asked him about it. It was a standout moment.
Similarly when Ben Stiller appeared on the big screen as a presenter - I found myself watching Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara for their reaction. It was the intense pride of parents watching their 7-year-old kid winning an egg-and-spoon race.
There is a big round of applause when the George Harrison tribute is included as the finale of the "In Memoriam" segment. The movie buffs in the crowd clearly knew of Harrison's stellar work as a film producer through the late 70's and 80's.
Outside the ballroom there were endless distractions to the Oscar telecast playing on TV monitors. In the smokers' courtyard I spot veteran character actor Seymour Cassel teasing actor Judd Nelson on the size of his derriere. Barbs were traded. Nelson was indeed larger-than-life. Giving his answers to questions about Best Costume was actor David Leisure - the Joe Isuzu character. His face so iconic as a monstrous fibber - that one leaned in to see if he was being sincere or not. Charlene Tilton was watching the monitor when Sharon Stone got on the Oscar stage. "Oh lord I jus' wanna be Sharon Stone when I grow up..." Charlene of course has not grown an inch above her petite 5 foot frame since her 70's heyday - and alas does not seem destined to walk in Sharon's do-me pumps.
As the Oscars wore on there were other unforgettable moments. The entire crowd was enraptured by Halle Berry's speech. But they were equally convulsed when she segued from her inspirational opening into a tearful thank you to her lawyer "for making the deal." I was sat amidst a group of comics including Robert Wuhl (Arli$$), Larry Miller and Dom Irrera at that point - and Berry's bizarre transition from civil rights pioneer to fulsome client inspired an instant rewrite by someone of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech to include a thank you to three different sponsors who had made the march possible.
Anna Nicole Smith was still smarting from Whoopi Goldberg's opening crack about 74 year old Oscar and Anna Nicole. "I used to respect Whoopi - but not any more" she told me. I nodded my head in silent empathy at the feeling of deep betrayal she was nursing. And we mortals are foolish enough to think that mere money can protect the heart from the slings and arrows of outrageous Oscar hosts. Anna managed to rise above her pain and rebounded by posing for some photos in which she plumped up one of her famous appendages and pushed it 3-D style at the cameras. Clearly it's having a tortured soul that makes her do these things...
The latest outrage in Hollywood is the return of those scantily-clad young ladies wearing trays on their midriff bearing cartons of cigarettes to be dispensed freely to party-goers. I wandered over to one of these nicotine-pushers to vent my disapproval - only to discover that these cartons were in fact a new breed of breath mint - packaged in a recreation of a silver cigarette case. Another Californian trend about to engulf the nation...
Finally I see one of the more bizarre sights of the night. A TV crew is standing in front of a TV monitor and the on-camera correspondent is chatting to the camera and pointing at the Oscar goings-on as though he's actually there! He tells me that he is Pablo Carbonell of Spain's Tele 5 Network. Unable to pony up the few million Pesetas (now Euros) to purchase transmission rights to the Oscars - and unable to breach security at the event itself - he has decided to cover the entire Oscars by interacting with it on a TV monitor - pulling in an occasional (and very baffled) David Hasselhof or Linda Blair for ringside commentary. And each time an Oscar is awarded to someone that meets with his approval - he lets out a whoop that is reminiscent of that legendary Hispanic soccer anchor covering the World Cup. But instead of yelling "Goooooaaaaaaalllllll!" - he yelps "Osssscccccaaaaarrrrr!"
I watch him mesmerized. Pablo interacts with Mel Gibson, Barbra Streisand and Julia Roberts. The viewers back home can't fail to be impressed. I have now seen everything. I walk up the elegant staircase still hearing that exultant call - "Osssscccccaaaaarrrrr!"