LOS ANGELES–On March 26 of the year 2000, Alan Ball, a screenwriter who came out of nowhere from sitcomland, clutched his Oscar on the stage of Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium and gave thanks to a plastic bag that he had once seen caught up in the cross currents of air that whirl in the artificial canyon of Manhattan’s World Trade Center.
Mr. Ball had turned that experience into a central, haunting image of American Beauty , the story of the suburban guy violently thrashing around in an effort to recast himself, that not only spoke to movie-going audiences but to the voting members of the Academy. And the flurry of preparations and parties that culminated in the 72nd annual Oscars ceremony left little doubt as to why Mr. Ball’s story resonated in this town.
This was the year that the digital revolution flowed into Hollywood. And in its jet stream, The Industry had become as confused as the plastic bag in Mr. Ball’s movie, buffeted by strong and unpredictable forces and trying to figure out what it should now be. Even as the workmen were tacking down the red carpet at the Shrine, the sullen moguls of convergence–the guys who’ve begun camping out on Sunset Boulevard, preparing for the time when movies will play on the Net–were descending upon the Chateau Marmont and The Standard hotels for the Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival. In this setting, The Matrix and its four Oscars seemed the perfect hybrid: the classic story of a Messiah born to fight the forces of evil, partnered with chic black fashions, Terminator -buffed actors, and technological tricks that made you feel awed in the same way you did when you saw Star Wars for the first time. That is, if you’re old enough to have been buying movie tickets in 1977. (Every time the movie’s futurist-looking crew got up to accept another Oscar, you had to remind yourself that those guys were filmmakers and not Sun Microsystems technologists.)
As goes the industry, so went the industry’s most hallowed night: unfocused-feeling. Richard and Lili Zanuck, who produced the Oscar telecast had attempted to move the show into the 21st century, but instead they gave us poor Peter Coyote in some dopey headset, looking not future-forward, but as silly and archaic as Walter Winchell did when he wore his fedora on TV. We had wanted Warren Beatty to kill, to take his rightful place at the head of Hollywood’s Establishment, but he seemed–as he did at his non-White House declarations–delicate, faint and gentle, sans balls or bravado. Only Michael Caine–and his classy nod to survival–rose above the low, cold hum of the night.
The post-Oscar parties, too felt dull, brittle, and diffuse, bereft of the velvety, schmaltzy history that had, in the past, given the night its context and purpose. It was light years from March 21, 1999, Oscar night no. 71, when the contest was between two old Hollywood genres: the romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love versus the white-knuckle war epic Saving Private Ryan Last year, of course, the Harvey Weinstein Players–Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Gwyneth Paltrow, pretty in pink Ralph Lauren–were the victors, throwbacks to the era of Hollywood when the moguls were smart bastards who loved the movies, and the stars were glamorous and clubby.
This year, however, the Morton’s bash felt anything but clubby; the guest list, nine single-spaced pages long, seemed to lack only the name of Spike Jonze. In the glutted atmosphere of indiscriminate celebrity that was that party, The Observer was very surprised to see David Geffen, the Dreamworks SKG partner, whose company brought forth American Beauty . Mr. Geffen is famous for never attending these things, but there he was in the green leather banquette that had been deemed Table Number One of the Vanity Fair Academy Awards night dinner. Not that he was having fun. His face, an angular relief map of power, conveyed only the importance of winning.
“Don’t stand there,” he barked, raising his hand in an annoyed sweeping motion when a woman (who appeared to be his interior designer, Rose Tarlow) blocked his view of the telecast. The woman skittered away, allowing Mr. Geffen to reconnect with the television and the moment at hand. The Oscar for best original screenplay was about to be announced, and as the envelope was opened on camera, Mr. Geffen coiled his slight frame in the banquette. The ceremony was down to the all-important final four–Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture–and Dreamworks’ American Beauty was nominated in each category. Mr. Geffen was about to find out what kind of spring he and his partners, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, were going to have.
When Mr. Ball’s script for American Beauty took the honors, Mr. Geffen pumped forward in his seat. “Yeah!” he said, with tempered enthusiasm. Twice more the dice came up Dreamworks, and each time Mr. Geffen would ratchet himself back down into his seat, so that by the time Clint Eastwood squinted at the camera and announced the Best Picture nominees, Mr. Geffen looked like he was strapped into a NASA rocket sled. As Mr. Eastwood scowled at the envelope he was opening, the Dreamworks founder pressed both of his hands against his forehead as if to keep his skull from exploding.
Then Mr. Eastwood made Mr. Geffen’s day.
“Yeah!” Mr. Geffen yelled, with more gusto this time.
Yeah. For the second consecutive year, the Oscar sweepstakes had boiled down to a two-way, West Coast/East Coast horse race between Dreamworks, the alterna-studio born out of the heads of Mr. Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Miramax Films, owned by Disney but run on the hunches of New York-based Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
Last year, the Weinsteins had left Mr. Spielberg looking gut-punched as Shakespeare in Love blew by Saving Private Ryan . Now, payback time had arrived in four sealed envelopes (topped with the dollop of Mr. Mendes’ acceptance speech, which essentially credited Mr. Spielberg with finding the project).
But Mr. Geffen, instead of celebrating with his assembled friends, was a model of efficiency: He clinked glasses with his table mates–Jane Fonda, fellow media mogul Barry Diller and humorist Fran Lebowitz–then began race-walking for an exit, passing through a dinner crowd that included Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone, Walter Cronkite, actress Selma Blair, socialite Lynn Wyatt and AOL Time Warner chief operating officer Robert Pittman. Mr. Geffen had made it through the crowd and into the open-ceilinged tent that had been pitched next to Morton’s when The Observer caught up to him and asked what winning meant to him.
Mr. Geffen communicated his joy in two joyless words. “I’m thrilled,” he said tightly. Perhaps he was saving his shaka-laka victory dance for his Dreamworks brethren, but there would be no displays of emotion here. Before the tables had been rolled out of the dining room to make way for the post-Oscar revelers, Mr. Geffen was gone, retreating, presumably, into the cocoon of the Dreamworks party.
Scenes From Morton’s
With most of the Shrine audience still fighting its way to the Governors Ball, the massive, white, roofless tent adjacent to Morton’s was chilly and occupied by only a few pockets of early guests. Condé Nast editorial director James Truman and medical student Samantha Boardman–whose West-coast snuggling had earned the couple an item on the New York Post ‘s Page Six wondering whether they had married in Vegas–lay together on one of the shabby chic divans that had been set up on opposite sides of the tent.
Back in the dining room, Vanity Fair ‘s dinner guests finished their postprandial conversations. Morton’s was the place to go before you went to your own little party somewhere else, but as Jeff Berg, chief executive of the agency ICM said to producer Robert Evans, “If this room is your life, then you’ve got a lot of problems.” Mr. Evans was wearing his usual Florsheim tan and a bolo tie (director Quentin Tarentino was also spotted wearing a silver cow-skull bolo at a Miramax event, meaning, guys. that soon it will be safe to drag the silver-toed cowboy boots and turquoise jewelry to the front of the closet.)
Mr. Evans told The Observer that he didn’t see any underlying message in the telecast he had just watched. He called it a “reaffirmation” of Hollywood’s need to appeal to a “panoply of ages.” Mr. Evans implied that the search for any message on Oscar night was futile, because in the movie business, “Most of the time you fall on your ass.”
But this year, several upstarts got to kick some ass. When Being John Malkovich won Best First Feature (in the over $500,000-budget category) at the IFP/West Independent Spirit awards, one of the film’s producers, Sandy Stern, took great delight in reading one major studio’s coverage of Charlie Kaufman’s script. The studio, which passed on both Mr. Kaufman and the script, opined that the project might be “hailed as an inspired piece of work on the planet [where] it was written.” The smile on Mr. Stern’s face left little doubt that we were on his Planet Hollywood now.
Depending on your investment in the old ways, you could read this as either good or bad, because it did have a sort of democratizing effect on the kind of films that rose to the surface this past year. On the Internet they say that any idea is worth publishing and that the quality ideas will inevitably rise to the surface. The success of such films as American Beauty , Boys Don’t Cry and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich would indicate that any movie can now be made, that the formula film is dead.
In this context, it was funny to see the newly single Jane Fonda returning to the Hollywood fold (or what was left of it). In her Sally Herschberger hairdo and that haunch-sculpting metallic dress, she conveyed a demure sexiness that sent a message concerning Ted Turner and the horse he rode in on. In commemoration of Ms. Fonda’s Oscar night coming out, her publicist, Stephen Rivers, who accompanied her to the Vanity Fair event, denied everything.
Who Wants to Be A Millionaire host Regis Philbin looked happy, probably because the entertainment industry crowd knew better than to pepper him with the catch phrase, “Is that your final answer?” By the time we caught up with him around 10:15 P.M., Mr. Philbin said he’d only gotten the question twice, from “a waiter and a bartender,” said Mr. Philbin. But had Mr. Philbin been playing the Oscar 2000 version of his own game he would have lost on the Gwyneth Paltrow question. One person who attended the Vanity Fair dinner, said that when Mr. Philbin spied actress Cate Blanchett, he said that “Gwyneth” looked great. Mr. Philbin’s wife Joy set him straight.
Because of the length of the awards ceremony, the Vanity Fair tent did not reach critical mass until after 11 P.M. Then, at once it seemed, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were trying to make their way through the dining room; Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were sequestered at the bar (where a line of guys immediately decided to line up for drinks at the gap where Ms. Aniston sat) and Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver were trying to get into the tent via an entranceway that been constructed by knocking one of the restaurant’s walls down. (It would be replaced, a Vanity Fair spokeswoman assured us, in time for the restaurant’s weekly Monday power dinner.)
The Graydon Carter Boogie
By midnight, the event had become the usual panorama of encyclopedic celebrity. In addition to the Oscar winners and nominees, including Mr. Spacey, Hilary Swank and Catherine Keener, there were industry people (producer Joel Silver), society people (Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Davis), fashion people (Gucci’s Tom Ford), art people (dealer Larry Gagosian) and music people (Rod Stewart and Tenacious D’s Jack Black). For completists, there was even Alan Rosenberg, the guy who played Cybill Shepherd’s ex-husband Ira on her sitcom. Even Hugh Hefner plopped himself down at a table with four Playmates, including Sandy and Amanda Bentley, who scowled when we asked Mr. Hefner if Oscar night was better than sex. “What?” said Mr. Hefner, about four times, then when he finally heard us, he too looked indignant. “I don’t think there’s much comparison,” he said.
In that respect, Vanity Fair had replicated its successes of the previous years. But in one crucial area, the party was different than years past.
They say you can tell a lot by the way a person dances, or if he dances at all. Similarly, it takes a sense of community for people to dance; an atmosphere where confidence overrides self-consciousness. Last year, the Vanity Fair Oscar party was a virtual boogie fest, with Madonna and Ricky Martin and a whole lot of less-famous people shaking their liposuctioned hips to a hot Cuban band. This year, however, the dance floor was barren for stretches at a time, save for a few excursions by George Hamilton and Danielle Steele and Jay and Mavis Leno. It didn’t help that the singer for the big band-style group that was performing was doing an excellent job channeling Chet Baker, an artist who’s best listened to when pain is the order of the day.
Indeed, the only person who was dancing his tail off was Vanity Fair ‘s editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter, who seemed to be twirling someone new around the floor every time we looked. Mr. Carter danced with Minnie Driver; he danced with her sister and he danced with New York Times media reporter Alex Kuczynski. Mr. Carter declined to dance with us.
Mr. Carter appeared quite comfortable in his skin that night, a man who seemed confident of his role in a hierarchy that is wary of outsiders. The media grapevine has been singing with questions about Mr. Carter, with many in New York wondering if he is cultivating the same aspirations that his rival Tina Brown was once accused of harboring. A recent New York magazine Intelligencer column item reported an enthusiastic dinner between Mr. Carter and producer Brian Grazer that seemed to be about Mr. Carter joining the Pop.com internet project that Mr. Grazer is doing in conjunction with Dreamworks. Then a recent item in Roger Friedman’s Fox gossip column reported that Mr. Carter may be executive-producing two documentaries that will feature Robert Evans, all yentled by Mr. Carter’s friend, Mr. Diller. A Vanity Fair spokeswoman didn’t get back to us on the latter, but Mr. Grazer, whose spiky hair would have given Vlad Tepes a woody, hadn’t yet ruled out Mr. Carter’s future involvement in Pop.com. Asked if they might be working together, Mr. Grazer replied: “We might, we might.” Later in the evening, Mr. Carter said only that the New York item was just an interpretation of “talk among two friends.”
While Mr. Carter was box-stepping with the world, partygoers off the dance floor began to find it increasingly difficult not to step on all of the gown trains that were keeping Morton’s floor fit to eat off. Mr. Schwarzenegger trampled on his wife’s gown at one point, and a semi-historic meeting between Mr. Pitt and Brad Rowe–an actor who looks strikingly like a younger, bearded Brad Pitt–apparently occurred when Mr. Rowe accidentally stepped on Ms. Aniston’s gown. Although Mr. Pitt and his ex, Ms. Paltrow, reportedly steered clear of each other at the party, Mr. Pitt had a fairly lengthy and seemingly pleasant chat with Gwyneth’s father, producer Bruce Paltrow.
Back in the restaurant, Tom Cruise ran into former Nanny star Fran Drescher. Ms. Drescher started out by saying that she had been rooting for Mr. Cruise to win for Best Supporting Actor, but then became tongue-tied when she segued into Mr. Caine’s acceptance speech. “That was, that was, I don’t know what that was,” said Ms. Drescher.
“It was a great performance,” replied Mr. Cruise, although it was unclear whether he was talking about Mr. Caine’s speech or his role in The Cider House Rules .
And later that night, Ms. Kidman would encounter fellow Aussie thespian Russell Crowe. A source told The Observer that when Ms. Kidman asked Mr. Crowe how he felt, he made the shape of an L with his thumb and forefinger and placed it to his forehead–Australian shorthand for loser. Ms. Kidman laughed and pointed to her husband. “He’s one too,” she said.
In the tent, actor John Enos escorted a terrified-looking Heidi Fleiss through the room. This did not look to be her idea of freedom. Asked how the long couple had been dating, Mr. Enos replied, “What time is it?” It was 12:02 A.M.
The only couple who got more doubletakes were Best Supporting Actress winner Angelina Jolie and her brother James Haven Voight, whose cuddling appeared to surpass sibling affection. One partygoer told The Observer that even father Jon Voight, who was at the party, seemed to be a little unnerved by their closeness.
By a quarter to one, some people, though they had not sought it out, had achieved even more intimacy when the entrance between Morton’s and the tent had become a bottleneck of scary proportions. The celebrities were still coming. Mr. Spacey had occupied the booth warmed by Mr. Hefner and his hotties. Outside Mr. Hefner waited for his transportation. He was flanked by the four women, one of whom was dipping a plastic wand into a plastic jar of soapy liquid and blowing bubbles that floated languidly to their various ascendencies, then disappeared.
Among the Beautiful Losers
Harvey Weinstein burst his own bubble before anyone else could. Nine days before Oscar night, according to the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Weinstein called Dreamworks’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man who had been instrumental in Disney buying Miramax, and told him, “Congratulations, you saw the playbook and you outplayed us.”
Mr. Weinstein put it another way to The Observer on March 25, at Miramax’s annual pre-Oscar cocktail party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “Tomorrow night, I’m the loser,” he said. “Paul Newman is Hud, and Harvey Weinstein is the loser.” Mr. Weinstein, dressed entirely in black, looked like he was having a Johnny Cash moment. Still, he seemed in good humor.
For several years now, Miramax has invited journalists and friends to this pre-Oscar event where the brothers Weinstein enlist the stars of their films to act out scenes from one another’s movies. The actors are given roles that are incredibly inappropriate for them, making the event great fodder for the journalists who covered the event and underscoring the idea that Miramax’s talent was one big happy family ready to put on a show for fun.
Yet Michael Eisner, the Disney chief executive, seemed to be completely clueless about this tradition. “So, you do skits?” The Observer heard him asking Mr. Weinstein. “How long have you been doing this?”
Mr. Eisner stuck around long enough to catch one of the more inspired performances of Max Awards history, when Kevin Spacey–A Dreamworks actor, to boot–filled in for Jude Law, who was supposed to have donned a blond wig and played Charlize Theron’s part opposite director Lasse Hallstrom in the drive-in scene from The Cider House Rules .
Earlier, someone must have made a comment about getting Mr. Spacey to work for Miramax for free. Because after gamely playing his role with some great Gleasoneque deadpan looks, Mr. Spacey tossed his wig into the crowd and said: “Don’t kid yourself, everyone works for free at Miramax. Always.”
“I hope you’re listening to that, Michael Eisner,” Harvey said from the stage. Mr. Eisner smiled wanly as Bob Weinstein sidled up to the Disney chief. “Except everyone knows that’s not true anymore,” Bob said.
By then Mr. Spacey had found Mr. Law in the crowd and dragged him up on stage. “Put this man in a dress,” Mr. Spacey said.
Meanwhile, out in the audience, Quentin Tarantino was talking loudly to actor Ethan Hawke about what appeared to be the script the Dirty Dozenish World War II flick he is writing. At one point, Mr. Tarantino–who has been keeping a low profile professionally–could be heard saying, “I started feeling weird about, how do I start it up again?” At another point, Mr. Hawke’s wife, Uma Thurman, had to tell the boys to shush.
For a moment, the Miramax family didn’t seem so tight. But then Ms. Paltrow, Mr. Affleck, Cider House Rules author John Irving, and Miramax’s vice president of New York production Bobby Cohen got onstage and pulled things together with a parody of Harvey and Bob (played, respectively, by Mr. Affleck, with gigantic stickers doubling for nicotine patches on his neck and arms, and Mr. Cohen in a black wig and nebbishy Woody Allen accent) called “The Weinstein House Rules” that brought the house down. But before the skit started, Mr. Eisner slipped out of the room.
By 1 A.M. on Oscar night, the sense of fun and camaraderie seemed in short supply at Miramax’s bash at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Because most revelers save the Miramax party for last, the lateness of the telecast had caused the Weinsteins’ celebrity quotient to suffer. In an outdoor enclosure, Mr. Irving was holding court with a group of well wishers that seemed to continually replenish itself. Mr. Irving’s son Brendan had stuck his dad’s Oscar down his pants, head first. At a table inside the hotel’s Polo Lounge, Mr. Caine sat with his wife Shakira and Ms. Theron, who stroked Mr. Caine’s Oscar. “That’s so beautiful,” she said.
Mr. Tarantino was there trading obscure 1960s British pop-song lyrics, at the top of his lungs, with a British humorist named Martin N. Lewis. Austin Powers creator Mike Myers was there, too, as was Molly Shannon and Mr. Hawke and Ms. Thurman. But some of the Miramax regulars–including Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Affleck–never showed, and their absences were underscored by the place cards that held empty tables for them.
“I’m learning to be a gracious loser,” said Mr. Weinstein, with a smile, seeming uncomfortable in his skin. But it’s hard to be a beautiful loser once you’ve beaten the odds and won.
Mr. Weinstein talked about being happy with the grosses of Cider House , Scream 3 , and The Talented Mr. Ripley –and, of course, about his team’s ability to create Oscar heat. “The Chicago Bulls–I started to hate them too, after a while,” said Mr. Weinstein with a smile. “I understand the resentment.” He added, “I consciously decided to let the other company spend more money than us,” a reference to the two-year horse race between Miramax and Dreamworks and the media frenzy that it has produced. For his pretending to the throne, Mr. Weinstein became the Hollywood equivalent of Oliver Cromwell, the outsider who briefly became ruler and lost his head.
This year, Mr. Weinstein had more than Dreamworks to contend with. He had been very ill, reportedly, with a bacterial infection.
When The Observer asked Mr. Weinstein if he thought his illness had affected Miramax’s Oscar push, Mr. Weinstein replied “No.” Immediately, a hovering publicist told him that it was time to leave.
Then Mr. Weinstein and Miramax did a telling thing. For years they have held an after party in a private suite where the bar is open and breakfast is served and the Miramax stars can relax until dawn. Some members of the press were allowed in as long as they promised not to wield their notebooks.
But this year, things were different. A stanchion was put up and a woman with a headset was stationed at the front of the door and many people were turned away, including all members of the press. (A source within Miramax said that some of the invited talent had requested a no-press restriction.) People who had counted on admission to this inner sanctum were incredulous when they were turned away and there were moments when things got ugly.
“There’s the street, I suggest you use it,” said one earpiece-wearing security to one livid man who had been denied entry.
So, they closed ranks, the gods and monsters of a cruel business. Their formulas and their rich history failed them and they retreated behind closed doors to celebrate survival, while above them the palm trees waved and breezes beyond their control wafted up into the black California night.
Follow Frank DiGiacomo via RSS.