Slouching Toward Hollywood

My foot kicked something on the floor of Mortons Monday night. There was a bracelet down there. It was big and heavy and looked like a diamond bracelet, and it just lay there on the floor in the restaurant area of the party until I kicked it with my wing tip. It felt like a rock against my shoe.

In the next room under a vast tent, actress Helen Hunt planted her feet and began to rock her upper body to the relentless, kidney-rattling beat that Fatboy Slim was laying down in the Vanity Fair tent. Duum-Duum-Duum-Duum . As her head bobbed in time to the drum beats, Ms. Hunt’s pale beige dress began to gather at her boyish hips. But the co-star of What Women Want wasn’t paying attention. Her back was to the audience that had gathered on the periphery of the dance floor to watch the scene that was unfolding. Ms. Hunt threw her ass into the music, then raised her hands, spread her fingers and ran them through her straight blond hair, as if she were Ann-Margret in Kitten with a Whip . Duum-Duum-Duum-Duum . To her left, The X-Files ‘ Gillian Anderson was rocking out in a way that would have moved the Lone Gunmen to empty their revolvers. The petite redhead wore wire-rim sunglasses and a form-fitting black dress with cut-outs that bared the fat-free sheer sides of her torso. Duum-Duum-Duum-Duum . Facing both women was rock star Melissa Etheridge, wearing a velvety chocolate-brown shirt and a big smile. A couple of sleek, well-styled men danced around them.

To the women’s right, Fatboy Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook), wearing a blue Hawaiian-style shirt and a pair of industrial-strength headphones around his neck, bobbed to his own music in the elevated D.J.’s booth.

For its annual Oscar party, Vanity Fair had once again attached a massive tent to Mortons restaurant on Melrose Avenue and erected a stage at the end closest to the eatery. Mr. Cook was one of two acts hired to entertain the more than 1,000 actors, artists, musicians, studio suits and socialites who attended this year’s event. At the moment that found Ms. Hunt, Ms. Anderson and Ms. Etheridge cavorting on the dance floor, Mr. Cook was spinning a tune from his most recent album called “Star 69,” an appropriate title for the Oscar bacchanalia that takes place in and around Hollywood every year following the Academy Awards telecast.

The song has a strange set of tape-looped lyrics: “They know what is what / But they don’t know what is what / They just strut / What the fuck….”

The sight of these three famous women cutting loose on the dance floor while this profane mantra reverberated in the tent made for one of those giddy, un-self-conscious moments of exhibitionism that make Los Angeles irresistible come Oscar time. But though the Vanity Fair party did not lack for million-dollar moments such as these–the sight of the magazine’s editor in chief, Graydon Carter, dirty-dancing later in the evening with model and Vanity Fair “It” girl Sophie Dahl was practically worth the price of admission alone–there was another, more reserved and uncertain vibe in the room.

When Ms. Anderson, Ms. Etheridge and Ms. Hunt went to town it was just past midnight, and their enthusiasm and celebrity helped pack the dance floor. But remarkably, it was only one of a handful of times that this exceptionally beautiful crowd was inspired to kick out the jams.

After Mr. Cook’s set, I asked him if he had ever had a more difficult time getting people to dance. “This was about the worst,” he said good-naturedly. He had, after all, attended Vanity Fair ‘s Oscar dinner with Warren Beatty, Lara Flynn Boyle, David Geffen, Jackie Collins and Brad Grey.

“Industry crowd?” I said.

“Yeah,” he replied.

More importantly, an industry crowd clearly uncertain about the state of its industry. After eight years of a President whose love of Hollywood rivaled his feelings for Washington, this town is still waiting to see just how its livelihood would be affected by this country’s new culturally challenged President, more school shootings and the threats of strikes by both the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. And who could ignore the cliffhanger taking place on Wall Street? In the past, the movie business has done well during recessions, but this was a brave new world of digital cable systems, video on demand and Home Box Office, technological breakthroughs already messing with the entertainment landscape; as if to prove that point, on March 25, HBO’s The Sopranos strip-mined the Oscars’ ratings.

Meanwhile, the studio grapevine carried reports that the Walt Disney Company was on the verge of making significant and wide-ranging cuts in its work force.

Asked at the Vanity Fair party if he thought the recession would be felt in Hollywood, Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer said, “Probably,” but then seemed to have second thoughts about giving voice to any such concerns. “I don’t want to comment on anything,” he said finally.

The Bush chill had come to Hollywood.

I observed Elizabeth Hurley, cruelly beautiful, causing double takes with her partner-in-crime for the night, Pamela Anderson. The two women clomped into the Vanity Fair tent after 9 p.m., occasionally throwing an arm around each other’s waist for effect. Ms. Hurley looked dewy and elegant in a full-length iridescent gown, while Ms. Anderson wore a faded denim mini-skirt that was so short it didn’t have a chance to flare out, a white button-down shirt tied at the midriff and a pair of go-go boots with chunky heels, big Vegas sunglasses and a diamond necklace that said “D.Pimp.” If there was one thing that the two women had in common, it was that they were both spilling out of their outfits, and when talk-show host Larry King came across the two, he looked momentarily as if he might have a Dick Cheney moment.

Indeed, after watching a number of men in the vicinity of the two actresses do spit takes with their drinks, as well as the scowls on the faces of a handful of more demurely dressed women, I asked Ms. Anderson if perhaps the appearance of her and Ms. Hurley together was hazardous to the general population of Los Angeles. “We are both conscious individuals,” Ms. Anderson replied, “and we know the effects we have on everybody.”

God knows why, but after that experience, I decided to ask singer-actress Courtney Love if she thought Hollywood was becoming a more conservative place. I had meant to tack on the phrase that tied the question to the new Bush administration, but Ms. Love was moving fast and sounding impatient, and I only got the first part of the question out before she gave me her answer. “Do you see my nipple hanging out?” she asked. I did, as a matter of fact. Ms. Love, or someone she had commissioned, had spent a great deal of time attaching what looked like little rhinestones around her left breast and a good portion of her back.

“That’s your answer,” Ms. Love replied.

Moments such as these made it feel as if the Clinton era had not quite ended. Indeed, at the beginning of the party, there were whispers that during the dinner portion of the evening, there had been some tense moments at the table where handbag designer Monica Lewinsky had been seated with DreamWorks SKG partner Jeffrey Katzenberg and actor Kevin Spacey, who were both big supporters of Mr. Clinton. When I asked Ms. Lewinsky about it at the party, she denied that anything of the sort had happened. DreamWorks head of marketing Terry Press said, without an ounce of equivocation in her voice, “There was no tense moment.” But a source at Vanity Fair acknowledged that there was some strain and said that, at one point, Mr. Carter had to go over to sit down with Ms. Lewinsky. Referring to Mr. Katzenberg and Ms. Lewinsky, the source said: “Graydon thought it would be a perfect match, because they were both so close to Clinton.” Meanwhile, Mr. Carter’s table, which was at the booth closest to the Mortons entrance, consisted of DreamWorks partner David Geffen, media mogul Barry Diller and his wife Diane von Furstenberg, actor Warren Beatty and Mr. Carter’s friend, Kate Driver (a producer and the sister of actress Minnie), and screenwriter Mitch Glazer and his actress wife, Kelly Lynch.

After the party, Mr. Beatty pretty much stayed in the booth, holding court with writer Fran Lebowitz and, later in the evening, documentary-maker Ken Burns. The bowl-cut-wearing Mr. Burns was also seen chatting up actress Angelina Jolie, whose father, Jon Voight, was also in attendance. Ms. Jolie said that Mr. Burns was giving her “some pointers” about how to “look smart” while discussing baseball with her husband, Billy Bob Thornton.

The movie business would always be our dream factory–but from here on in, it felt like the emphasis would be on the second word in that phrase. As soon as the strike threats looked real, Hollywood decided to put its collective head down and work through its crises, and for the last year that ethic has dominated the town. Meanwhile, the Oscars telecast brooked no tolerance for the kind of narcissism and exhibitionism that makes it so watchable in the first place.

Mr. Martin’s conduct, however, was especially noteworthy. The day after the Oscars, as the talent and the suits returned to work, the white-haired comedian’s conduct kept coming up, again and again. Besides comparisons to the event’s last great host, Johnny Carson, the consensus seemed to be that Hollywood liked having Mr. Martin as its Oscars spokesmodel because Mr. Martin looked and acted the way the industry wanted to be seen right now. In order to focus on business, Hollywood retracted its more vulnerable, indulgent tendencies into its hard, gleaming Ray-Ban shell.

Mr. Martin fit the profile: cool, confident, handsome, self-deprecating but not vulnerable and, if truth be told, not Catskill-ian (this was the Bush era, after all); a man whose wit was spare, muscular, chill and cerebral–that line about young actresses like Kate Hudson reminding him of his death was a killer, and it showed that Mr. Martin and his writers had the Hollywood hierarchy down cold.

The razor-sharp jokes were reserved for the outsiders like Mr. Crowe. The Australian actor’s refusal to play the soft-and-gooey P.R. game in the weeks following his nomination had led to much speculation here in Hollywood that he had blown his chance at getting the statuette, and while that didn’t happen, the producers of the telecast, with Mr. Martin’s help, made Mr. Crowe’s steely glare the running joke of the night.

Icelandic singer-actress Björk got the back of Mr. Martin’s hand, while Ms. Roberts was “America’s sweetheart.” And he threw a softball at Tom Hanks, too, saying that he had taken the shortcut to fame by having “only made hits.” In Hollywood, nothing succeeds like success, but particularly when there’s recession coming.

In the men’s-room stall at Mortons, someone had used quite a lot of packing tape to affix a color picture of Mr. Grazer, Mr. Carter, CBS Television Network president Les Moonves and talent manager Brad Grey aboard what appears to be a small private jet, presumably bound for the land of Fidel Castro. A Vanity Fair spokeswoman said that Mr. Grazer likes to leave photos of himself, or photos of himself with Mr. Carter, practically wherever he goes, and that he even left such a photo at the Palacio de la Revolución when the men met Fidel Castro.

Back in the tent, a group of gorgeous, brown-skinned women wearing skimpy outfits with enormous ruffles tried in vain to get the crowds to dance.

Needing no coaxing were producer and Phoenix Pictures chief Mike Medavoy, his wife Irena and Denise Rich, who worked that dance floor like a group of Midwesterners on a Carnival Cruise. Ms. Rich–who is in the process of being profiled by Vanity Fair –looked like she was having fun for a person who had just been tied to the latest virulent scandal involving former President Clinton, and when I asked her if being connected with controversy had made her more popular, she paused for just a second before answering. “I don’t know. I’m just grateful that I have so many friends,” she said, before she was led away by one of them.

By approximately 10:30 p.m., the party reached critical mass and work, in all its various forms, seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds.

By the bar that lined the wall opposite the stage, C.A.A. agent Richard Lovett could be heard telling Family Man producer Howard Rosenman: “You’ve got the best project in town. I’m not going to tell anybody, but you’ve got the best project in town.” Closer to the stage, a young British actress told her agent, “No one has done a better job at getting me parts than you.” And in the passageway between Mortons, Sex and the City ‘s Mr. Big, Chris Noth, was smiling and talking with actor Vince Vaughn. “I always say to Mark,” Mr. Noth’s voice boomed in apparent reference to a third party, “I say, ‘I want Vince Vaughn’s career, dammit.'”

And in the center of Mortons, Anthony Hopkins and James Woods, two of the most convincing screen psychos in town, were laughing and joking like a couple of fratboys. I asked the two men if the movie business was more or less fun than it was 10 years ago. “It’s fun for him,” Mr. Woods replied. “He just got paid $45 million. I get paid in fucking food stamps.”

The actress Faye Dunaway walked over to the men, clutched Mr. Hopkins’ hands and demanded: “Why are you so happy?”

Mr. Hopkins eyes gleamed. “I’m always happy,” he said. “I’m out of the bag! I’m out of the cage!”

When Ms. Roberts’ and Jennifer Lopez’s entourages arrived within minutes of each other, it was like watching two magnets dragged through a pile of iron filings. As the two groups–Ms. Roberts’ first–went from Mortons to the tent, they picked up gawkers and fans pleading to have their pictures taken. More empty glasses were spilled.

Not everyone was thinking of work. When Ms. Lopez decided it was time to leave, the man she’s currently dating, Cris Judd, led her by the hand through the crowd. As they left the tent and returned to the restaurant, they encountered Sean (Puffy) Combs, who was wearing an incredibly beautiful sand-colored pinstripe suit and standing with some friends. Mr. Combs gave Mr. Judd a hard stare as he passed and then hugged Ms. Lopez and kissed her on the cheek. They exchanged a few words. Mr. Combs said something that ended with “that man.” There was a look of distaste in his eyes. Ms. Lopez continued to head for the exits, and one of Mr. Combs’ posse called after Ms. Lopez. Mr. Combs gave him a little shove. “Stop staring,” he said to the friend.

When I went over to ask Mr. Combs about what happened, he put on his glasses and gave me a cold look. “I’ve been watching you watching me,” he said. “I do not want to give any interviews today.” Mr. Combs put his hands on my shoulders.

“Let’s respect each other as men,” he said. “As flesh and blood.”

As they have done for years, the twin knights of New York’s Hollywood elite, Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and Vanity Fair ‘s Mr. Carter, along with their considerable support teams, made their way to the West Coast to participate in–and, in Mr. Carter’s case, to orchestrate–the festivities.

For Mr. Weinstein, the year 2000 had started with his recovery from a serious bacterial infection, complicated by feverish rumors about his affliction. From there, Mr. Weinstein had immersed himself in Al Gore’s Presidential campaign. Yet Miramax still managed to pull a number of Oscar nominations out of the bag, including a Best Picture nod for its film Chocolat . This only resulted in a new media furor for Miramax, as the press began to loudly express disbelief that the film–which had gotten mixed reviews–had been nominated at all.

Rather than engage in a New York-style street fight, Mr. Weinstein and his company did a very smart thing: They embraced their inner loser. When we first started covering the Oscar sweepstakes, Mr. Weinstein and his brother enjoyed a reputation as the lovable, attitudinal losers from New York, whose smart films like Pulp Fiction inevitably lost out to focus-group Hollywood fare like Forrest Gump , but who were great with in-your-face quotes and loose, fun, boozy parties where Quentin Tarantino talked too loud and Ben Affleck did profane, warts-and-all imitations of the studio chief.

But then, as with all Hollywood fairy tales, the Weinstein brothers started winning, and the West Coast decided to get even. By the time Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan as Best Picture in 1999, the accusations were flying over Miramax’s marketing methods, their sudden adversaries being DreamWorks, the Hollywood equivalent of an upstart studio. When DreamWorks’ American Beauty virtually swept the Oscars last year, Miramax merely sulked and closed off their after-party, which had become the hot ticket of the yearly Oscar tour, to all but their own.

But by the time the Miramax team flew west for this year’s awards, they seemed to have reached the same epiphany put forth by John Waters during his duties as M.C. of the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica. “Being a loser is edgy,” Mr. Waters told the crowd.

Miramax, on the other hand, took a more tasteful tack which included publishing, in the March 24 edition of The Los Angeles Times , an article headlined “Mom, There’s Just One More Award” that bore Mr. Weinstein’s byline. “This year is a little different for me,” Mr. Weinstein wrote, and then got down to business:

“The odds are probably 20 to 1 against our film, ‘Chocolat,’ winning best picture, so this year I feel more like a statesman. I’m relaxing and enjoying the opportunity to pat people on the back and root for some of my friends and favorite filmmakers.” Mr. Weinstein praised Ms. Roberts, Mr. Crowe, Mr. Hanks. And then he returned to Chocolat . The film was seen as a “sweet” movie, and Miramax was perceived as a distributor and producer of edgy fare. Mr. Weinstein wrote: “They say we’ve sold out, which is completely untrue. Next year, the first five minutes of Marty Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’ will show that our edge is sharper than ever.”

Mr. Weinstein then quoted Winston Churchill saying, “‘History repeats itself.’ … In 1940, there was a battle over the alleged electioneering for ‘Rebecca’ and outrage that it beat out ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ … Today,” Mr. Weinstein continued, having just implicitly compared himself to either David O. Selznick or Darryl F. Zanuck, “we’re just a different set of players and a new cast, but the story is pretty much the same. This doesn’t make me resent the business; it actually makes me embrace it for this rich history.”

Mr. Weinstein’s move was simple but effective. In a year that saw two studios, DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Classics, fined (in Oscar tickets) for violating Academy rules regarding the promotion of nominated pictures, and in a year in which the company (including all of its divisions) saw $145 million in net profit–the largest in its history–Mr. Weinstein set his company up in the great Hollywood tradition of Selznick and Zanuck: It would live to fight again. Didn’t Churchill?

Mr. Weinstein stuck to his story. Although he will never be perceived as a calm person, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself at Miramax’s annual pre-Oscar cocktail party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he could be seen yukking it up with actress Cameron Diaz, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin. Ms. Roberts and her boyfriend, Benjamin Bratt, were also in attendance.

By March 25, when I asked him for his post-mortem of the evening, Mr. Weinstein replied: “I’m not the story this year.”

And: “Last year doesn’t define me,” he said.

Mr. Weinstein explained that Miramax’s production and distribution slate for the coming year is a much stronger indication of his tastes in film. They include smaller foreign acquisitions, such as the Berlin Film Festival jury prize-winner Italian for Beginners , the American independent film In the Bedroom (which Miramax acquired at Sundance), Bridget Jones’ Diary , which opens on April 13, and Mr. Scorsese’s Gangs of New York , which, he said, is the largest production in Miramax’s history, and for which Miramax has yet to set a release date, but which may be premiered by the end of the year.

The night of the Oscars, as the dancing at Mortons waned and the valets sent cars into the night, Miramax–despite its vows to the contrary–ended up throwing an after-party at the Peninsula Hotel, where breakfast was served, Benicio Del Toro swung around his Oscar and Rosanna Arquette D.J.’d for the crowd.

Anyway, back to the bracelet.

Later, after turning it in, I forgot about it. It was not until I left the party that I learned it was the real thing, a big chain of heavy, clunky diamonds, and that it had come into the party on the arm of actress Elizabeth Hurley, who had borrowed it for the evening from the jeweler Harry Winston. Somehow, it had fallen to the floor. The papers reported the next day that Ms. Hurley had given a pair of her red silk panties to a fan, but the diamond bracelet seemed a kind of loss that was possibly, though not necessarily, worth more in redeemable cash. The bracelet, I was told, was estimated at $750,000. It was the careless debris of a chilly night, the glittering remnant of a transmogrifying commercial era, Cinderella’s slipper as dropped by an icy, beautiful stepsister and picked up by one of the coach drivers.

Two days later, it turned out that the rumor at the party had been true, and that Walt Disney announced it was laying off 4,000 employees, 3 percent of its work force. The clock had struck midnight in Hollywood.