Fear and Anxiety At Academy Awards: A Ritual Shilling

Several days before Oscar weekend, I was in a studio executive’s office discussing a script. As the rain pounded the windows, I asked what she thought of the awards, and the fact that her division of the studio-the main division-had been overshadowed in the completion by its smaller, quasi-independent sister.

“It’s irrelevant,” she said. “It’s a sideshow.” She pointed at a wall filled with story boards for an upcoming picture whose title ends with a Roman numeral. “That’s the future of the studio,” she declared. “That’s what we’re all banking on. If we don’t do $40 million the first weekend, we’re all fucked.”

Welcome to the 77th Annual Academy Awards.

I’ve often felt that Los Angles could best be described as a city of nine million people, teetering on the edge of a chair each morning, hoping against hope, waiting for one phone call-a call that will make the difference between famine and fame.

But this year, the movie business itself seemed to be perched on some kind of precipice:

None of the five nominees for Best Picture connected with the mass audience. And only one- Million Dollar Baby-was produced by one of the big old mainstream studios, as opposed to one of the art-film boutique divisions.

At Paramount Pictures, the old-school era of Sherry Lansing is over, and the reign of the television-bred Tom Freston and Brad Grey has begun.

The most famous logo in Hollywood-the MGM lion-will be subsumed by Sony.

The dream of DreamWorks as a major studio, with a full release slate of live-action movies, has dissipated. The endless speculation about Disney, from Michael Eisner’s current role as a corporate piñata to the Pixar deal, to Bob Iger’s all-too-public audition for the C.E.O. title, continues unabated. And the future of Harvey and Bob Weinstein-after their 25th and final Miramax anniversary party during Oscar weekend-remains up in the air.

And then there was Chris Rock and the ABC broadcast. Would America watch? Does anyone still care? How much of the Drudge dug-up controversy pitting Mr. Rock against “Academy elders” was for real? And how much was flak-calculated publicity fodder?

Los Angeles has always been a city living on the precipice: mudslides, earthquakes, canyon fires; an undermanned and poorly funded police force whose culture of resentment frightens the poor and the rich indiscriminately. It is a city that placed a bet on the 1984 Olympics-spending on stadiums and sports facilities, as opposed to schools and services-and reaped, as its reward, civic riots within a decade. Note to the five boroughs: Today, all that’s left is a legacy of crumbling cement benches with Olympic logos on the side.

In the week leading up to the Oscars, Los Angeles suffered the worst rainstorms in its recorded history, since 1883.

It wasn’t just wet out here. It was torrential, biblical, mudslide-hail-and-thunderbolt “Get in the limos, boys, we’re headin’ out to the ark” wet. Massive homes toppled into the canyons; freeways became impassable rivers; sinkholes swallowed traffic intersections.

And as Oscar-bound New Yorkers flew over the San Gabriel mountains into LAX-leaving Christo’s Gates far behind-they were greeted by a vast patchwork of buildings, homes, factories and schools, wrapped in bright blue plastic. Call it Survival Art, or the art of survival; the provenance wasn’t Christo, but Home Depot. And the workers who did the installation came not from France, but from Mexico, for American cash.

On Hollywood Boulevard, the bleachers were in place across from the Kodak Theatre, itself the centerpiece of a failed-and miserably designed-upscale shopping mall, sold to the public as a means of revitalizing Hollywood, and built in a fit of civic folly worthy of Howard Hughes himself.

Two blocks away, a billboard stood above a sex-toy shop-faced ass-backwards, away from the red carpet-with a picture of George W. Bush towering over mug shots of Michael Moore, Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn and Martin Sheen, blaring the message “Four More Years. Thank you, Hollywood.”

The white tent for the Vanity Fair party was up at Morton’s; the scramble for dresses, party invitations and product-placement tie-ins was over.

Even the most jaded local journalists-people who don’t usually pay much attention to these ceremonies-had turned their focus away from the current Topic A among the L.A. culture chatterati: a series of belligerent, threatening, semiliterate e-mails from the U.S.C. law professor, former Dukakis advisor and current Fox News analyst Susan Estrich to the L.A. Times editorial-page editor Michael Kinsley, protesting the gender makeup of the editorial page. The highlight was a missive in which Ms. Estrich, seemingly intoxicated by her own self-importance, referred to Mr. Kinsley’s Parkinson’s affliction: “People are beginning to think that your illness may have affected your brain, your judgment, and your ability to do this job.”

But in the end-or at least the beginning of the end-this was all background noise to the main event. For as the sun came up over Los Angeles Friday morning, there were only two questions in town:

Would Chris Rock be good?

And-Marty or Clint?

SATURDAY MORNING: THE SOCIAL EQUATION

Before we get to the awards themselves, maybe a few words are in order here about the social aspect of Oscar weekend.

Twenty years ago, before the era of after-parties, charity tie-ins, goody bags and corporate sponsorships, there were basically two social events out here on Oscar night: the Governor’s Ball, directly following the awards, and the essential agent Irving P. Lazar’s party at Spago, where 200 of Hollywood’s brightest luminaries watched the awards dining on smoked-salmon-and-caviar pizza, waiting for the winners and presenters, who were all invited to drop by for dessert after the ball.

Oscar night-then a springtime event-was always the Hollywood equivalent of the Jewish High Holy Days: Nobody worked; everybody prayed. (“Dear God: Let me win. Let my enemies lose. And should neither of these be applicable, please let me be nominated next year.”) If you weren’t part of the awards show, you stayed home. Or you went to a private party and basked in the joy of communal schadenfreude.

But with the death of Lazar, and the advent of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair soirée in 1994, everything began to change: The days of InStyle magazine tie-ins and Elton John parties had begun. It was suddenly New Year’s Eve: You needed a date. You were expected to be going somewhere. And Hollywood-working Hollywood, that is-began to view the weekend with a mixture of fear and anxiety: fear about not being invited anywhere, and anxiety about who-and what-you’d encounter if you were.

On Saturday morning, I had the following conversation that illustrates this point, with a sixtysomething producer who’s got a list of movie credits as long as your arm, and an almost-as-legendary reputation for his ongoing shtick about being the single most beleaguered, persecuted, cantankerous man in Hollywood. It’s an act, but it’s a great one:

Me: “So are you going to the Barry Diller party?”

Him, exploding: “Diller??? Am I going to the Diller party??? Of course I’m going to Diller! I’m going to Diller, I’m going to Katzenberg, I’m going to Graydon, I’m going to the goddamn awards show! And I already went to Brian Lord and Ed Limato! I’m an old man! These parties are killing me!!!”

Me: “So why don’t you just say home?”

Him: “Stay home? What are you, crazy? How the hell else am I going to keep track of my enemies?”

Now, on one hand, all the hoopla surrounding the Oscars these days isn’t quite as bad as the Sundance Film Festival-where, this year, the movies seemed to be little more than a sideshow, a justification for a corporate-sponsored Mardi Gras in the snow. (Memo to Robert Redford: A picture is worth a thousand words, but the pictures of Paris Hilton at Sundance can be boiled down to 10: Your indie-film street cred is in deep trouble.)

But on the other hand, there’s a larger set of social strictures in play out here during Academy Awards season, an overriding set of rules that govern not the Oscar parties, but all Hollywood events:

1) Don’t go to premieres-or parties-unless you’ve got a good reason for being there, i.e., it’s your movie, or you’re there to support a client or a friend.

2) Yes, it’s all about business and networking. But not blatantly. Here’s your script:

Director/Writer/Producer, spotting an executive: “Hey! How are you!”

Executive: “Great! You?”

Director/Writer/Producer: “Terrific! Loved [insert name of most recent release.]”

Executive: “Thanks! What are you working on?”

Director/Writer/Producer, with self-deprecating shrug: “Ah, nothing special,” adding a cryptic but tantalizing hint about novel, news story or spec script that has either Oscar or huge box-office potential.

Executive: “Give me a call.”

3) The only people who try to wheedle their way into these things are the Young and the Desperate. In both cases, it’s a rite-and right-of passage. But where one is smiled upon benevolently-the ambition of youth-the other is fodder for gossip. There are no secrets in Hollywood.

In my now too-many years out here, I’ve often joked that there’s probably a way to quantify all this, to invent some kind of “social equation” that explains everything. I suspect the formula would run something like this:

Your decision to go to an event is based on

a) the perceived importance of the party (a.k.a., the “heat coefficient,” largely determined by who’s hosting it) multiplied by

b) the number of years since you’ve had a hit picture, divided by

c) the number of enemies you’ll have to avoid in the room, multiplied by

X) the traffic you’re likely to encounter on the way over,

Y) the cost of tickets, and

Z) the Face Factor variable: whether your absence will be noted-and interpreted- as a fall in status.

The great thing about this formula is that no matter what numbers you plug into it, the answer is always the same: If you’re invited, you go.

That is, unless you have the one excuse that everyone who isn’t nominated yearns for during Oscar season:

“I got invited, but I can’t go-I’m making a picture out of town.”

SATURDAY NIGHT: THE GODFATHER, PARTS 4, 5 AND 6. THE FIRST REVIEWS ARE IN.

Call it high-tech tom-toms: By late Saturday night, L.A.’s cell-phone networks were all but overloaded as the reviews of various parties were passed from Hummer to BMW to Mercedes-Benz.

It’s not that Hollywood is bereft of ideas, or lacking in imagination when it comes to metaphors and similes.

But, well, on the other hand, I’ll let you be the judge.

The Paramount Pictures nominee party: “It was like something out of The Godfather. As if Sumner Redstone was Vito Corleone and Brad Grey was Michael, taking over the family. Everyone was kissing his hand, paying their respects.”

The Barry Diller–Diane Von Furstenberg Saturday lunch, where all the studio chiefs appear to fête Graydon Carter: “It was like something out of The Godfather. Sort of as if Hyman Roth threw a picnic for the Corleones, the Barzinis and the Tattaglias, and for a few hours-the afternoon, at least-everyone put aside their differences to celebrate the greater glory of La Cosa Nostra Del Arte.”

The Night Before Party, where Jeffrey Katzenberg tented over the Beverly Hills Hotel pool and raised $4 million for the Motion Picture Home: “It was like something out of The Godfather II. The Lake Tahoe sequence, with Jeffrey as Michael, and his business associates came to pay their respects by way of his favorite charity.”

The Miramax 25th-Anniversary Party at the Pacific Design Center: “It was like something out of The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s funeral-with Harvey as Michael, plotting his next move.”

Allow me to paraphrase Mark Twain: Persons attempting to find a moral here will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a plot will be given a development deal.

SUNDAY, 5:30 P.M.: ‘SO DIS IS DA OSCARS.’

By the time you read this, you’ll already know who won. So let’s focus on what movie people-working insiders, who vote in these affairs-were saying during and immediately after the show.

Inside the Kodak Theatre, the response was generally positive. There were exceptions to this, of course, that tended to break along generational lines-“old Hollywood” versus new. But generally, Chris Rock’s monologue was received with laughter; the George Bush jokes and the Jude Law riff hit their targets; Rock’s short film-questioning moviegoers at the Magic Johnson Theater on which nominated movies they’d seen (none)-was greeted with applause. But to some extent (save the David Letterman year, and the Alan Carr–produced show, where Rob Lowe sang a duet with Snow White), this is the way it always goes. It’s almost impossible to sit in the middle of all that heat, anxiety and pressure and have any perspective on it.

Outside the hall was a slightly different story. You guess the ages of the speakers:

“A disaster. Dull. Boring. No glitz, no glamour, no star power.”

“I loved Chris Rock. I loved the Bush jokes. He was fresh, he was hip, he was edgy.”

“The Carson tribute was touching; Yo-Yo Ma under the tributes was inspired; Jamie Foxx and Sidney Lumet were terrific. But the gang-bang awards, and handing out statues in the audience, was chintzy. It felt like the Golden Globes.”

“What the hell was Chris Rock thinking? He’s got no grace, no sense of the moment. What did he think-if he pissed on Hollywood, we’d all think it was warm spring rain?”

Personally, I think Chris Rock is a genius, the sharpest working stand-up of our time. But he was in a no-win position here: The producers wanted a younger audience. And with the absence of films to do it, all the P.R. for the show was pegged to Rock. He was the target because he was sold as the show.

But he wasn’t the only lightning rod.

If there was a single presenter who drove the elders around the bend, the honor went to P. Diddy and his opening line at the podium: “So dis is da Oscars.”

I’ll spare you the first five minutes of the venting I heard about this from a member of the Academy’s board of governors. So let’s cut to the climax: “I know we have to appeal to 18-year-olds. They’re the audience. We make movies for them. We live and die by them. But we have to decide: Are we the MTV movie awards, or are we the Oscars? We can’t be the same thing. I dread seeing the ratings tomorrow.”

Then there were the post-mortems on the contest between The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby.

You could argue that this was about New York vs. L.A.; you could argue that it was about personalities instead of Panavision; that it was the man who wanted it too much and campaigned vs. the man who flew under the radar and didn’t seem to care a whit.

And yet you’d probably be wrong.

There was no gloating when Clint Eastwood took home the statutes for directing and best picture; no high-fives for the home team, no spontaneous outbreak of stuntmen rioting in the streets with civic pride.

Instead, there was a deep and genuine outpouring of sympathy and respect for Martin Scorsese.

No one will ever know how close the vote was.

But if you listened carefully enough on Oscar night, you could pick up on a hint, just the slightest hint, of buyer’s remorse-that maybe the statue went to the wrong guy. It wasn’t so much that Clint Eastwood didn’t deserve it, but that Martin Scorsese did.

LATE SUNDAY NIGHT: SOMEWHERE, IRVING P. LAZAR IS LAUGHING.

And so, at midnight, we find ourselves in an insane, swirling and vertigo-inducing venue: standing in a small white hallway, surrounded by Oscars trying to transit from the dining room at Morton’s into the tented parking lot behind it.

Outside, in the circular driveway in front of the restaurant, 500 photographers stand on bleachers, braying celebrity first names (“Gwyneth! Over here! Oprah! Dustin! Warren! Annette!”) as, across the street, a small army of movie fans sends a cheer up into the night to mark the arrival of every limousine. Around the corner, there’s a line of TV satellite trucks parked bumper-to-bumper, as far as far as the eye can see.

Inside the party, Jeff Bezos cruises by with a blonde on his arm, headed for Paul Allen; Halle Berry whispers with Janet Jackson; Richard Johnson’s eyes clock the room like a radar sweep. Donald Trump chats with Kimora Simmons; Bill Bratton confers with Rupert Murdoch; George Lucas congratulates Hilary Swank. Katie Couric circles the room with a video camera hidden in her purse.

It’s the power, the glory, the beautiful, the damned; it’s the one event in Los Angles where the Fire Marshals supposedly compete for the right to go inside, gawk, then close it down.

Yes, being a contributing editor at Vanity Fair does have its perks come Oscar time. (Note: That’s the delayed full-disclosure statement. I’m an old friend of Graydon Carter’s; he brought me to this newspaper, and I still write for him at Vanity Fair.)

As the readers of the lower reaches of the press know, this past year hasn’t been altogether pleasant for Graydon. It’s been his turn in the barrel. And more than once, I’ve read that the Oscar party is now passé.

But what New Yorkers don’t understand is the role it plays out here on Oscar night.

The price of admission to the awards show itself is a nomination; the ticket for the Dani Janssen’s soirée-a party whose importance is both arcane and exalted-is a billing block with your name above the title. But the entrance key to the Vanity Fair party resides in another realm altogether: fame, heat, power, accomplishment-and sometimes promise or notoriety.

And it remains the most coveted ticket on Oscar night-because in an insecure town, it’s an affirmation of who you are. And says, in a not-small way, you belong.

Moreover, there’s a business component at work here. For studio chiefs and publicists, Vanity Fair remains the gold standard. The cover of Time is nice; the front page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine matters. But everyone covets the full-on Vanity Fair profile and accompanying photo spread. In a city where it’s almost a point of pride to say “I don’t read the L.A. Times,” the magazine is pored over and dissected like The DaVinci Code. The continuing success of the Vanity Fair party isn’t based on sending out invitations once a year. Rather, it’s based on a series of editorial choices made once a month in 4 Times Square.

MONDAY MORNING: APRÈS LA DELUGE.

In his terrific new book, The Big Picture, Edward Jay Epstein points out that fewer than 10 percent of Americans now go to the movies. He posits that theatrical releases are now just a marketing tool-a launching platform-for DVD’s, pay TV and video on demand, where the studios earned 80 percent of their revenue in 2003.

In this sense, the Oscars are the studios’ last weapon in their marketing arsenal.

When the overnight TV ratings for the Oscar show came in on Monday morning, viewership was up: More people watched the awards in the big cities than the year before. But by mid-afternoon, when the national numbers came in, with rural America factored in, the broadcast was off by 2 percent. But the key demographic held: More 18-to-34-year-olds watched the show.

In other words, Chris Rock did his job. His show was a success.

Sitting out here in Los Angeles, I’ve sometimes wondered if the movies are going to become more like the book business: There’ll be literature, and Grisham. Maybe the answer then will be to let the Oscars go highbrow, and have MTV, the People’s Choice Awards and the Golden Globes please the crowd. Either way, Harvey Weinstein will go on producing, Michael Eisner will almost certainly rehabilitate himself, and Paramount will have hits and misses, just like before.

Sunday night passed.

And then, just like that, it was Monday morning. The sun rose. L.A. was back on the precipice, teetering on the edge of a chair, waiting for one phone call, starting to suffer some fear and anxiety about next year.