Oscars MCMXCVIII

Two nights before the gold statuettes were handed out, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon beamed their scary smiles at each other and embraced. The gesture wasn’t a hug so much as a hard-muscled combination of chest-butting and backslapping, a public display by ambitious men used to performing in public. There were no cameras to record this Bruce Weber-like moment, but it did not go unnoticed.

Gathered around the two actors in a Sunset Boulevard dive called Barfly on March 21 were Mr. Cruise’s wife, Nicole Kidman, Mr. Damon’s current girlfriend, Winona Ryder, his Good Will Hunting co-star and co-writer Ben Affleck, directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, actors Brad Pitt, Madonna and Demi Moore. There, before this cross-section of entertainment heavies, Mr. Cruise–who only lately epitomized that coveted combination of youth and power in Hollywood–was essentially handing the sash to the 27-year-old Mr. Damon.

That Mr. Cruise, who is 35, now qualifies as middle-aged in the Hollywood Establishment might seem preposterous. But if there was one message sent by the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Oscar night, it’s that Hollywood, in these last mortality-obsessed years of the 20th century, desperately wants to replenish its youth stock.

Though James Cameron’s Titanic –with a $1.2 billion worldwide gross, the highest in history–could not be ignored by the Academy, the kind of youth that his film depicted was not the kind that the Oscar-givers like to celebrate. Mr. Cameron may have sucked in millions of hormone-whacked teenagers, but those who make motion pictures for a living know that Titanic has the soul of a new machine. (Even the marble-smooth Leonardo DiCaprio looks computer-generated.) The movie’s power, aside from its technological perfections, was its melancholy majesty. Ain’t death grand, especially when you do it up on a $200 million budget?

Mr. Cameron’s victory speech, in which, borrowing a line from his own script, he proclaimed himself “king of the world,” seemed an attempt to infuse that notion with vigor. As did his existential interpretation of his own Titanic vision–that with an unpredictable future, all we have is the present. But both had the opposite effect; as the stars left the Shrine Auditorium and the Governors Ball for the post-Oscar parties, there seemed to be a note of regret and discomfort in the air–both over Mr. Cameron’s hubris and what his movie portends for filmmaking.

The vitality that Hollywood much more eagerly rewards was the kind exhibited by Messrs. Damon and Affleck and their movie. It’s drama on a human scale, the old-fashioned kind of movie making (and is therefore is easier to emulate). And though the Academy only bestowed one award to Good Will Hunting ‘s white-haired boys, for best original screenplay, the night’s ceremony was suffused with their presence, from Billy Crystal’s Bob Hope-like jokes about their youth (was the word “puberty” really in there?) to their fired-up sweaty-pep-rally acceptance speech. The difference between, say, the comparatively jaundiced Joel and Ethan Coen and the Good Will Hunting boys explains the soul of another machine: Hollywood. Because the writer-actors (and their director Gus Van Sant, the guy who made the wonderful, bleak, most-definitely-not-by-the-rules Drugstore Cowboy ) had all agreed to play ball with the power fraternity in making the movie they did.

Thus, they were rewarded on all fronts. The Oscar for best screenplay is basically the Hyphenate’s Rookie of the Year Award–as in, Hang On, Fellas, and We’ll Give You Something Real to Play With Someday; Orson Welles shared it for Citizen Kane and Preston Sturges won it for The Great McGinty . Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams all made a point of bearhugging the boys into the fold. So did Jack Nicholson, who, along with his pal in carousing, Warren Beatty, has craftily preserved enough juice to maintain his youthful, sexual rep–and hence his long-distance superstar gig, as well as his one-two-three Oscars. That trick, too, Messrs. Damon and Affleck will want to emulate if they plan to have a life in Hollywood.

Their hazing into the boys’ club was exceptionally pleasant: At the two parties celebrating power ascendant in this business, Matt and Ben were Huck-and-Tom kings for the night.

No coincidence, then, that the two men they had to thank for arranging this last ritual were their hosts. When The Observer began covering the New York contingent’s foray into the Oscar party field, the sense was clearly that Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax and Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair were strangers in a strange land. They were outsiders trying to make an impression on an insular company town that was fascinated by these East Coasters, yet certainly not ready to make them members of the club.

This year, however, those boundaries seem to have all but evaporated. Mr. Carter’s coronation took place on March 22, when Barry Diller, chairman of USA Networks Inc., feted the Vanity Fair editor with a party at his Malibu beach home that drew an interesting number of high-level executives, including the Seagram Company’s chief executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr. (and his wife Clarissa), Universal studios chief Ron Meyer; Dreamworks SKG partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, Revlon chief Ronald Perelman and As Good as It Gets director James Brooks.

The Miramax co-chairmen, on the other hand, have established a more permanent New York-style beachhead in Los Angeles by becoming partners in Ago, a restaurant on Melrose Avenue. The joint is even run by actor Paulie Herman, who years ago with his brother ran Columbus, at one point the Upper West Side’s answer to Elaine’s. The night of Sunday, March 22, Madonna, Demi Moore, Ben Stiller and an entourage left Miramax’s reception for its nominees to join Sony Records chief Tommy Mottola in the main dining room. Most of the group then repaired to a private back room where Martin Scorsese, Edward Norton, Joe Pesci and about 40 others were celebrating Robert De Niro’s safe return from Paris.

Although Messrs. Bronfman, Katzenberg, Geffen and Meyer would be missing in action on Oscar night, many of the same players surfaced at both the Vanity Fair and Miramax parties, which seemed to trade personalities this year.

Usually a display of Hollywood’s immense talent for control, the Vanity Fair party at Morton’s, especially earlier in the evening, bordered on a celebrity free-for-all as the guest list surged some 50 percent over last year’s total (approximately 1,000 guests tried to cram into a space zoned for 350). Eventually, the security guy hired by the magazine and fire marshals stationed themselves at the entrance and let people enter only as an equal number exited. Exceptions were made, of course, such as when Kim Basinger, winner for best supporting actress, got to blow past a group that included past supporting actor winner Martin Landau, original score nominee Philip Glass and country-western singer and actor Dwight Yoakam, whose lanky frame was encased in a glittery pullover. “Well, at least it’s democratic,” Mr. Yoakam said good-naturedly, as he was squeezed on all sides by would-be partygoers crushing to get in.

Wearing his usual tumbling dice tuxedo shirt studs, Mr. Carter, who professed to be claustrophobic, stayed outside, greeting guests and watching the party spill outside into the press arrivals pen.

Following a dinner at the restaurant that had been attended by Jerry Seinfeld and Martin Scorsese, most of the tables had been removed from the room to allow for maximum gawkage and circumambulating. And the booths that bordered the room provided some definite eye candy. Nearest the kitchen, Madonna sat with Joni Mitchell, songwriter Bruce Roberts and Rosanna Arquette. Later, she was joined by Mr. Mottola, who, judging from the amount of time he’s been spending with the singer, is either trying to woo her over to Sony or to piss off his ex-wife Mariah Carey. Speaking of exes, Mr. Perelman came to the dinner with Penny Marshall, but she left after cocktails. Then Mr. Perelman was seen alternately chatting away with his ex-wife, Claudia Cohen, and hanging out with his ex-girlfriend, Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman, who figured in somewhere between Ms. Cohen and Patricia Duff and whom Sean (Puffy) Combs referred to later in the evening as “my woman.” And outside, in the press pool, was one of the billionaire’s more recent ex-flames, CBS correspondent Eleanor Mondale.

In a booth way in the back of the room, Robert De Niro sat with restaurateur-hotelier Brian McNally. At another booth, closer to the bar, Mr. Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg held court.

Clearly, the biggest star of the evening was Brad Pitt, who stood near the center of the room and entertained a procession of flirtatious females, including Madonna and Demi Moore. Madonna’s modus operandi relies heavily on whispering into the ear of her target male (she did the same with Ben Affleck at Miramax’s nominees party at Ago on March 22), although the throbbing techno music sometimes necessitated putting lips close to ears. After she’d spent quite a bit of time hanging with Mr. Pitt, The Observer asked Madonna what she and the actor were talking about. She gave a lascivious smirk worthy of a Golden Globes and replied: “None of your business.” Madonna, who was moving deliberately around the room all night (speculation has been that since the Golden Globes, she’s been out at every major party, as if she were trolling for some kind of next deal or project), didn’t waste all of the evening on idle chitchat. She and rocker Melissa Etheridge agreed to set up a play date for their children.

Ms. Moore also demurred when asked if she might have been counseling Mr. Pitt on the subject of heartbreak. After all, Mr. Affleck, the new beau of his ex, Gwyneth Paltrow (conspicuously absent on this Hollywood holy day), had just walked in the door with a shiny statuette. “I was just giving him motherly advice,” she said as she rocked to the music. “Just keeping an eye on him.”

Even the lesbians were after Mr. Pitt, and getting nowhere. Ellen DeGeneres had asked Mr. Pitt to make an appearance on her sitcom and the actor had turned her down. “He’s in transition. He’s laying low. Blah, blah, blah,” she said, summarizing Mr. Pitt’s excuses. Ms. DeGeneres added that she’d told Mr. Pitt that he had better not ask her for any favors.

Ms. DeGeneres and her girlfriend, Anne Heche, were celebrating the first anniversary of their love affair, which had been sparked at the last Vanity Fair Oscar bash. That didn’t stop Ms. Heche from fawning over Sigourney Weaver, no doubt inspired by the racy Annie Leibovitz photo of the Alien Resurrection star that had run in the magazine’s Oscar issue.

Conspicuously absent from the party were the suddenly-aged-up middle-age machers : Mr. Cruise and Ms. Kidman were not in attendance. Nor was Tom Hanks. And sources said that midway through the party, Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Beatty were observed to cruise slowly by Morton’s, take a look at what apparently seemed like a swarming madhouse to them, and have the limo driver put the pedal to the metal. (The two showed up with a select group of their peers at socialite Dani Janssen’s annual intimate party, held in her Century City penthouse.)

But again, the vibe was with youth this year. “There’s a huge pile of young Hollywood in there,” Mr. Carter happily said at one point during the evening. Indeed, this year’s party had a good dose of that vaunted Hollywood youth factor with such green celebs as Vince Vaughn, who danced with Ms. Heche briefly, Elisabeth Shue and a morose-looking Kate Winslet. A number of guests, including Messrs. Affleck and Damon and Ms. Winslet and Minnie Driver, brought their mothers along.

The cross-section of guests also included fedora-prone Matt Drudge, who affects a look reminiscent of Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak character in The Night Stalker . “Everyone’s trying to get on the front page here,” said Mr. Drudge, noting the “century-end rush to play the fame game.”

Even the hipper-than-thou creators of South Park , Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who tend to preface most sentences with the word fuck, showed up. Apparently the South Park boys have the sons of Graydon Carter to thank for their invitation. Madonna also apparently thought Messrs. Parker and Stone were cool. Although the South Park boys may not have felt the same. “We kicked her,” said Mr. Stone.

And even those who were not part of Vanity Fair ‘s youthquake crowd seemed determined to hang on to their own version of teenage insouciance. A number of partygoers noted that the sweet smell of marijuana sure seemed to be emanating from a cigarette that director Oliver Stone fired up at one point during the evening. Mr. Stone also spent a portion of the night huddled with new Hamptons Homeowner, Mr. Combs, as Steven Seagal, in a uniform resembling a character from The Nutcracker , watched.

To the casual viewer, it all may have looked a little frenzied and anxiety-provoking; it was neither. There’s nothing Hollywood likes as much as the latest trend–dirty mouthed cartoon children or fresh-faced Damon and Affleck, the Ivy League Martin and Lewis. The business was really close to something it liked two weeks earlier when it discovered Asteroid 1997 XF11 hurtling toward earth just in time for two new meteor-to-earth movie releases. Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of one of them, was asked if he thought the public really was in the mood for this kind of apocalyptic entertainment so close to the millennium that reminded them of the possible end of the world. “They better,” he answered thoughtfully, “or I’m out of business.”

But even a rebel like Mr. Stone could learn a few lessons about tapping into the new Hollywood from Harvey Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein is a veritable youth pimp, with a sizable gut for finding and procuring young talent at great rates. Messrs. Affleck and Damon certainly didn’t let Mr. Weinstein forget it, either, at Miramax’s nominees party. For the third year in a row, the reception involved stars of Miramax films getting up before the assembled and acting out scenes from other Miramax movies. So, Dame Judi Dench got to say lines like, “I’ll fuckin’ kill you,” from Good Will Hunting . (And Good Will producer Lawrence Bender was handed an aquarium with a toy boat floating in it. “Sink it,” commanded Mr. Weinstein.) Messrs. Affleck and Damon after doing a scene, in drag from The Wings of the Dove , then launched into a reenactment of the sale of their script to Mr. Weinstein, with Mr. Affleck playing the Miramax chief in a nasal rasp.

In the bit, Mr. Affleck-as-Weinstein explained to Mr. Damon, who played himself, that he would be “working like a trained bitch for nothing.”

Following the performance, Mr. Affleck (who got a hug from Mr. Weinstein), said that his impersonation was “the absolute truth, baby.”

But Mr. Weinstein, like Burt Reynolds’ character in Boogie Nights , has built a hipster family out of all these young and not-so-young artists and performers. And as he held court at Miramax’s small, controlled Oscar night after-party in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, he seemed quite relaxed, as if he at last had nothing to prove, compared to years past.

“I offered Sean Connery $1 million for three seconds of work,” a tieless Mr. Weinstein said with a smile as Helen Hunt showed off her Oscar at a nearby table. “All he had to do was open the envelope … and say that the Best Picture went to Good Will Hunting . But the bastard was too ethical.”

Those who attended Miramax’s post-Oscar bash said that it was the event that felt like a real party, especially once the hotel’s bars closed down at 2 A.M. and a select group of people moved to the hotel’s Suite 100 for Miramax’s specialty: the post-party after-party. A bar was set up; so were steam tables of scrambled eggs and bacon. Robert DeNiro sat at one table. Demi Moore buttonholed Mr. Affleck in another part of the room. ABC Network programming executive Jamie Tarses settled into a long comfortable conversation with Tim Hutton. In the background, Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha” played on the stereo. Mr. Weinstein moved from room to room, chatting up Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Bon Jovi.

“This party was about old Hollywood. That was the theme for this weekend,” said Mr. Weinstein in the muted splendor of the hotel suite. “But not about corporate Hollywood, but more about talent Hollywood.” He looked around the room. “There’s a sense of community and style here which I often find lacking in this town.”

Wearing white flowers in her hair, Ashley Judd walked out onto the suite’s wraparound patio and declared to a group that included Mr. Bon Jovi and Interview editor Ingrid Sischy: “I have had some of the best sex of my life in this suite and not at a Miramax party,” she said. The actress ordered a drink and offered a toast. “Here’s to landmarks,” she said.

Around the corner, pony-tailed director Renny Harlin sat in a chair speaking to the only other person in the room. Mr. Harlin, the director of Cliffhanger , but later of Cutthroat Island , and the former husband of Geena Davis, was talking in low tones about the business. He was talking about what “a real man” would do, “not some fucking accountant.” His listener took it in. There were no accountants there to hear Mr. Harlin’s remarks, only the gray silhouettes of wild palms as far as the eye could see in the Los Angeles night, whispering in the early morning darkness.

Oscars MCMXCVIII