The hierarchy

On TV, it played like the year of the Big Tent. Old Hollywood, black Hollywood, Spanish-speaking Hollywood, trailer-park Hollywood, Magic-Johnson-Theatres Hollywood — this year's Oscars seemed to have something for every constituency.

But Big Tents are never as spacious as they seem from the outside, are they? Just getting into the Kodak Theatre on Sunday night was a tutorial in the price of inclusiveness as it is practiced in the world of stardom: Stop at checkpoint, present ticket and I.D. to uniformed police officers. Stop at second checkpoint, roll down all vehicle windows, pop trunk, let more uniformed police officers search car.

Pull past crowds of screaming fans lined up behind barricades on greasy Hollywood side streets. Present ticket again, this time to obsequious valet guy. Step forward onto very wide red carpet. Stumble toward yet another ticket-taker with a herd of surprisingly ordinary-looking people in nice clothes interspersed with a handful of very tiny and beautiful people in jewel-toned gowns and wee tuxes. Pass great banks of paparazzi. Blink at blinding bronze tautness of Joan Rivers' cheekbones. Stagger sideways into Leo DiCaprio, who is waving to the bleachers, his moon face beatific in the strobe lights.

Cross the threshold toward a big, open stairway down which the tiny and beautiful Kirsten Dunst and her look-alike brother are gliding. Watch yet another ticket-taker tell the schlemiel behind them that, sorry, he can't go down these stairs to the cocktail party where all the stars are. He has to go to a different floor if he wants a cocktail. The guy gazes over the banister — here's Laura Linney, there's Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas — as the tiny and beautiful Emmy Rossum of "The Phantom of the Opera" descends.

So it went under Sunday's Big Tent. As the evening wore on, it was clear that, really, a tent could only be so big. Nervous at the possibility of low ratings when fewer and fewer people care about more and more award shows, the Oscars took a chance and rejiggered the show's formula to emphasize mass over class, at least in front of the cameras.

But in the house, as host Chris Rock might say, the scene was more nuanced. Mass is democratic and inclusive, but Hollywood is all about social stratification. The stars have to be distant or they'll lose their magic and people won't buy tickets.

So the faces were a little different, but most of the rules remained unchanged. There were stars and then there were big stars and then there was everyone else. The pre-awards parties at the Kodak Theatre were divided into levels — the higher the status, the lower the floor. Same with the seats. Same with the humor.

"Who is Jude Law?" Rock demanded a few minutes into an opening bit that drew roars from the cheap seats high in the back of the theater and raised more than a few hackles in the front rows. "Why is he in every movie I've seen for the past four years? He's in everything! Even movies he's not in, you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something!" Hollywood likes to be kidded (Robin Williams is beloved, and where was Jack with his famous shades) but only in a kinder, gentler way.

Later, Sean Penn took the stage to tartly remind that Law is "one of our finest actors." Penn spoke for a different constituency, the insiders for whom the Oscars aren't a mere TV show (the way they are, say, for the folks at the Magic Johnson Theatres, whose raves about the movie "White Chicks" were beamed in to varied amusement) but a celebration of a serious art form.

Still later, at the after-parties, the buzz was all about whether Rock, the "outsider" host who had been hired on the promise that he might do something worth watching, such as being offensive, had merely managed to offend the wrong people.

"I thought what he said about Jude Law was unacceptable," muttered one producer after the ceremony, as he awaited his Governors Ball plate of slow-braised Kobe beef short ribs.

"You know what? Lighten the ... up! That little speech Sean Penn came up with, that's the reason people hate liberals," opined another producer, Nelson George, sitting across the room with Sean Combs (né "P. Diddy").

"You were great," former "Saturday Night Live" costar Adam Sandler assured Rock as a crowd of well-wishers thumped his small back and yelled (to his face, at least), "You killed — killed!"

Chris Rock: the reviewsBut early reviews of the show called his monologue "mean-spirited," and at the Vanity Fair party, Jermaine Dupri, the boyfriend of Janet Jackson, whom Rock also dissed gently, sailed past him without acknowledgment. Apparently interpreting it as a snub, Rock quipped to Def Jam's Russell Simmons, "I didn't touch the brother!" Simmons, acting fast, pressed his Buddhist prayer beads onto Rock's hand. "Here," he said. "Touch these."

The parties, like the show, were less revolution than evolution. The ordinarily staid Governors Ball had a more diverse feel. Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz worked the room as a pair. Friends of Rock set up a sort of hip-hop table at the center of the celebration.

Warren Beatty and Annette Bening held court at a table with Jeremy Irons; "The Incredibles" creator Brad Bird came by to pay his respects, sporting a little "Incredibles" pin on his lapel. Oprah Winfrey left even before Warren and Annette, so great was her status. The "Sideways" cast hoisted — what else? — glasses of wine at their table, celebrating their Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

At the "Million Dollar Baby" tables, the center of the movie universe this night, Clint Eastwood planted his Oscars on a table full of half-full wine glasses and dirty dishes. A joyful Hilary Swank fielded congratulations with cries of "Welcome to my trailer park!" while her husband, Chad Lowe, sat three seats down, his patient, cherubic face — thanked and re-thanked, in these recent weeks of awards ceremonies — bent over what appeared to be a bowl of mashed potatoes. Every now and then, some acolyte would pull the skirt of her low-backed gown away from the feet of the crowd.

The Vanity Fair party was held, as ever, at Morton's restaurant at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Robertson Boulevard. Here too the tent was Hollywood's idea of big. Adam Sandler stood in a cloud of smoke, nodding and smiling. Christina Aguilera blew kisses to the photographers. Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica, spotted the aging film critic Roger Ebert and earnestly introduced himself while Ulrich's statuesque date stood by, staring into the middle distance.

There were surprising groupings: Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé Knowles and Mary J. Blige in a white leather booth. George Lucas entering the room and being rushed by Jessica Simpson, who greeted him like a long-lost relative. And not so surprising ones: Larry King shared a table with glamour-puss novelist Jackie Collins and billionaire Barbara Davis, while Davis' grandson posed across the room with his lithe girlfriend, Mischa Barton.

There were more wannabe guests this year than ever before, said Vanity Fair publicist Beth Kseniak. A quick glance around the room proved her right. The tourists definitely outnumbered the stars.

Fortunately, that didn't diminish the opportunities for eavesdropping.

Just before midnight, as Paris Hilton made her second or third lap around the party (cellphone to ear, and it wasn't a hack-prone Sidekick), a very perturbed Scarlett Johansson marched to the entrance to retrieve her boyfriend, Jared Leto.

Moments later, as the couple walked hand in hand, Johansson griped, "I have to get up in 5 1/2 hours."

"So you're outta here soon?" Leto asked.

"I'm outta here soon," she retorted as they disappeared into the crowd.

In the ladies' room, as Kirsten Dunst primped in the mirror, a woman standing next to her asked if she'd pose for a photo for her teenage son, a "Spider-Man" fan. "Absolutely!" said Dunst, and she stood arm-in-arm with the stranger. Gwyneth Paltrow, once the glittering ingénue, held court with a more worldly aura, attracting flocks of young actresses who chirped, "How's Apple?" then hung on her every word. (The standard answer: She's "amazing.")

Busy Robertson BoulevardMeanwhile, at the Abbey restaurant on Robertson — a popular boulevard to be on Oscar night — Esquire magazine, AIDS Project Los Angeles and Jennifer Love Hewitt hosted a fundraising viewing and after-party. Early on, at least, it wasn't an A-list affair. Tommy Chong was among a handful of celebrities at the viewing party but the only star who was just seven months out of a halfway house for selling bongs. The bearded and beatific Chong had just canceled his 30-city tour of "Marijuana-Logues," a spoof of "The Vagina Monologues," in which Chong and two other men recount their experiences with the drug.

At the nearby Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar party, co-hosted by jeweler Chopard, guests filed, literally, into a big tent in the parking lot of the Pacific Design Center, where they were greeted with towers of pink roses, a dozen disco balls and a pink-and-white décor.

About 9 o'clock, Joan Rivers and a modest entourage of producers pushed their way through the crowd. "Press! Press!" Rivers shouted. Celebrities were thick on the ground. There was Donatella Versace wearing a dress that dripped purple sequins. Brooke Shields looked positively apologetic as she told a reporter from E! Entertainment Network that motherhood meant she didn't spend so much time getting primped for events like this one.

"Desperate Housewives" stars Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria breezed through, hand-in-hand. Donald Trump and his new bride, Melania, looked a bit puzzled as an acquaintance bemoaned her love life. "I need to get married!" she told the newlyweds. Then the woman looked to Trump's wife and said, "You know how hard it is!" Trump's wife just looked back at her.

Outside, Sir Elton, wearing glamorous blue sunglasses and a blazer hand-painted in the ancient Japanese tattoo style, and his partner, David Furnish, tallied up their success. They raised $1 million with their party this year.

"And we used to be happy with $100,000," said John. "And that's net," added Furnish. Chopard was especially generous, they said. John wore a diamond cross pendant the size of a child's head, and both he and Furnish showed off their Chopard diamond watches.

Liz Taylor was celebrating her birthday and was scheduled to arrive at 9:30. By 10:30 she still hadn't made it. "Elizabeth is always a little late," said John. (And indeed Taylor did arrive later.)

But wait! Here was Paris Hilton again, with her sometimes boyfriend Nick Carter, photographer David LaChapelle and Pamela Anderson, who took turns posing for pictures as former model Peggy Moffitt looked on.

Anderson wore a button-up shirt that opened to reveal pretty much everything that had made Anderson famous.

By 10:15 p.m., the red piano that had been auctioned off for more than $100,000 was playing "Rocket Man," and John's disembodied voice, which floated on the night breeze, was the same as ever, like so much else about this Oscar night in Hollywood. Big Tents are all well and good, but at the end of the day you want Pam, Paris and Elton.

Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.

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