I’ve flown in the Goodyear blimp. I’ve paddled down the L.A. River. I’ve spoken at two Hollywood Walk of Fame events. I’ve driven the wrong way at 90 mph on a new, still-unopened stretch of freeway (with a Caltrans guy beside me). But I’d never done the ultimate L.A. thing: I’d never been to the Oscars.
I came away from the very long day -- dressing up in evening clothes in broad daylight at 1 p.m., home from the Governors Ball at 1 a.m. -- with two impressions I hadn’t had as an ordinary Oscar TV viewer:
One was the finely tuned organization of a massive event. The Academy Awards has been getting nothing but bigger for 85 years, and I can’t think of events outside of the Olympics and a royal wedding that can rival the clockwork measures it must take to pull this off.
From the red-carpet-arrival drop-off point -- I’d wanted to go by subway but the station was shut down for security -- to the midnight departure across the same carpet, it looked seamless.
(One exception. The toilet explosion. I was drying my hands in the second-floor women’s bathroom inside the Dolby Theatre when a toilet blew up. It looked so much like a special effect that for a moment I thought it was.
I saw a pair of gold sandal-shod feet in a toilet stall and then water burst out the bottom of the stall, over the locked door, out the seams. It didn’t flow, it burst. The noise, like the water, was tidal, and we ran for the door.
Within a couple of minutes, water had gushed out and pooled on the carpet. I was almost ready to look for a lifeboat. Whoever that poor woman in the stall was, I hope she suffered nothing more than a wet ensemble -- and got a rain check for next year.)
The other impression was watching the awards not as an event on TV, which tends to flatten out details, but as the stage show it actually is, with the authentic feel of theater. It’s the difference between being at a Super Bowl and watching one on television.
From up close and inside the theater, the ingenuity of the sets, the stage goings-on during commercials, the audience buzz, the scale of performance numbers such the “Les Miz” made it feel more like a big Broadway show playing to the house than an event televised to hundreds of millions.
Shirley Bassey stood maybe 25 feet from me, belting out “Goldfinger” like it was 1964, and Barbra Streisand singing “The Way We Were” was probably the way it was when she performed on Broadway. I don’t know how it looked as a TV show, but as a stage show, it was, well, boffo.
Thanks to the kind invitation of my friend Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of “Terminator” movies, “Aliens” and “The Walking Dead,” and a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I wound up sitting fifth-row center. I’m the one who, as the camera panned the people around me -- Halle Berry, Richard Gere, Robert Downey Jr., Sandra Bullock -- TV viewers wondered, who the heck is that, and what is she doing there?
I was probably mistaken for a seat-filler. I watched them work, the people who are sent to occupy the most prominent empty chairs whenever some star or another takes a break, so that the TV audience doesn’t see empty seats. They’re dressed to the nines, and before they settle in, they sling their credentials down their backs so they don’t show up on camera and ruin the vibe.
The front rows are filled with some small percentage of the small population at the apex of the Hollywood pyramid. On this night at least, they looked to be more or less enjoying themselves (Exceptions: Joaquin Phoenix, who looked like he was expecting to be waterboarded, and the girl on crutches, Kristen Stewart, who was in abysmal pain. I found myself by happenstance following her out of the theater at the end, keeping well clear of her vast train.)
Gere talked animatedly with Berry, who put all the pretty-pretty-princess frocks to shame looking like an Art Deco Oscar in a severely angular beaded gown. Four rows in front of me, I could see Jack Nicholson’s right shoulder, the dark suit splotched with light patches of powder from all the ladies who had greeted him with a hug and a cheek-kiss.
And after the commercials, when the countdown back to the show was announced … 60 seconds … 30 seconds .. ..15 seconds … they all hurried back to their places. Salma Hayek in particular, dressed like a modern-day Holly Golightly, made a comic stage-bustle to her seat.
Earlier, the red-carpet stroll into the theater put me in mind of the two viewing tiers around the Tower of London’s jewel room. One tier gets you closer to the jewels, but they hurry you along for security reasons. The other tier is farther away, but you can walk more slowly.
Similarly, as you go through the security tent before the red carpet, you can hear the crowd outside roaring -- not for me, of course, but for the celebs they see coming along. This must be the kind of sound that gladiators and victims heard at the Roman Colosseum as they emerged from the stony shadows.
One red-carpet track is for the celebs to pose and stop and pose again, and the other is for just-folks guests to get into the theater. Every 10 feet is some iteration or another of an Oscar figure, and you’re told not to stop and pose for photos, but come on, how can you not? At the top of the post, there’s a picture of me with Sen. Barbara Boxer in green; her daughter, Nicole, was executive producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War,” about the sexual abuse of American women in uniform by their comrades in arms.
(Nobody asked who I was wearing, but it was a pewter lame dress under a 1920s Jean Patou draped amethyst silk-velvet coat.)
Oh, for the record -- Tommy Lee Jones was sitting on the aisle a couple of rows ahead of me. And I did see him smile.
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