“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
― Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
“Boyhood winning a single Oscar is awesome. We stopped it! We can go to bed now.” ― Academy member in the editors branch, sent to a friend this morning.
To understand that last sentiment, we can peel away the paradox that revolves around this line spoken by Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge. “You want me to be good, just not better than you.”
The Oscars in the modern era are about an industry feeling defensive against the increasing dominance of film critics as deciders of which film is best. Critics, unlike the insular Hollywood community of film-award voters, do not align themselves so religiously with the familiar major studios. A company like IFC Films or CBS Films can break through with critics awards, no problem. But they will be stopped when and if they try to break into the Oscars. They might slip in with the more populist PGA and DGA. They might charm the Golden Globes and they certainly fooled BAFTA. But they aren’t going to fool the Academy. Those industry VIPs know where their bread is buttered.
This defensiveness against film critics was the head of the monster that helped make Birdman such an Oscar-race juggernaut. The body of the beast was the industry’s pointless, symbolic rejection of how Hollywood has changed since the 1970s. Birdman did two things: it sought to viciously shame the critics (the original script had Riggan actually shooting the critic, far less self-pitying way to turn the story); and it meant to lay waste, at least in sentiment, to superhero movies, the younger generation’s dependence upon perceived trivialities like viral videos, youtube and Twitter — in short, everything that makes them feel irrelevant.
Spend enough time with entertainment people and you’ll see a group of folks who really are used to being treated like they’re the center of the universe. The Academy was kind enough to extend an invite to me to attend the show for the first time in 16 years of Oscar coverage. I needed a costume. I had three dresses to choose from. One was “The Norman Bates’ mother look” (and by that, I mean, the corpse in the chair, not Vera Farmiga). The second was Divine in Pink Flamingos, and the third was Joan Collins in Dynasty. I ended up discarding all of them, heading to Macy’s and buying a tight-fitting, curve-hugging dress that made each of my breasts look like bowling balls affixed to a Buddha. I did my makeup, bought some high heels, curled my hair (which the rain promptly uncurled), gathered my tickets and phone charger, stuffing them into my “fancy handbag” and disappeared into the cold and rainy afternoon. The next day, incidentally, the sun would return as if to say, “we just wanted to try to ruin the Oscars. It was worth a shot.”
One thing you can’t criticize the Academy for is not knowing precisely what they’re doing. There were check points and American snipers up and down Hollywood Boulevard. They searched my “Valley-mom SUV” and made me roll my windows down “until you get to the red carpet.” I thought it would be self-park but alas, I had to make some poor valet driver actually get into my messy car and park it. I stepped out onto the boulevard, juggling my fancy bag, my tickets, my ID and my phone. There were tourists lining the boulevard in the rain waiting to see a somebody. They looked at me, a giant boobed nobody and quickly looked away.
If I were a decent person and a good Oscarwatcher I would have lingered longer on the red carpet — which is kind of terrifying. It makes Stardust Memories and 8 1/2 seem like child’s play. This is harsh bright lighting, people screaming on cue in the bleachers, women as thin as matchsticks everywhere you looked, dresses so pretty they seem to be laughing silently at the dress you hastily put on. Okay, the dress I hastily put on. Okay, they weren’t really laughing. I haven’t actually lost my mind. Only pretend insanity.
Once you leave the madness of the red carpet you walk up lots of stairs. At one point I felt myself tip back and I wondered just how dramatic it would be if I’d tumbled all the way back, hitting my head on the marble staircase, calling in the ambulance and shutting down all of the fun. I steadied myself and kept walking, following lots of long dresses, women who smelled like expensive hairspray (not Aquanet). Where was John Waters when you needed him?
Once upstairs, at each checkpoint is a smiling, unformed person directing the flood of people through to the tiered lobbies where a bar was set up, with endlessly flowing champagne and mixed drinks. Caterers glided through each lobby with the same trays of hors d’ourvres. One plump shrimp in cocktail sauce, bacon quiche, the teeny tiniest bagel and lox, beaded caper salad on toothpicks, sliced vegetable sticks in paper cups, with bags of potato chips nearby.
If I’d been a good Oscarwatcher I would have used my press pass to lobby-hop to the main floor and middle lobbies where the beautiful people congregate. I didn’t but I can imagine what it was like, can’t you? Famous people eating and drinking and talking and laughing. I’ve seen so many of them already up close. I propped myself up at the bar upstairs where there were only scattered numbers of people, and caught my breath.
John Savage was the only recognizable person up on our floor. He was escorting a tall drink of water in a showstopper of a dress on an endless search for an electrical outlet to charge her phone.
At some point the television monitors came on to blare the official pre-show. Most stared up at it moon-faced, watching Julianne Moore up close talking about Alzheimer’s.
“Please take your seat. The Oscars will begin in 30 minutes.” I felt a pressing need to get to my seat and sit there for a half an hour. I grabbed my cocktail and headed in. Once inside, I was so high up I felt like I might get height sickness from looking down. The stage was so small and far away that appeared to me like an ornate tiny dollhouse ready to be filled with prettily dressed figurines. And so it was.
I was seated next to a nominee. I didn’t find this out until they called out the Sound Mixing category. I said “American Sniper” out loud and the guy next to me said “No.” Then Whiplash was announced. I heard his wife pat his arm. “Aw, we didn’t win. Next time.” They’d been arguing about Facebook the entire time they were sitting there. “Get your log-in and sign out, then sign back in and write down your password.” “I don’t know how to do it,” she said. “I’m telling you how to do it.” I didn’t expect to be sitting next to a nominee, way up at the back of the house. I’d heard smatterings of applause when they read out the shorts categories so I assumed those nominees were all upstairs too. I’ve never sat next to someone who didn’t hear their name called. They stayed a little bit longer and then left. “Next time,” she said again, soothingly. Turns out he was one of the sound guys on Interstellar.
On my other side was a journalist from Forbes. His favorite film was Whiplash. He also had enough courage to talk to John Savage, who ended up talking his ear off for about half an hour. It was fun to compare notes with another first-timer. We were figuring out the ins and outs of the whole thing. He was far more professional than I was. He wasn’t taking Boyhood’s loss personally. Even when The Imitation Game beat Whiplash for Adapted Screenplay he was disappointed but not about to rage against the machine.
You saw the same show I saw, but it quickly becomes clear that the ceremony is designed for the TV cameras, not an audience. I’m sure the people in the seats front and center feel the excitement in real time, perhaps the speeches were genuinely moving to them, down there, but I got the feeling it was all a tad put-on. The speeches, the audience interactions, the tears, the gratitude. It was entertainment in and of itself, or meant to be, to keep people believing in the magic of the movies, and that the Oscars really are still a celebration of that magic. PR for that magic.
The best part for me was watching the crew change the sets, or the steady-cam operator glide around behind a contender. Somewhere, the director was dictating which camera feed goes into the live feed. Simple things like knowing where a winner’s spouse is sitting to cut to their face, or how Neil Patrick Harris spent time in the audience while the stage sets were transformed. The show, like the organization, like any efficient business, is slick and extremely well organized. How it reads on TV is really out of their hands.
When they read the nominees, the house lights go down to pitch black. The lights come up just before they announce the winner. Off and on, off an on, all night long it went. The sound was as you’d expect, though it must be said that the singing performances were far better live. You simply can’t get the same experience hearing them filtered through the airwaves.
Once Inarritu and his team won screenplay and director, the truth began to emerge like a flame catching a corner of paper just before it devours the whole thing. The changing landscape of the film industry is a done deal. Birdman was meant to be their rallying cry, uniting them in solidarity against their increasing feelings of futility. By the end of the night, when humanitarian and two-time Oscar winning actor Sean Penn, took the stage to hand the top prize to his friend, Alejandro, he could toss his head back self-righteously and proclaim, “movies aren’t about box office.”
Inarritu made his speech about Mexican immigrants, ironic since both he and Alfonso Cuaron have had to focus singularly on white American stories with white American stars to finally win their Oscars. But still, “two Mexican Best Directors in a row” has got to fill Mexico with some kind of pride, a record breaking twofer, unimaginable even ten years ago.
All in all, the Academy did spread the wealth, as the saying goes, with each Best Picture contender winning at least one Oscar.
Birdman – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography
Grand Budapest – Costumes, Production Design, Score, Makeup
Whiplash – Sound, Editing, Supporting Actor
Imitation Game – Adapted Screenplay
Theory of Everything – Best Actor
American Sniper – Sound Editing
Boyhood – Supporting Actress
Selma – Song
A few thoughts about the industry crowded inside my head as I tried to shut out the lingering echoes of applause and laughter. Where the Oscar race used to seem, to me, like the last refuge for those out there still trying to do good work amidst a fast-changing economic reality, they really are the solution. If ticket buyers want fewer choices, branded movies aimed at the masses, earning them all the money they could ever want and then some, that makes Hollywood look like a bunch of greedy, artless capitalists.
But the Oscars? They can give Birdman their highest honor and they believe it will make them look like they still care about art. They care about it enough to sympathize with an actor who has discarded his superhero outfit to try to flail around with a Raymond Carver play. If only the rest of the world would notice how good it is. Not the critic who will never give it a pass because it’s too “Hollywood.” Not the irrelevant worker bees “out there” in the world because they don’t get it – they only get Twitter and viral videos. The industry has one night (or several since the big guilds really decide the Oscars now) to tell the rest of the world who they are.
We’ve all fallen for the act that the heart of Hollywood wants to turn back the clock on the tent poles. That’s all you heard about this year. Superhero movies and tent poles coming along to shit all over everything while the rich get richer and the poor help them do it. The truth of it is, and it became all too clear to me last night, no one really wants things to change. They need to make that kind of money. They like to make that kind of money.
It’s sort of like McDonald’s trying to hipster-up with coffee and healthy-up with salads. They’re still McDonald’s, the scourge of the planet, poisoning people, killing massive amounts of livestock, sucking up the earth’s resources to give people high cholesterol and heart disease. But hey, they sell salad so they must be great, they must care about us, right?
The Academy managed to stop Boyhood, thus invalidating what the critics, the HFPA and the British film industry thought was best. They have that card to play and they play it every year, whether it ultimately makes them look worse in retrospect or not.
As for me, a Cinderella for the night, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Leaving early meant I got a jump on the valet parking, though I suspect no one stood in line very long anywhere at the Academy. Entitlement wafted through the air vents — most of them don’t really know anything else other than being given special treatment. That isn’t the world I live in. It isn’t the world I see outside. It isn’t the world anywhere except behind the red rope.
If I could say one positive thing about the experience it would be this: it’s a marvel to watch such an adept organization put on a show like that. It probably reads really slow and clumsy to you all at home but from my seat I saw an expert balancing act that left no room for mistakes.
Even my car was delivered to me swiftly and efficiently. I lifted my shiny dress and sunk myself back into my cozy beater SUV, which smelled once again like real life. I pulled out of the parking garage and headed down Hollywood Boulevard to La Brea, to Franklin and onward to the 101 which would take me to the 170 and back to the valley where I belonged. The last bits of rain sprinkled on my windshield. My Cinderella dress already felt too tight. That bra had to come off. I was greeted by a dog who needed to be walked and a daughter with a high fever. I made her a cold cloth for her forehead but she was really warm.
“That guy who made that speech about the Imitation Game made me cry for like twenty minutes,” she said. “Oh yeah? Did you like the show,” I asked? “It was too long,” she said. Too long, an Oscar tradition achieved at last.