In scheduling the annual announcement of Academy Award nominations at an insane pre-dawn hour, it coincides with the last half hour of the morning network talk shows, as seen live on the east coast. That's the official reasoning for the curious timing, but from what I saw the very early morning of February 15, I think that it's all part of some strange lab experiment performed on the entertainment press: schedule an event in the wee hours, and see just how many people you can get to show up. That the number of people that do show up grows exponentially every year shows the Oscars' steady, if not increasing, importance in the increasingly crowded pack of awards shows. Either that or there's an alarming increase in mental illness in the entertainment press community.
If that latter reason is the case, then count me among the victims, for this year marked my inaugural participation in the annual ritual. The invitation said that the doors of the Academy headquarters were to open at 4:00am, so, wanting to get my fill of the experience and perhaps get a jump on everyone, I arrived in Beverly Hills at 4:15am. After checking in with the Academy rep at the front entrance and picking up a copy of a chart that mapped out the available seating for the announcement, I expected to walk into a lightly-filled lobby area. Not so. It may have been well over an hour before the scheduled 5:30 opening of the onsite theatre (and the 5:38 announcement time), but the lobby was a hotbed of activity. The tables and chairs set up throughout the room were all occupied and then some. Based on the many red "early admittance" access badges I saw (the "regular admittance" pass, which I had, was blue), most of these people were technical crew who had been setting up cameras and whatnot in the theatre prior to 4am.
Mostly everyone there appeared to be at an unnatural level of energy and mirth, and the only logical reason I could muster for this was the generous amount of food served by Academy. The invitation letter did indicate that breakfast would be served before the big event, but I expected a simple table of fruit and pastries, with coffee to drink. But, having tasted the wonderful food in the backstage press room at last year's Oscar show, I should have known that when they said "breakfast," they meant it. There were two individual tables on which sat pans of scrambled eggs, bacon, and "home-fried" potatoes with tomatoes and bellpeppers. Next to the food tables were ones topped by various rolls, bagels, and croissants, with butter, whipped cream cheese, and freshly-made jams and marmalades on the side. For those who preferred a no-frills breakfast, on another side of the room was a table with dry cereal--Corn Flakes, Special K, and Honey Nut Cheerios--and milk, and next to that were containers of Yoplait yogurt (assorted flavors) chilled on beds of ice. Prefer your yogurt with granola and/or raisins? No problem--bowls of both were nearby. For beverages, there was a full-fledged juice bar set up, as well as a coffee table whose options extended beyond the normal regular and decaf lines; hazelnut blends and other flavors were also available. But if all of this were a bit too much for you, there was also, indeed, the expected table of fruit.
With the room growing more crowded by the minute, there was no way I could find a seat, and I had to stand by a service tray an empty corner of the room while I had my share of the eggs, bacon, and potatoes (which I must say, were pretty good). Once I was finished, a good amount of dead time remained, and I passed it attempting to look at all the photos in the "Between Takes: Images from the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers" series exhibited throughout the lobby. (I say "attempted" because the amount of people in the room prevented me from catching everything.) This largely black-and-white collection of work from on-set photographers was truly interesting, in particular the candid shots of cast and crew. That said, the image that I found most striking was a posed color shot of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the set of Titanic.
It wasn't until around 5am when I finally came across a friendly face: that of Rough Cut daily columnist and frequent Roger Ebert & the Movies guest David Poland; followed not too long after by another reader of mine, Sam Rubin, the entertainment reporter at KTLA, the local WB network affiliate. At around this time, a bizarre phenomenon began: some TV crews started to film the goings-on in the lobby, and some still photographers followed suit, going around the room and snapping away. My thoughts about this were well-summed-up by a comment I overheard: "It's incestuous--media covering media. Where is the story?"
At 5:15, the voice of Academy publicity guru Leslie Unger rang over the loudspeaker, saying that those with the early admittance passes would soon be let back into the auditorium. A minute or two later, a horde of people, some holding camera equipment and others obviously on-air talent (tipoff: the makeup and overdone 'dos), rushed up the stairs as Ms. Unger urged people to be careful and take their time; after all, she said, "this is just a press conference." About ten minutes later, the rest of us were allowed to go up the staircase and bask in all that is Oscar.
Once the staircase was negotiated, it was a mad dash for the much-coveted front-row center seats. Me being a bit too tired (even after two cups of coffee) to play the aggressor, I settled for a not-bad spot on the right seating section, near the camera crews for AOL, Entertainment Tonight (correspondent Jann Carl sat a couple of rows in front of me, brushing her hair), KABC (the local ABC affiliate, natch), and KTTV (the local Fox affiliate). As an announcer who sounded strangely like Dick Clark kept a running countdown until air--and every so often telling everyone to quickly take their seats--the auditorium filled to near-capacity.
A couple of minutes before showtime, an Academy rep took to the podium for a soundcheck/announcement. Dustin Hoffman, who was announcing the nominees alongside Academy president Robert Rehme, would not be available for interviews afterward; however, Rehme, as well as Oscar telecast producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck would be. The crowd appeared indifferent to the announcement. Before long, the countdown reached zero, and Rehme took to the podium to the strains of some fanfare music. He then introduced Hoffman, who was greeted with a healthy applause though he had been standing at the side of the stage for about five minutes prior to his "entrance."
As in every year, the announcement of certain nominations prompted reactions from the crowd. Greeted with surprise gasps and a smattering of applause were the nods for Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, and Toni Collette. A trio of women sitting in front of me were obvious fans of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and they enthusiastically clapped for its two mentions (most notably Jude Law's). The obvious sleeper favorite with the crowd was Topsy-Turvy; the announcement of its nomination for Original Screenplay earned the loudest applause of the morning. Of course, my rooting interest lay with Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia; as you can see by the big nomination list, I didn't get to do much clapping.
Applause was in short supply, however, when it came to the big category, Best Picture. Hoffman's announcement of American Beauty was greeted with silence (after all, that was one of the two shoo-ins--the also silently-greeted The Insider being the other), but loud gasps and mumbles met with the skipping of Being John Malkovich and the mention of The Cider House Rules. More gasps--and a loud "Come on!" from the guy sitting next to me--came with The Green Mile's name. After the announcement of The Sixth Sense (more gasps and mumbling) and a quick wrapup by Rehme, nearly everyone stormed out of the auditorium. Undoubtedly, many people wanted to get the heck out of there to go home, but there was a palpable air of disappointment and disgust at this year's crop of nominations, and that feeling must have factored in people's haste (I know it did with me).
After I turned in my voucher for a press kit--which, in addition to the complete list of nominations, included press kit-excerpted bios on all the acting nominees and the official studio synopses of the Picture contenders--my first experience with the opening salvo of Oscar madness drew to a close.
Nomination Announcement Memorabilia
72nd Annual Academy Award Winners
Michael's Oscar Follies 2000
Inside the 72nd Annual Academy Award Nomination Announcement/© Michael Dequina