Terrell Carter


Michael's Oscar Follies
Inside the 71st Annual
Academy Awards

The Ceremony

Oscar night=glamour and glitz, right? Maybe if you're on of the lucky VIPs who get to stroll down the red carpet and bask in the glow of "Hollywood's biggest night," yes. But the reality--at least for the press contingent fortunate to do in-person coverage of the event--is something decidedly less exciting. This is not to say, however, that nothing of interest took place and that there wasn't any enjoyment to be had.

Donning a tux for the second time in as many months, carrying around a black tote bag on my left shoulder, and wearing my press credentials and picture ID around my neck, I began my grand adventure began at around 3:00PM, when my editor at the Eyepiece Network, Sumir Meghani, and I made our way up the fan-lined streets surrounding the Los Angeles Music Center. After blazing a trail through the onlookers (some of whom carried signs, the most interesting of which read, "[Elia] KAZAN--YOU ROCK!"), we passed more than a couple of security guards and policemen, before arriving at the artists' entrance to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

It sounds like a simple enough procedure, but for me it was pure agony. As part of our coverage plans for Eyepiece, I had to secure a laptop for use in the press room. I was able to borrow one from a friend's friend, but the laptop in question was from Korea, complete with Korean power jacks. This meant that I also had to lug around a power transformer whose compact size belied its heavy weight--made heavier by all the walking I had to do.

Once we were in the door, more walking awaited--down a long and rather dark hallway to a pair of security guards. After a quick wave of one of those metal-detecting wand gizmoes and a pass through a walk-through metal detector (the security was never less than thorough), we were officially in the backstage area. But there would be more waiting before we would be able to take our rightful place in the TV/Online press room on the fourth floor. The pre-event literature given by the Academy warned of the slow elevators, and indeed were they slow; it was at least five minutes before one showed up.

Upon arrival on the fourth floor, we traversed a labyrinthian path that curved past the photo room (which housed a stage and a large set of risers) and through the Print/Radio room (which was already crowded) before finally landing in the comparatively relaxed TV/Online room, which had barely ten people in it at the time--three of them being official Academy technicians. It immediately struck me just how privileged we were to be there; while there were rows of chairs set up for the TV reporters (one Academy-manned camera shot all video footage), there were only four tables, each seating four, set up for the online press. After exchanging greetings with a couple of those other Web outlets, Hollywood Online (whose rep, Chuck Walton, happened to be a fellow member of the Online Film Critics Society) and TNT Rough Cut (whose rep, Dave Poland, and I had bonded online over our shared admiration for The Thin Red Line), it was time to set up my equipment for the night.

Once I set up the tangle of cords and power transformers, some trouble with my modem connection led to a difficult but necessary last-minute decision: instead of giving my running commentary on the night live in a Talk City chat room as originally planned, I would instead give them on a standard HTML page at Eyepiece that was uploaded every commercial break while Sumir, whose online connection was functional, did the brunt of the chatroom duties. It was disappointing, but I was allowed to do work in the chat room every so often, and once the telecast was over, I assumed all chatroom duties.

Like the billions who watch the show at home worldwide, the pre-show time is spent watching the celebrity arrivals on television--the difference being that there are four televisions in the room, which is occupied by about 80 people. Everyone voiced their comments about what everyone was wearing (contrary to popular opinion, most people I was with did not care for Gwyneth Paltrow's dress), and complained about how dull and inept the Geena Davis-hosted first annual "official" pre-show was. In short, it was not unlike an Oscar house party, albeit one where people were all dressed up, wearing press badges, and had to either take notes or type on computers--and drank free bottles of Evian, the ubiquitous beverage of Awards Weekend.

During this dead time, more recognizable faces began to trickle into the press room (CBS This Morning's Mark McEwen, former Entertainment Tonight reporter Jeanne Wolf, and Los Angeles TV news reporters Sam Rubin and George Pennacchio) while others headed to the press lounge to get their taste of the free food. On the elaborate spread were salads; vegetarian sandwiches and turkey subs sliced into small portions; and as the main courses, dried mushroom ravioli in a rich, creamy sauce and boneless chicken breast skewers, also dipped in a rich sauce all its own. It was even better than it sounds, and my one regret of the night is not eating enough of it.

With so many potential ways the entire affair could go wrong, Murphy's Law had to set in one way or another. Luckily the gremlins struck early on and in a minor fashion, during Whoopi Goldberg's monologue and the beginning of the presentation of Best Supporting Actor, when unspecified audio troubles led to some intrusive sound checks by Academy publicity guru Leslie Unger. As she apologetically tested the onstage microphone ad nauseum, the audio feed from the telecast was muted, prompting me and a number of people in the room to duck into the Print/Radio room to grab the handy headsets that provide an uninterrupted audio feed from the stage. At the same time we also picked up our official Oscar programs (as shown by Geena Davis in that dreadful pre-show), which Academy officials made certain went one copy per person, recording everyone's name before handing out the goods.

While watching the ceremony, it was easy to see that the big favorite of the press crowd was Shakespeare in Love; Dame Judi Dench's Supporting Actress win was loudly applauded, and the film's Best Picture win was met with a warm, if largely surprised, reception. It was also interesting to see how closely the press members' interest in the show mirrored that of the viewers at home. Music numbers (especially the bizarre dance segment to the nominated Dramatic scores) and film montages were cues for people to either grab another bite in the press lounge, run to the restrooms down the hall, pop their head into the neighboring Print/Radio room (where it was sheer bedlam) or pay a friendly visit to other people in the room.

Such escape hatches gradually became scarce, for as the bloated four-hour show lumbered on, winners surfaced in the press room at an increasingly steady pace. As can be expected, the attention given to the winners for the technical awards and the neglected stepchildren of the event (i.e., the short film winners) did not compare to that lavished upon the winners of the more major awards. Everyone who stopped by was in high spirits, including room favorite Dench and surprise Supporting Actor winner James Coburn, but by and large everyone appeared fairly reserved.

At least not until after Whoopi called it a night as the clock approached 10PM, when I took over chat room duties and two of the biggest winners of the evening showed up to a less-than-half-full press audience: Best Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and that zany firecracker Roberto Benigni, Actor and Foreign Language Film winner. Paltrow (whose overly-shellacked hair, I must say, looked better in person) came off as genuine and down-to-earth as she did during her teary acceptance speech. The key difference, though, was that she allowed herself to have some fun. Aside from the moment she answered my question (about her Shakespearean experience--or lack thereof), the high point was when the cellular phone of a reporter seated in the front row rang, and Paltrow reacted with a laugh, "Are you gonna get that? Let me have it," and she proceeded to engage in anonymous small talk with the unsuspecting person on the other end.

Such a surreal moment would have been difficult for even someone as unpredictable as Benigni to top, and he didn't. However, his wit was in top form right from the moment he took the stage, and the first question asked was from an Italian reporter speaking in Benigni's native tongue. Benigni turned to the rest of the press crowd and said, "Excuse me; he asked a question, and I have to answer it in Italian." Benigni looked back at the reporter and said in perfect deadpan, "I didn't understand the question."

The press room activities came to a close shortly thereafter, and once everything was packed up and Sumir and I triple- and quadruple-checked our area for anything left behind, the real adventure began--trying to find a way out of the place. The journey started easy enough; after going down four flights of stairs, we were stopped by a security guard who scanned the bar codes on our press passes so as to officially check us out. From there, though, it was a maze. We passed by a number of trailers for the onstage talent (Peter Gabriel, Randy Newman, et al.) as well as tents where Wolfgang Puck's cooking crew prepared the meals for the Governors Ball. Before long, we were right outside the Ball tent and at the main door of the Dorothy Chandler, where I exchanged hellos with presenter Brendan Fraser, who was making his way out with his wife. With no exit in immediate sight, Sumir and I decided to follow the flow of foot traffic onto the long, wide, winding red carpet where all the celebs made their way in a few hours earlier. A few camera crews were planted there, hoping to catch some comments from celebs as they made their way to their limousines. Already somewhat lost, I was further disoriented when I found Supporting Actress nominee Brenda Blethyn walking alongside me, and we had a nice conversation about the night's events and the parties to come (she had no idea exactly where she was headed next). Not too far behind Blethyn and flanked by a couple of security guards was fellow Supporting Actress nominee Kathy Bates, and I was able to greet her as well.

The red carpet ended at a crowded curbside "limo dock," if you will, where a crowd of people waited for their rightful limo to emerge from the long line that crowded the street. Seeing now way out and having no desire to block the flow of traffic, Sumir and I then backtracked in order to find a less congested exit. Our re-entry was noted by a couple of security guards, who, obviously thinking we were up to no good, stopped and told us to turn the other way for an exit. So across the street and through the train of limos we went, and "Sunday at the Oscars" officially came to an end.

Oscar Partying Like It's 1999

Although the evening is traditionally called "Oscar Night," everyone knows that it's not until the ceremony is over does the evening truly begin, and this year was no exception. After the final gold guy was handed out and everyone made their token appearance at the Academy-sponsored Governors Ball, the crowd that had packed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--and many other non-show guests--spread over the town like a blanket, enveloping nearly the entirety of Southern California in the Hollywood hoopla of post-Oscar parties.

Gwyneth Paltrow may have been the belle of the Academy Awards ceremony, but the true diva of the party scene was not a screen queen but an ingenue of a different sort--a former White House intern. As had been expected, Monica Lewinsky turned up at Morton's in West Hollywood for the annual Vanity Fair bash. Along with the usual battery of winners who make a point of stopping by just about every party, the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, and Madonna joined in the festivities. But not even the one-time controversy queen could compete with the other now-one-named woman whose name begins with an "M" and ends with an "A," who had no problem commanding the spotlight. With as guests lining up to greet her as any Tinseltown starlet, the Vanity Fair party could have easily been mistaken for Lewinsky's big Hollywood debutante ball--or so I hear, for I wasn't one of the chosen few who were able to attend.

Not to be outdone, Paltrow held court at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, site of the most crowded party of the evening, Miramax's big blowout. The no less than 800 guests in attendance included, in addition to the entire contingents from big winners Shakespeare in Love and La Vita Bella, Nicolas Cage, Mariah Carey, Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro, Whitney Houston, Angelina Jolie, Michael Keaton, Jay Leno, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Oscar winner James Coburn, and losing nominees Emily Watson, Brenda Blethyn, and Nick Nolte. I'm sure there were a lot of interesting stories to tell from this event, but since Miramax wasn't able to include me among that 800, I don't have any more details than the few I just related.

By contrast, the DreamWorks party at Barnaby's on Fairfax Avenue was a calmer, and some would say sullen, affair. Although the fledgling studio won a total of six statuettes of the night (five for Saving Private Ryan and one for The Prince of Egypt), spirits were considerably dampened by the long-favored Ryan's losing the Best Picture race to Shakespeare. Nonetheless, those from that film, including Best Director winner and DreamWorks co-chief Steven Spielberg, and guests including Harrison Ford tried to put on their best party fronts though the air of disappointment could not be hidden--but this isn't my observation, since DreamWorks was unable to accommodate my request for party spot.

Across the street from Monica's coming out party at Morton's was the Elton John AIDS Foundation and In Style magazine's benefit bash at Pagani. Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Jim Carrey, Kevin Costner, Geena Davis, Ellen DeGeneres, Goldie Hawn, Anne Heche, Bridget Fonda, Janet Jackson, k.d. lang, Rod Stewart were among those who turned up for the seventh-annual event, which went on to raise upwards of $300,000 for AIDS research. I would have turned up as well if I weren't rejected from John's people a couple of weeks before.

Of course, there are only enough stars to go around, and some parties are bound to be left neglected. That was never so much the case than at BBC Radio's non-event at the Cobalt Cantina in West Hollywood--which, of course, happened to be the only party that accommodated me. The only names who appeared would be familiar only to British ears (they were foreign to mine); reports that the Spice Girls would appear (an item on which appeared in no less than Daily Variety) turned out to be no more than an out-of-control rumor. Not only did the Cobalt's extremely small size count against this party, it also had the misfortune of being situated a block away from Morton's and Pagani--and the one-two A-List party punch of Vanity Fair and Elton John. Needless to say, those who made into either one of those extravaganzas simply party-hopped across the street.

So, unfortunately, I have no eventful, exciting, exclusive Oscar party scoop to offer... at least not this year...

71st Annual Academy Award Winners
71st Annual Academy Awards Memorabilia
Running Thoughts from the Press Room

Michael's Oscar Follies: Inside the 71st Annual Academy Awards/© Michael Dequina
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