Thursday, February 21, 2013

A "Civilian's" Night at the Oscars 16 Years Ago

I had almost forgotten that the Academy Awards--the "Oscars"--were this Sunday.  In the last few years, I have not watched the Oscars on television the way I once did when I was a kid.  I just check out the highlights the next morning.  That seems to surprise some friends, who expect me to breathlessly pore over every detail of the Awards, understandably so, because I love movies so much.  I think I started to become less enchanted with the Oscars after I had the opportunity to attend one of the ceremonies in-person.  I attended the Oscars on March 24, 1997 during the 69th Annual Academy Awards.  That was "The Year of the Independents" because most of the films nominated were financed outside of the traditional Hollywood studios.  That year, "Fargo," "The English Patient," "Jerry Maguire," "Secrets & Lies," and "Shine" were all nominated for Best Picture.  It was an underwhelming line-up of movies, which helped to ensure that the roster of actors and celebrities attending the Oscars that year would be equally underwhelming.

A good friend of my father's, who my brother and I consider more an "Uncle" than anything else (he's more an Uncle to me than my own Uncles!) worked at one of the foreign Embassies with offices in Los Angeles during that period of time.  On Saturday, March 22nd, 1997--just two days before the awards--he called me up and said that the Embassy was given two tickets to the Oscar ceremony and asked if I wanted to attend.  He knew of my love for movies and figured it would be natural to ask me if I wanted to go.  For some reason, a crazy banshee must have jumped into my mouth at that moment and I said "no."  Everybody--family and friends--were shocked I turned my Uncle down.  Eventually, I was scolded and shamed by enough people that I called him back and asked him if I could go with him.  He had not asked anyone else yet to go with him, so he happily agreed to take me.  That meant a mad rush to rent a tuxedo in a short amount of time.  I was not nearly as well-versed on clothing as I am now, so the tuxedo I rented that night was barely acceptable.  I have one photo of myself taken that night that I will never show anyone because I still had a cherubic face and I didn't know how to wear the tuxedo properly.  People asked me at the time why did I turn my Uncle down the first time he offered to take me to the Oscars.  I guess I felt uncomfortable at the idea of attending.  As much as I love the movies, I didn't work in that Industry and, as such, didn't feel like I was part of that world and had earned the right to be there.  I felt self-conscious that I would come off as a "poser" for being there, and that everyone would notice it.  I also now realize, some 16 years later, that another reason I hesitated about attending is because, like everyone else, the Oscars had always seemed like it was a magical, larger-than-life event.  On a subconscious level, I must have worried that seeing it all in-person would ruin the image I had had about it up to that point.

On the afternoon of the Oscars, I met my Uncle at his apartment at the Park LaBrea complex in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles and we started out towards the Shrine Auditorium near USC.  It seemed ironic that all these expensive cars and limos were headed towards a glamorous event while the neighborhood surrounding it was still sketchy and seedy in spots.  When we arrived, the valets parked my Uncle's car, and we walked the red carpet.  It was very surreal to be there and soon we were inside the Shrine.  I recall, from a distance, seeing Variety columnist Army Archerd interviewing Anne Jeffreys.  I remember thinking how Anne Jeffreys never seemed to age and looked more glamorous and beautiful than most of the other attendees.  Years later, I became friends with Anne Jeffreys through my friendship with Ann Rutherford, and I told her about seeing her from a distance that night.  I also recall seeing Morgan Brittany from "Dallas" and character actor Marvin Kaplan, who played Henry on the TV show "Alice" also among the guests in the lobby of the Shrine, enjoying drinks and hors d'oerves.  But, aside from the people I just mentioned, I didn't recognize 95% of the people in there.  I wondered if they were agents and industry executives whose faces are simply unknown to the common man.  Or, if they were like me and my Uncle, "civilians" who were lifelong fans of the movies and somehow got complimentary tickets to attend the event.

Eventually, one major movie star showed up in the lobby, and that was Susan Sarandon.  I recall she was wearing a shimmering gold gown and was accompanied by Tim Robbins.  As she walked into the lobby, I recall hearing her wryly remark, "OK, here we go again!" or something insolent like that.  Her earthiness made me immediately like her on the spot.  Eventually, my Uncle and I found our seats, which must've been like 38 rows back from the stage, and waited for the show to begin.  I was struck by how small everything seemed in-person.  I guess the wide-angle lenses gave the setting a greater sense of grandeur on television.  The seats were incredibly uncomfortable and I recall being surprised at how restless I felt throughout much of the evening.  I guess it would have been more exciting if the films nominated that year were something to get excited about.  (Although, since then, I have grown to really like actress Emily Watson, who was nominated that year for "Breaking the Waves," and I now wish I could've seen her in-person.)  We sat behind an older couple who, I believe, had a film nominated in the Documentary Feature category and they were very nice. 

I recall being amused by Cuba Gooding, Jr's excited Oscar acceptance speech for "Jerry Maguire," but seeing it in-person seemed to highlight how theatrical and forced it was.  I felt Gooding was "acting" during his acceptance speech even more than in the actual movie for which he had won the award.  My biggest memory was during the Best Supporting Actress segment of the show.  This was the year that Lauren Bacall was nominated for "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996) and everybody expected her to win.  When Juliette Binoche's name was announced as the winner, I distinctly recall the audible gasp that went through the auditorium, quickly followed by boos and catcalls from people who were clearly upset that Binoche had won.  I felt bad for Binoche that her big moment was ruined as she walked to the stage to collect her prize by tactless people who were rooting for Bacall to win.  (To be honest, the only time Bacall gave an Oscar-worthy performance was her debut in "To Have and Have Not" in 1944.)  When I watched it later on my VHS recording, I couldn't hear the audience's vitriolic response that I distinctly remember hearing in-person.  When you see Binoche's speech on television, she appears to be nervous and humble during her acceptance speech when she says "I'm so surprised.  It's true, I didn't prepare anything.  I thought Lauren was going to get it.  And I think she deserves it."  However, in-person, Binoche's nervous acknowledgement of Bacall appeared to me to be less due to humility, and more due to being shamed into feeling like she didn't deserve to win because of the resentment emanating from the audience.  I'm not a fan of Binoche, but I don't dislike her and I never felt she deserved that treatment and reaction from the disapproving people in attendance that night.  It seemed to bring down the sense of decorum I would have expected from such an event. 

I also remember how, during the commercial breaks, the doors to the lobby were opened so people could take a quick bathroom break.  I learned that, if you didn't get back to your seat in time when the commercial was over, the doors closed and you were stuck out in the lobby until the next commercial break.  When I was in the men's room, I recall two gentlemen in tuxedos at the stalls on either side of me.  One talked over me to the other gentleman (they obviously knew each other) and said "I guess this is going to be an 'English Patient' evening" a remark which caused an audible groan from everybody nearby who heard it.  I remember thinking it was so odd that there was such resentment against "The English Patient" from people all around me that evening that I wondered how it was possible that it could have generated enough votes to have won that many awards.  There were people openly resentful of both the movie and producer Harvey Weinstein's Oscar campaign for it that it was apparent that it was not a beloved film by any stretch of the imagination.  (Not that I was a fan of it either.  I was incredibly bored when I saw it.)

While I was in the lobby waiting for the next commercial break, so the doors would open and I could retake my seat, I found myself standing next to Joan Allen, who was also nominated that year in the Supporting Actress category for "The Crucible" (1996).  She was wearing an elegant red gown that evening that made her look stunning.  I've always liked Joan Allen and thought she was an attractive woman, but she absolutely glowed in-person the way you expect a movie star from the classic era of Hollywood to glow.  She reminded me of Grace Kelly in-person.  I remember thinking how ironic that Allen is not known for being a glamour-girl on-screen.  I wondered if it was because she might be one of those people who is strikingly beautiful in-person, but whose beauty doesn't translate when she's on-screen.  Or perhaps it's because she chooses not to play up her natural beauty as an actress so that her work speaks for itself.  No matter because, next to Anne Jeffreys, I felt Joan Allen in-person was the closest person I saw that night to a glamorous, larger-than-life movie star of the classic definition.  I admired her even more after meeting her in-person.  I chatted with her a bit, while we were standing in the lobby, and told her that I always enjoyed her work since "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), "Manhunter" (1986), and "Tucker: The Man and the Machine" (1988).  She said she was surprised I even remembered her from those films, because they were from early in her career.

I have only vague memories of the remainder of the Oscar show.  I was sad for the older couple sitting in front of us whose Documentary ultimately did not win that evening.  After their category was announced, they got up and left and never came back.  I guess they were disappointed enough that they didn't want to stick around for the remainder of the show.  The only other thing I recall was when Susan Sarandon took the stage to announce the Best Actor winner.  As she was reading off the teleprompter, Sarandon started to say "The parts the nominee for the Best Actor in a Leading Role play are all basically challenged in some way."  Then she paused and said, "I think they're time challenged so why don't we just cut to the chase here and let's just give this lucky guy an extra eleven seconds.  That's right, go ahead, OK?  The nominees for Best Actor in a Leading role are..."  Sarandon's sassiness at that moment left a bigger impression on me than anything winner Geoffrey Rush said when he won for "Shine."

After "The English Patient" was announced as the Best Picture for that year, and the 69th Annual Academy Awards show drew to a close, I remember my Uncle turned to me and said "That was very underwhelming."  We could've stayed to attend the Governor's Ball, but I think we were both tired and decided to go home.  We joined other attendees as we walked down an alley next to the Shrine towards a parking lot where all the cars had been parked.  The valets who had taken the cars were nowhere in sight to direct us to where we needed to go.  I recall Tim Robbins walking down that alley from the opposite direction and passing us.  It looked like he was trying to figure out where he needed to go next.  When we got to the parking lot, all the vehicles were parked in a haphazard manner and it took awhile for us to find our car.  We were both hungry so we stopped at Norm's Diner on La Cienega in West Hollywood.  I had steak and eggs and I remember thinking how funny we looked dressed in tuxedos having a very basic, late supper in a diner after coming straight from attending the Oscars.

I don't want to seem ungrateful for having the opportunity to attend the Oscars at least once in my lifetime.  I realize what a privilege it was to attend and I value the experience.  If I hadn't attended, I might still have that wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm for the Academy Awards that allowed me to put it on a pedestal that it probably doesn't deserve to be on.  I guess witnessing the hostility that Juliette Binoche experienced when she beat out Lauren Bacall for Best Supporting Actress showed me an unpleasant side to the Oscars, and the people who attend, that made me think of them in less esteem.  Nevertheless, I still love the movies, still believe in glamour, and still enjoy the concept of the Oscars.  And I don't like this post-modern elitism that tends to denigrate the Oscars, and which considers theatre and independent movies to somehow be superior to mainstream Hollywood cinema.  Each medium has its place in society and Hollywood and the Oscars have rightfully earned their place in the zeigeist of our culture.  I simply realized that it's better to have a healthy skepticism of the Oscars, and not take it too seriously, and that the seemingly glamorous individuals who attend aren't any more special or rarefied than the rest of us.  I also realized it's more fun to order in pizza or Chinese takeout and watch the Oscars at home with your family and friends.  

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