For anyone who cares about movies as an artform, the Oscars are an easy target — an excessive celebration of Hollywood celebrity culture and moneymaking, distilled into a single cheeky ceremony. Of course, this cynicism has its merits and oversimplifications; it's hip to rag on the Oscars' superficial qualities, but the rants come from a real place.
Over the years, my feelings about the world's flashiest red-carpet affair have ranked from mildly curious to ambivalent, outwardly hostile and everything in between. Even when a film like "12 Years a Slave" manages to win the top prize, it's one of so many other worthy achievements left out of the fray. You want a posh celebration of top-notch filmmaking? Go to Cannes.
At least, that was my armchair analysis to the Oscars' shortcomings, but this year I had the luxury of attending the ceremony in person. And being there changes the equation. By attending the show, I felt closer to the Oscars' allure than ever before, and they very nearly ate me alive.
Since I didn't grow up idolizing the event, I enjoyed my colleague Peter Knegt's colorful report from last year's event without envy. But when I had the opportunity to have the experience myself, I suddenly felt a strange shiver of delight.
I knew it would be a good year to experience the Oscars up close: I've been beating the drum for "12 Years a Slave" since its Telluride debut, and wrote various mash notes to several other contenders, from "Her" to "The Act of Killing," which meant that for the first time in a while I felt genuinely interested in seeing if voters agreed with my favorites. And yet, the moment my colleague Nigel Smith and I received invitations to attend, I felt something weirdly intangible that had nothing to do with a measured interest in the proceedings. Instead, the possibility gave me an instant physical high, and the burst of elation lasted all way through the end of the ceremony. It was an instructive and thoroughly immersive experience that also maintains a terrifying kick; I'm still not sure what to make of it.
Working the Oscar weekend -- from the party circuit to the ceremony itself -- is like being inside a vast, self-sufficient machine, latching on to its hulking gears as they speed by and hugging them for dear life. It's one thing to understand the process intellectually, but the visceral experience is something else. One can easily feel consumed in its design, bouncing about with increasing energy until the atom-bomb explosion of a finale. The closer you get to the Oscar, the more likely that its brainwashing abilities will burrow inside your skull.
That's just from the perspective of this casual spectator; for anyone with something at stake, the Oscars present a surreal personal challenge. On Saturday night at a posh gathering hosted by The Weinstein Company, one nominee with a documentary in the race confided in me that he expected to lose, had accepted as much, but couldn't shake his nervousness after months of working the campaign trail. "I know I'll be depressed tomorrow," he said. "It feels like everything has been building up to this." Nearby, the nominated director of a studio-produced animated feature looked similarly befuddled. "We just try to make family-friendly films," he said. "We never tried to make…" He trailed off and his voice dropped to a whisper. "You know. Oscar bait."
Perhaps no nominee endured a greater process of reconciling the campaign mayhem than "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen, an eloquent, thoughtful filmmaker thrust into a five-month cycle of handshaking and canned responses. While pundits argued over whether "Gravity" might edge ahead in the best picture race, McQueen maintained his cool. At a Friday event for the British nominees, I asked McQueen if the incessant routine left him disenchanted about the business. On cue, he repeated a line about the necessity of pressuring studios to acknowledge the commercial prospects of smart, daring cinema, an assertion that may have sealed the deal even more than the movie's historical value. "I'm not interviewing you," I said. "Look," McQueen replied. "We didn't compromise anything, so this hasn't changed my perspective at all."
But no amount of cool can fully conceal the infectious enthusiasm of speeding toward the finish line. McQueen's measured demeanor was belied some 48 hours later with his bubbly finale on the stage of the Dolby Theater, when he completed his acceptance speech by jumping up and down in front of his colleagues like a schoolboy. There was the bonafide radiant force of Oscar fever incarnate, a spell that even those of us seated in the balcony experienced with increasing anticipation in the moments leading up to the ceremony. We weren't disappointed. The machine would not allow it.
My own final countdown to the big moment lifted off early Sunday afternoon, when Nigel and I headed from his hotel a few blocks from the theater and headed toward the event on foot. Following some confusion regarding the proper entrance and a mild wardrobe malfunction involving the button on my tux (since I have no reason to thank the Academy, I'll just thank the kindly staffer at Muji who worked quick magic with a sewing needle), we finally arrived at the main red carpet entrance on Sunset Boulevard and Highland — only to learn from an affable security guard that we needed to be in a car to get through. "After the Boston marathon bombings, they've been extra careful about pedestrians," he said. Nearby, a group of anti-gay protestors broadcasted terrible epithets and brandished signs.
A few yards from the theater and surrounded by irrational hatred, we crossed the street and called a cab. "You want me to take you one block?" the stunned driver asked. "We want you take us the block," I said, displaying our security pass. As we neared the theater in a steady approach, passing bomb inspections and hordes of cops, our newfound chauffeur whipped out his iPhone to document the proceedings. We didn't blame him; the scene was wild, and we hadn't even reached our destination.
As we contemplated shouting back at the homophobic display on the corner, a better solution emerged: Across the street at legendary record store Amoeba Music, staffers positioned speakers on the sidewalk and cranked up the volume, blaring a heavy metal track that instantly drowned out the megaphones of the bible-touting maniacs nearby. A homeless man passing by grabbed a broom from a pile of trash and played air guitar; the protestors looked shell-shocked. It was the first great win of the night.
The next moments unfolded like a theme park ride designed to simulate the celebrity experience. I rolled down my window and gave a thumbs up to a crowd onlookers hoping to glimpse someone they recognized. I wasn't that person, but the gesture gave them something to chew on, and the ensuing cheers confirmed that some people don't need much encouragement to get worked up. I certainly didn't, minutes later, when a white-gloved usher opened the door to our car as I stepped out onto the red carpet. "Welcome to the Academy Awards," she said. It had begun.