By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 4, 2014 at 10:16AM
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.
The entry process to the Oscars makes the hallowed steps of the Cannes Film Festival's Palais des Festivals feel like the lobby of New York's Film Forum. It's impossible not to get swept up in the dizzying spectacle. While the stars were invited through an inner region of the carpet to speak with reporters and faced hundreds of cameras, the rest of us hovered in the background, avoiding the security guards pushing us along as much as possible. On our right, crowds of onlookers screeched at every recognizable face, while the rest of us swiveled our heads in every direction. I didn't blame Ellen Degeneres for nabbing that celebrity selfie early in the ceremony (a moment that, as Alison Willmore rightly asserted in her review of the show, formed the best gag of the night). I took several myself on the way into the theater, at one point pausing near the entrance to photobomb Johnny Knoxville and Harrison Ford.
Finally arriving at the door, I ran into McQueen, who looked more than a little fatigued. I couldn't entirely relate, though clearly I was in a different state myself when I greeted Steve and he reached in my direction, possibly to shake my hand. Then he recoiled and said "Watch out," as I nearly walked into a closed glass door. Thanking him with a sheepish grin, and grateful that the television cameras were pointed in the opposite direction, I filed into the theater behind the director and his wife, who was advised by an usher to hold onto the couple's Governors Ball tickets. "You'll need them in case Steve has to go the stage tonight and you get separated," she said. As usual, McQueen's poker face held strong.
Inside, the lobby quickly filled up with activity. Hanging by the bar, I hobnobbed with friends like Chaz Ebert and IMDb founder Col Needham, brushed shoulders with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and ogled Wong Kar-wai, and greeted Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn, who was grinning ear to ear in anticipation of the company's victory for eventual documentary winner "20 Feet From Stardom," which they released.
But everyone had a reason to smile as the wine flowed freely and a booming voice advised the crowd to find their seats. Working my way up to the next level, I ran into war journalist Jeremy Scahill, subject of nominated documentary "Dirty Wars," still frazzled from his own red-carpet experience. "It was so weird to have famous people come up to me," he said.
Finding our seats near the front of the second balcony, Nigel and I realized our view of the stage was blocked by a large Oscar statuette, and quickly made peace with our problem by leaning forward. The audience was palpably giddy as the minutes to airtime approached. Down below, a producer robotically advised nominees to keep their speeches short. "The viewers are hoping you inspire and touch them," he deadpanned. "Please get to the stage quickly. At the end you will be played off with music. Gentle music."
And so it commenced. While audiences viewing at home took issue with an overlong and unimaginative broadcast, I never grew bored. Degeneres' opening bit about the inevitable outcome (either "12 Years a Slave" wins best picture, "or you're all racists") set the stage for a canny hosting gig that frequently cut through the buttoned-up nature of the proceedings. Later, her joke about ordering pizza may have struck many viewers as obvious, but from my perspective it added a decidedly human element to the room. (Craning my neck, I confirmed that, yes, Scorsese was definitely chowing down.)
During the musical performances, the large monitors carrying the broadcast dimmed, forcing us to take in the entire live element of the show: Pharrell Williams' "Happy" song and dance number expertly used every inch of the stage, and then some; Pink's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" lacked the same pizzazz but benefitted from a nuanced lighting design that revealed her presence behind a transparent screen with stage magic that required no television enhancements. Still, we couldn't ignore the sweeping camera looming just above our heads, capturing each moment while we witnessed the show just outside the edge of its frame. We were part of show and separated from it at the same time, transfixed by the production while admiring the many ingredients involved in pulling it together.
And when it dragged, I drank. Each time the commercials started up, audiences were able to head outside. Barred from reentrance until the next break, we were forced to watch the awards on a monitor with the volume down. As a result, I missed Lupita Nyong'o's apparently heartfelt speech, and instead hung back with Radius' Quinn and his business partner Jason Janego as they kept track of the winners in an ongoing bet. It was around then that we witnessed the only real upset of the night, Disney's short film "Get on a Horse!" losing best animated short to the French steampunk odyssey "Mr. Hublot." Janego won that round. For this pair, whose role in this business is constantly at odds with the sizable efforts of big studios, one could sense a certain eagerness in their anticipation of each outcome while enjoying the ride as spectators — the world within a world that defines the indie film community, even at the Academy Awards.
They had reason to take it easy. Moments later, "20 Feet From Stardom" won best documentary, followed closely afterward by another predictable victory, in the foreign language category, for Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty." Back at the bar, I ran into Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, whose "Broken Circle Breakdown" had lost to Sorrentino minutes before. It was an expected outcome, but he couldn't mask his disappointment. Reminded that his movie was, after all, a box office hit back home, he sighed. "Yeah," he said, ordering a gin and tonic, "but just now, in the room, when everyone was cheering as his movie won…" He couldn't finish the sentence.
Van Groeningen, like the other losers of the night, experienced a bizarre dichotomy: Clearly people liked their work, but for the moment, they were second fiddle to the champions of the evening. The Oscars, truth be told, fuck with everyone's heads.
In the end, no less than best actress winner Cate Blanchett voiced the honest truth in her own acceptance speech: "As random and subjective as this award is," she said, "it means a lot."
Her declaration lingered in the air as the ceremony concluded and the outcome of the evening rippled throughout through the building, but it started to dissipate just as quickly. Across town, we arrived at a cozy dinner party for the Danish nominees at the West Hollywood restaurant Ago. Among the celebrants were Joshua Oppenheimer's radical documentary "The Act of Killing." Oppenheimer's remarkable work may never had a shot at winning against the unequivocal crowdpleaser "20 Feet From Stardom," but the darker movie's very appearance in the race represented a next level triumph. The filmmaker seemed to understand as much when he showed up and received a laudatory welcome from friends and colleagues. The only Danish winner of the night was Anders Walter, whose short film "Helium" won the live action prize. Walter briefly handed his statuette to Oppenheimer, who rose it over his head and smiled. "Now that's what I call Danish solidarity," he said, and dashed off.
Moments later, someone gestured across the room and pointed out that Oppenheimer was talking to Angelina Jolie, at which point we all became aware that the entire "12 Years a Slave" team occupied the other half of the restaurant. While Jolie hovered near Brad Pitt and his Plan B colleague Jeremy Kleiner and lavished praise on Oppenheimer's film, I bumped into fellow "12 Years a Slave" producer Anthony Katagas, whose bushy beard couldn't obscure his own glee over the way the evening played out. "Still, it's back to work," he said, sharing that he planned to work on upcoming projects from directors James Grey and John Hillcoat next. "You've got your auteurs on lockdown," I said, noticing McQueen at a table a few feet away. Katagas chuckled. I asked him if the narrative of awards season ever messed with his head. He confessed that the night had been a blur, admitting that he couldn't really make out McQueen's speech at the end of the end since he had been standing behind the director.
But that seemed moot at this point. As Katagas paid lip service to his satisfaction over being involved with a work of great importance — perhaps the last time he'd need to go through that routine in the presence of a journalist this season — it was unclear if he was addressing its role in raising awareness about the ills of slavery past and present or just pushing the same message about smart movies being commercial that McQueen fed me a few days before. What difference did it make now? For everyone except for the select few clutching tickets to the Vanity Fair party, the journey was nearly finished.
"We just don't want the conversation to end because we got some trophy," Katagas said. I detected the semblance of sincerity in his weary tone, but then his eyes instinctually darted downward, where he clutched a golden figure at his hip. I couldn't suppress a final twinge of excitement as its glint caught my eye.