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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
March 4, 2014 10:16 AM
30 Comments
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Critic's Notebook: I Attended the Oscars And They Nearly Drove Me Insane

Indiewire's Eric Kohn and Nigel Smith at the Oscars.

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."

The Oscars, truth be told, fuck with everyone's heads.

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.

Director Steve McQueen shows his excitement after accepting the Oscar for Best Picture for '12 Years a Slave' at the Academy Awards.

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.

30 Comments

  • maja | March 6, 2014 12:47 PMReply

    Thank you for this. A great inside study that takes you right into the bowel of the Oscars and makes you experience it "as if you had been there", yourselves.

  • foley | March 6, 2014 11:01 AMReply

    This piece compliments what I saw on the telecast. It gives a perspective that help me understand the importance of the show for the actors, directors, producers, etc.

  • JackCerf | March 5, 2014 8:13 PMReply

    This confirms something I have long suspected about the Oscar telecast. The show is of, by and for the people in the room, who are congratulating themselves and each other for being in the room. If they're content, the show is a success. The tv audience just gets to watch.

  • alice | March 5, 2014 6:10 PMReply

    Great piece Eric!

  • sam | March 5, 2014 11:33 AMReply

    Your portrait of this important event for showing some humanity behind the stars is a nice compliment to the ceremony itself. Thanks

  • dominion dancing | March 5, 2014 9:34 AMReply

    Lots of good stuff in here, but it's pretty shitty to crack on McQueen for talking to you like you were an interviewer and then turn around and report your conversation with him. You *were* an interviewer, bro.

  • Eric | March 5, 2014 10:17 AM

    I understand your concern, but I asked McQueen for permission to include this quote before the story was published, and he granted it.

  • Rosa | March 5, 2014 9:15 AMReply

    For us overseas the oscar night is a portrait of America. Your article is a good compliment to what we sa won't the tele. Thank you.

  • Blujazz | March 5, 2014 3:35 AMReply

    I enjoyed this story. There's a fair balance between totally being in the moment of being at the Oscars and also being tired of the campaign.

    A lot of jealous people in the comments, though.

  • Sam Fragoso | March 5, 2014 1:54 AMReply

    I think some of you folks are missing the point here.

  • JD | March 5, 2014 12:41 AMReply

    Geez people! way to waste time just telling this guy he sucks. I enjoyed the article. I'm commenting letting Eric know I enjoyed it. I like when regular people give their insights into these big events.

    I don't know why people are so angry. "I read your article and I need to tell you I didn't like it." Ok, you didn't like it. So move on or either give some constructive input as to why you didn't like it.

  • agent's assistant | March 5, 2014 2:23 AM

    I think folks here are expressing their opinions, just as the author of this piece is expressing his. One opinion isn't any greater (or angrier) than the other, quite frankly. The ruse is believing it is.

  • don | March 4, 2014 2:22 PMReply

    Great piece. I would like to see more of this type of reporting. The Oscars are part of Americana. Your article shows why.

  • actual agent | March 5, 2014 2:29 AM

    Don, YOU have written the most truthful, no-BS line here. And that's not necessarily a good thing.

  • John | March 4, 2014 2:00 PMReply

    Oh MY! YOU attended the OSCARS?? Ohohohohoho that's so COOL!!

    Oh, wait. But you DIDN'T have a good time. WOW. You're like, deep. So removed from all that crass commercialism. You should TOTALLY make movies, you be so awesome. You could bring the "art form" BACK!!!

    Why are squandering your obvious natural born talents writing internet criticism on a five-year-old Sony Vaio laptop in Starbucks in NYC when there are craven HACKS making a perfectly legal living in sunny Hollywood? Life is unfair.

  • James S. | March 4, 2014 9:28 PM

    Why should he shut up, Robert Maier? For sarcastically drawing out the truth of this article? John's response is hilarious. Your's, however, is of the petulant, ad hominem variety. I hope you didn't leave any of your toys behind.

  • Robert Maier | March 4, 2014 4:19 PM

    Shutup.

  • Indie Film Minute | March 4, 2014 12:56 PMReply

    Its easy to criticize the Oscar culture of Hollywood, but every once in a while, it is healthy to put aside the jaded thoughts and just enjoy the moment. In fact, there was a lot to celebrate for the indie world in this years Oscar whirlwind. 12 Year a Slave, The great Docs (all deserving of their attention), Blue Jasmin (I don't know, is woody Indie?), DBC celebrated through the really great performance of both Jared and Matthew. In the end the celebration of film, Hollywood or indie, serves us all. The attention, the glamour, the simple promotion of the world of film that we love, fuels the audience and future creativity alike.

    A fine article. Thanks!

  • Guest | March 5, 2014 3:12 AM

    Of course Allen is indie. He makes his films on a shoestring, and often don't make profits, except for recently Midnight in Paris and now Blue Jasmine.

  • remer | March 4, 2014 12:09 PMReply

    Some people do not realize how much of americn culture is displayed in the Oscar's ceremony. You brought this out. Thanks

  • nate | March 4, 2014 12:06 PMReply

    What a great piece. I was always wondering what it would be to in the theater. You brought us there.

  • fruma | March 4, 2014 12:04 PMReply

    Great piece. I felt I was there!

  • threse | March 4, 2014 12:14 PM

    Your vulgarity just covers you envy. The article is truly a complement of what we watched onTV. Thanks Eric.

  • Kevin | March 4, 2014 10:56 AMReply

    This was an enjoyable long-read! Good job.

  • Sydney Levine | March 4, 2014 10:49 AMReply

    I loved reading this article. I caught your excitement in the way I would experience it too if I were lucky enough to score a ticket. My feelings about the AA are a mirror to yours exactly!!

    Thanks!

  • Yikes | March 4, 2014 10:39 AMReply

    How's the view from up inside your own asshole?

  • Sydney Levine | March 4, 2014 10:50 AM

    De-Guel-Ass. That's French. Look it up and learn something.

  • Sara | March 4, 2014 10:34 AMReply

    Reading this article is like being forced to watch an unedited version of the Oscars night. Tedious and lacking in insight. Thanks.

  • Seamus Beoirgra | March 4, 2014 10:24 AMReply

    What a genuinely retarded headline to a self-satisfied story about hob-nobbing.

  • Ben | March 4, 2014 1:54 PM

    Truth.