This essay was originally posted on Indiewire a year ago. We figured in honor of tonight’s Oscars, it was worth a re-post here.
Depending on your definition, I either lost my Oscars virginity 72 hours ago or 23 years ago. In terms of full-on Oscars penetration — a seat inside the ceremony itself — I was deflowered this past Sunday night. But less literally, it all went down when I was five years old. I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs to find my mother watching something on television. I sincerely remember this moment, asking her what she was watching to the response: “It’s a special show where they give out prizes to people in the movies.”
It was the year “Driving Miss Daisy” won best picture — coincidentally a win referenced constantly this year because it did so without a best director nomination, a feat that didn’t happen again until Michelle Obama read “Argo” from that envelope a few nights ago. I surely had no idea what “Driving Miss Daisy” even was, let alone the even less child-friendly films that it was competing against (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “My Left Foot”). But there was one movie nominated that night that I had most definitely seen: “The Little Mermaid.”
It’s kind of embarassing that one of the first memories I have of anything is a Paula Abdul-choreographed televised dance number involving lots of mermaid costumes and bad early ’90s hair, but here it lies in glorious YouTube salvaging:
“Under The Sea” ended up winning for best original song, and the film’s score won too. And my personal emotional investment in “The Little Mermaid” led me to nervously root for both as Dudley Moore and Paula Abdul (yep) read the nominees and then opened the envelope. And that was that. I’ve watched every Oscars ever since, the next dozen or so with disconcerting anticipation (back then they were on Mondays, and my mom would let me take the day off school because “I was too excited” — that’s actually what she’d write on my note the next day). There’d be an annual Oscar party my mother would host at our house, and I’d organize the pool which I’d almost always win (though in another mortifying memory, I hysterically cried when my aunt Audrey won the pool in 1992 because I’d picked “Bugsy” and she’d picked “The Silence of the Lambs”).
Eventually, magically even, this childhood obsession turned into a way to make a living. When I started working for Indiewire six years ago, my then-bosses Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks seemed impressed and/or frightened by my Oscar-related enthusiasm and made me the website’s resident prognosticator.
By that time I’d admittedly become a lot more jaded when it came to the big O. I was in the middle of a university degree where I double majored in cinema studies and sexual diversity studies when “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain.” Heightened levels of film snobbery mixed with an even more elevated sensitivity toward institutionalized homophobia of any kind did not go over well that night. I even vowed to never watch the Oscars again. And though a year later I predictably didn’t keep that vow, I became of two minds when it came to the Academy Awards: One that held the same innocent enthusiasm of my five year-old self that simply loved the pageantry and emotion of a big ol’ fashioned awards show, and another very different, much more critical mind that felt embarrassed to have such a connection to an event that was so political, so unrepresentative of the “best,” and so reinforcing of the status quo when it came to gender, race and sexuality.
All that being said, I can’t say I haven’t loved being Indiewire’s Oscar guy most of the time. Making lists and predictions that people actually read and following all the ups and downs of the awards season rollercoaster. It’s incredibly fun, and moreover — I started getting paid for something that had always been my hobby, and isn’t that the dream? But there was always a creeping guilt underneath it that came on full-force toward the end of every awards season, where by the time Oscar night actually rolled around I wondered if five year old Oscar geek Peter had officially been murdered by crabby college kid Peter.
But this year, a phone call from my editor Dana Harris changed my tune. We had two tickets to the actual ceremony, and one was mine if I wanted it. In that instant, I could feel five year old Oscar geek Peter coming back from the grave and effectively telling that crabby college kid that this was not his moment to steal. I guess there’s no cure for jadedness like being invited to the ball. And in all seriousness, it’s nice to have been able to feel like it was okay not to take this too seriously for once. To just let it be fun. Because, really, it’s the Oscars. It is pageantry and emotion. It’s a show. One I had an actual ticket to!
Anne Thompson — our editor-at-large, a veteran Oscar journalist and the mind behind Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood blog — also got a ticket, and I was grateful to have her at my side for most of the night. Not only is she a fun time, but she also knew the ropes (check out her take on the evening here). Without her, I surely would have ended up getting lost somewhere in the mammoth labyrinth of checkpoints, carpets and cocktails and never made it to my seat.
Anne came and met me at my weekend digs at the officially named “Comfort Inn By The Hollywood Walk of Fame,” which while far from glamorous, is conveniently located just 5 or 6 blocks from the Dolby Theater. Potentially the only two people who literally walked to the Oscars, we got to the baracade at Sunset and Highland and waved down one of a good dozen police officers guarding Oscar central from a mix of tourists, paparazzi and Fred Phelps-followers holding trademark “God Hates Fags” signs (I guess in honor of the Oscars nominating Tony Kushner and “How To Survive a Plague”…can’t we lock these people up, already?). The police checked our credentials and then escorted us up 500 feet of closed off road to the edge of the red carpet.
This is when things starting getting crazy. We stood waiting to be motioned onto the carpet, with Anne Hathaway and Adele both getting out of their limos something like 15 feet from us. People from all sides are screaming various celebrities’ names as you push along through a maze of red, through metal detectors and onto the main stretch of the carpet. On the left walk the A-listers that make various stops with the red carpet pre-show folks. On the right — which is where I was rightfully led — walks everyone else. Anne (Thompson, not Hathaway) told me to try and walk as slowly as possible and take it all in — which was difficult to pull off when a seemingly endless array of different Academy employees kept popping up to aggressively tell us to move along. Or to stop taking photos. Even though literally hundreds of official photographers were shooting the V.I.P. half of red carpet on the other side of us, personal iPhone photos were not permitted. Though it was hard to find a single person adhering to the rule. I mean, for most of us this was a pretty rare and extraordinarily photo-opp-appropriate context. I don’t think I’ve seen so many selfies being taken at the same time in the same place.
We finally got into the Dolby Theater, where for one last stretch of red carpet the A-list/no-list segregation was removed and we all walked as one. I stood in awe as the likes of Adele, Emmanuelle Riva, Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Quvenzhané Wallis (dog purse in tow!) walked alongside us. Jessica Chastain and her grandmother even stopped to talk to Anne, with Ms. Chastain being as angelic and sweet as you’d expect (I just stood awkwardly behind Anne, smiling like an idiot and trying to sneak a photo).
Then we were led up some stairs and into a circle-shaped lobby where basically everybody attending the ceremony stood in a giant blob of gowns and tuxedos, sucking back hors d’oeuvres and champagne. We had like 20 minutes until the show started, which I utilized for a much needed trip to the bathroom. I felt sorry for my opposite sex as I walked past the epic line to the ladies room (where Naomi Watts was probably 40th in line, with her husband Liev Schreiber keeping her company) and to the mens line, where exactly three people were waiting to use one of 10 luxury urinals: myself, John Stamos and Eddie Redmayne. When all three of us finally got the go-ahead, I ended up smack dab in the middle of them. I don’t think I’ve ever stared so motionlessly and directly in front of myself.
An announcer warned we had 6 minutes to find our seats or we would be locked out of the theater until the first commercial break, so I found Anne and we high-tailed it up four giant flights of stairs to our seats on the second mezzazine. They were literally one row in front of the furthest row from the stage, but I wasn’t about to complain. We were seated next to close friends of one of the members of the “Skyfall” sound editing team, and a definite highlight came later on when that film was the second one announced to have tied for the award, with our rowmates freaking right out as a result.
There were definitely some nifty aspects to being in house. You got to see various backstage ongoings (like Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum chatting it up to the side of the stage before their ballroom dancing number or staff quietly and frantically switching over set pieces during commercial breaks), and I suspect the view also made the musical numbers much more impressive than they were on a television (I’m not a fan of “Les Miserables,” but I still got chills watching the entire cast belt out the musical’s finale while giant French flags poured down from the rafters).
The number one question I got afterwards, though, was what was really happening when Mark Wahlberg and “Ted” presented an award. The answer: A television screen showed a pre-taped clip of Wahlberg and his animated friend while Wahlberg stood on stage in the dark waiting for the camera to cut to him in real-time to open the envelope. Mysteries of live television revealed!
As for the show itself, I’ll admit I was pretty disappointed by a) the offensive and unfunny hosting job by Seth MacFarlane (I don’t need to get into that here — but read this and note that I concur); b) the extremely predictable winners in a year that seemed like it was heading to a very unpredictable finale; and c) the generally lackluster speeches (Jennifer Lawrence was all kinds of awesome backstage, but her actual speech was nothing special).
But it’s hard to really care when you’re in there. I sat still and wide-eyed for the majority of the 3 hour and 35 minute ceremony, getting up only once to investigate who was spending most of the event at the open bar in the lobby. You can leave your seat only during commercial breaks, and thus only re-enter during them as well. So I decided to skip out on about 45 minutes in the middle of the ceremony (missing Barbra Striesand but shhh…. I didn’t really care) to enjoy a few glasses of wine alongside Melissa McCarthy, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton. I didn’t speak to any of them, or really experience anything noteworthy beyond that. When you find out you have a ticket to the Oscars, it’s only reasonable to fantasize about holding Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar while she gets you both a glass of champagne. Or getting Ryan Gosling to hold up a sign that says “Gina, your brother’s drunk” that you can then photograph and post on your sister’s Facebook page to her amazement and the widespread jealousy of her 1,000 Gosling-hungry Facebook friends. But clearly none of that happened.
Instead, I headed back up to my seat to enjoy the last hour of the show, annoyed that my two great hopes of the night — that Emmanuelle Riva would win best actress and that Tony Kushner would win best adapted screenplay — both didn’t happen. And then with one word out of Michelle Obama’s mouth and a fast-paced (but highly affecting — it was my favorite of the night) speech from Ben Affleck, it was all over.
Seemingly every exit inside the Dolby Theater said in big letters “Exit Only To The Governor’s Ball” (to which I was not invited, but Anne was), so it took forever to finally find my way to the commoner’s exit. When I finally did, a confused guard told me I was going the wrong way.
“Limousine pick-up’s over there,” he said.
I explained I didn’t have a limousine — or any car for that matter — and I just need an exit to the street. He looked at me like I was crazy and pointed to an opening in the gate.
By that point I was starving — the only food available during the ceremony (at least as far as I could find) were strange little bags of nuts and seeds and individual Hershey’s kisses scattered near the bars. So when I finally found my way out of the maze, I figured why not end the night off in style at the In & Out Burger a few blocks away.
Extraordinarily out of place in my now disheveled tuxedo amidst a crowd of mostly teenagers, I waited in line with a significantly increasing desperation to eat what I was smelling.
As I waited for my order, a boy sat down beside me and cautiously kept looking over for clues that I’d attended the Oscars beyond simply my attire. He was probably 15 or 16, sporting an endearing yet unfortunate attempt at a mustache and clutching a skateboard under his left arm. After noticing the access badge in my hand with my photo on it under the Oscars logo, he somehow came to the conclusion I must have worked security at the event.
“Do I really look like I’m the right fit to work security anywhere,” I said, feeling those three glasses of wine on an empty stomach. “I weigh like 125 pounds. You could kick my ass and I was probably your age when you were born.”
I seemed to win him over with that suggestion because he gave me some sort of complex variation of a handshake, and then I explained I was a journalist who wrote about the Oscars, which inspired into him to give me a passionate rant about who should have won.
“Fucking ‘Argo,’ man,” he said. “I don’t fucking get it. I mean, Ben Affleck’s pretty cool but that movie wasn’t much of anything. ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ though — that movie was out of control! I can’t believe Jessica Chastain didn’t win. She’s the best.”
He asked if he could look at the Oscars program book I was clutching in the same fashion he was his skateboard. He started aggressively flipping through the pages and found the fold out photo of all the nominees at the Oscars luncheon.
“Holy shit it’s all of them together,” he yelled as he took out his iPhone camera, looking at me as if to ask whether I minded. I nodded and smiled as the snapshot sound went off on his phone a good dozen times.
“Man, you’re fucking lucky,” he said as then took off back to his friends.
My order was called and I grabbed my burger and fries and scarfed them down alone in a booth, looking at the same fold out that my new friend had photographed. I pulled out my own phone — not to take a photo but to check my messages. A flood of adorable texts from friends and family came in wondering how it had all gone. The highlight of which was a photo attached from a text my mother had sent me of a “wish list” we’d found in a diary I’d kept in 1991. It read:
1. Marry Winona Ryder.
2. Live in a big city.
3. Go to the Oscars.
My mother’s caption: “Two out of three ain’t bad ;)”