Attending the Academy Awards can feel like cracking the code to a 3D simulation. Inside, it’s the same show everyone else sees, an elegant and self-aggrandizing industry showcase captured through a rose-tinted lens. But a more nuanced impression emerges in the hallways and staircases, near the restrooms, and especially by the bar. Winners hover on cloud nine; others muse on more practical next steps. Even when the artists know their work transcends Oscar-friendly narratives, they want to win — or feel trapped by the drama of whether they will.
Paul Thomas Anderson hustled up a tight corridor at the Dolby Theater as the Academy Awards returned from a commercial break. The stage was a few feet away, on the side of two heavy wooden doors. Through the slight opening between them, bright lights illuminated the edge of that ostentatious stage, with the diamonds that Jimmy Kimmel joked were metaphors for “humility.” Future screenplay winner Jordan Peele was visible in the front row, his white tuxedo beaming in the incandescent light.
Suddenly, the show began again and the window into this utopian celebration slammed shut. Anderson and a few other stragglers found themselves, like viewers around the world, turning their attention to a small television hanging on the wall. Nobody could enter the theater until the next break. “Shoot,” Anderson said with a sigh. “Guess we’ll have to watch it out here.” He looked visibly exasperated when it became clear that the next category was Best Supporting Actress, where his “Phantom Thread” star Lesley Manville landed an unexpected nomination.
Meanwhile, the corridor was getting crowded. I was pressed against a wall as “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan squeezed into the space alongside Anderson, sipped an icy beverage, and dropped her voice to a whisper as the nominees were announced. A woman trailed behind the actress, holding the train of her pink dress high. As the clips played, everyone watched in silence. The opening scene of “Lady Bird” played, showing Ronan bickering with her mother, supporting actress nominee Laurie Metcalf. Anderson turned to Ronan. “Hey,” he said softly, “that’s you!” Ronan grinned and said nothing.
Finally, Mahershala Ali announced that Alison Janney, the frontrunner for months, won for her exuberant portrayal of Tonya Harding’s mother in “I, Tonya.” Anderson’s stubbled face betrayed no emotion. He stared at the screen and clapped silently, as if his hands were made of mud. When another commercial break arrived, he sighed. “OK,” he said, moving toward the luminous room, “let’s go smile for the cameras.”
Even as Oscar season wore people down, the phenomenon took on new dimension as the clamor for social progress raised the stakes. Frances McDormand’s speech for Best Actress won the night, with her extraordinary call for all the female nominees in the room to stand, and her resonant declaration that all projects should have an inclusion rider.
Her statement was rousing and genuine, but it only captured a fragment of the larger conundrum for many artists in the room: Everyone is compelled to climb the ranks and accumulate awards or box office, whichever comes first. But is it worth it when, for so many, chasing larger projects comes at the cost of creative autonomy?
Out in the Dolby lobby’s bar, a prominent actor who had just lost in his category mused on the many filmmakers he saw move on to projects that disinterested him. He asked for anonymity. “The system doesn’t support people working, just making money,” he said. “It just wants you to pop-pop-pop.”
The Oscars’ gold-plated shine deflects such negativity. Filmmakers may have pure creative intentions, but they revere the prize as if it exists on another plane. At the bar on the bottom floor, Syrian filmmaker Faras Fayyad watched the ceremony on a flat screen, his harrowing activist portrait “Last Men in Aleppo” having lost in the documentary category an hour earlier. His producer barely made it into the country in time for the show, having struggled to get a visa after last-minute complications with the Trump administration. “I told him not to expect anything tonight,” Fayyad said. He recalled finishing film school by jotting down a list of goals for the years to come, including several major film festivals — Sundance, Cannes, Berlin — and the Oscars. “Actually, it just said ‘Oscar,’” Fayyad said, not specifying a nomination or win.
Of course, “Last Men in Aleppo” exists in a different ecosystem than the bright lights and large-scale productions often identified as metrics for success. Within that gap — between authentic storytelling and the crasser allure of fame — lies the underlying challenge of the industry, and thus the Oscars themselves. The costly, non-stop campaign trail can endanger the most resilient creative minds, but the awards are also a symbolic representation of what it means to find a happy medium between art and commerce.
Back in the corridor, Helen Mirren watched on the monitor as Kimmel surprised moviegoers at the TCL Chinese Theatre, joined by sandwich-carrying nominees. She cracked up. “I always said they should do this!” she said. A show producer sped by. “Did it work?” she asked. “Is it funny?” Mirren shot back, “The audience went absolutely nuts!”
Matthew McConaughey showed up and joined the gathering crowd, complimenting Mirren on her stage appearance earlier. Woody Harrelson stood a few feet away, somehow managing to inconspicuously puff on a vaporizer in tight quarters, until someone next to him asked for a hit. Mirren asked the two actors to pose for a selfie. More people wandered close to the door, waiting for the next break. Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison, who produced Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” showed up and chatted with the producers of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Both parties were up for best picture. “I feel totally chill!” she told them. “I wasn’t expecting this, odds are we aren’t gonna win, but if we do, Paul’s gonna talk. I’m fine!”
In the end, distributor Fox Searchlight got its groove back, scoring Best Picture and two acting statues, proving that some things never change: A good, well-funded campaign can still do the trick. But Guillermo Del Toro, who had toed the line of art and commerce for 25 years, took nothing for granted. “I want to dedicate this to every young filmmaker, the youth who are showing us how things are done,” he said. In other words: Don’t let the tiny gold man become your only barometer for success.
After the show at the Governors Ball, the wide-open room was decked out like a museum with stylish hors d’oeurves by Wolfgang Puck, classic movie posters, and antiquated cameras. Guests moved like flocks of starlings, converging wherever they spotted the glint of gold. Winners attempted to juggle heavy trophies with glasses of champagne and the endless stream of well-wishers eager to shake hands; the easy solution was to put the awards down, and so they poked up at tables like antennas from El Dorado. (No wonder someone tried to steal McDormand’s statue.)
In the middle of the crowd, Anderson milled about with Leslie Manville. “Are you aware of the internet meme that Cyril has become?” he asked, referring to her icy “Phantom Thread” persona. She shook her head. He smiled. “It’s fucking crazy.” The filmmaker, nominated for Best Director, seemed cheerfully disinterested in the proceedings now that he had the excuse to move on.
Nearby, Best Original Screenplay winner Jordan Peele grabbed a Heineken and mused about the future. The first African American to win the Best Original Screenplay category — for a mesmerizing genre hybrid loaded with contemporary ideas about race, no less — he had the weary look of a man at once thrilled and deflated. “I feel grateful, and inspired,” he said, “and I’m excited to put ‘Get Out’ behind me.”
All around us, attendees carried cardboard lunchboxes that the Academy placed beneath seats in the mezzanine. The collectibles featured artwork based on the Best Picture nominees: Reynolds Woodcock, transformed into a Rockwellian caricature and refining Alma’s dress in “Phantom Thread;” the near-iconic image of Daniel Kaluyya with a single tear falling down his cheek contrasted against a bold blue backdrop. The most enterprising of the crowd grabbed as many as they could.
Yet no matter how absurd the scene, winners acknowledged that the award carried weight. “It didn’t really occur to me what had happened, at first,” said 89-year-old “Call Me By Your Name” screenwriter James Ivory. “Then I felt it dragging on my arm, and I realized, ‘Oh. I won an Oscar.’”
Earlier in the evening, the delicate character study “A Fantastic Woman” won Best Foreign Language film. Director Sebastian Lelio was joined onstage by his Chilean producers, including “Jackie” director Pablo Larraín. He was beaming. “It’s not that I really care about the award,” he said, back at the bar moments later. “But I’m happy, because this will help us make more movies. I was looking out at that crowd, and thinking, ‘OK, we’re probably good for the next two or three years.”
The party continued around the corner at TAO, where Fox Searchlight’s viewing party became a late-night rager. Del Toro rolled up after midnight to kiss the ring. He spotted a producer at the door. “What the fuck, man!” he exclaimed. “We made it.” Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley, newly employed by nascent Searchlight owner Disney, mused on how the win might elevate the movie’s overseas box office. Del Toro happily hoisted up his two trophies for anyone who asked. But did this insatiable, polymathic creator, who cemented his auteur stature ages ago, actually believe the awards might help him do what he does?
Del Toro’s rich blend of gothic horror and mythic storytelling adheres to a unique vision he’s never seems to abandon. Still: “It makes a difference,” he said. “It really does.” He referred to his long-gestating adaptation of “Pinocchio,” a project that fell apart last year. (Anderson once tried to make the movie at a studio as well.) “For things like ‘Pinocchio,’ it will definitely help,” he said. “It won’t move mountains, but it will help.” With that, he turned to the exit and vanished into the night.