Doing the Oscar Bash

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RICHARD DREW/AP

French actress Juliette Binoche, right, talks with producer Harvey Weinstein

Television makes coverage of the Oscar parties seem so easy. It can flit from lavish bash to lavish bash in the wink of a mascaraed eye. But for the humble reporter in Hollywood (a dying species of which I'm clearly not a member) it is a little harder. One has to pick a maximum of two or three events per 24-hour party cycle and hope that those chosen soirées will yield moments that reflect the industry's celebrations. You might not be at the Vanity Fair party at the precise moment when Russell Crowe finally encounters Stave Martin and "thanks" him for his crack about him hitting on Ellen Burstyn, but you hope to encounter enough pieces of the Hollywood jigsaw puzzle to at least assemble part of the picture.

I visited three notable parties on the Saturday and Sunday evenings seeking the inner truth of the film industry, and I found what I came looking for. Well, I was also seeking free champagne and fancy food, so it's possible I got confused.

Saturday night's alright for sighting

The hottest ticket on the night before Oscar has become Miramax's annual pre–Academy Award party, which takes place at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, famously featured in "Pretty Woman." The company pioneered this showcase event a few years ago, modeling it on the famous pre-Grammy-night parties thrown by music mogul Clive Davis. A pre-event party has no shroud of loser gloom and allows for members of other tribes to visit. Kevin Spacey, for example, has no allegiance to Miramax Films, but he is a regular visitor to their parties. The reason for this intermingling is simple. One never knows when the informal bond that arises will pay off. Spacey may have a "vanity project" (the industry term for a quirky idea driven by a star's passion or ego) turned down by other studios. Attending parties and schmoozing with Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein lays in place a rapport that might one day be turned to advantage. For Miramax the transaction is equally simple. Spacey and others like him attract the hip-erati. Put another way, Spacey is a chic magnet.

The unique feature of the party in recent years has been the mini-pageant of movie skits in which famous actors and industry titans get up on a miniature stage in cheesy costumes to act out humorous little vignettes from the year's Best Picture nominees. The scripts are usually thin jokes, read from pages thrust into their hands as they go on stage. Many of the cracks are insider gags tailored for the glittering crowd. What it most resembles is the living room shows that six-year-olds put on for their parents and relatives. The real quality is not in the words but the charm with which they are delivered.

This year's skits included "Chocolat Tiger, Hidden Bon-Bon" with the octogenarian "Chocolat" producer David Brown hamming it as Brown Young Fat; a revised "Chocolat" with director Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields" and MTV's "Undressed") as an outlandish Satan (wearing toy-store $3 devil horns made out of crimson satin) seducing Marisa Tomei and Christina Applegate. James Woods showed his appreciation for the genre by dragging it up as "Erin Chocovitch," displaying what he conceded to me were the spindliest legs in the business. His beautiful young date seemed shell-shocked. One surmised that she'd perhaps seen his legs before, but not through a slit skirt fashioned from a hotel tablecloth. "Quills" star Geoffrey Rush sadistically lampooned his fellow Aussie Russell Crowe by appearing as a vain over-the-top gladiator, displaying even more legs and obnoxious personality than his compatriot. (Crowe showed up for the event, but not, alas, until after he had been skewered.) James Woods returned as an emperor, referring to his agent "Ten-Percentus." "Chocolat" actor Alfred Molina appeared in a "Traffic" skit and revealed himself as "lower than a drug dealer. I'm a... talent agent." The audience, including many talent agents, laughed somewhat dutifully at that one.

After the show I congratulated director Roland Joffe on his jokey performance. He told me that behind the makeshift stage all the actresses, such as Juliette Binoche, Marisa Tomei and Christina Applegate, had actually been nervous about their turns, worried that directors and executives might judge their thespian skills on these fun moments. Molina, Joffe and Rush come from British and Australian stock, and seemed to recognize the moments for what they are — "panto," the tradition of Christmas pantomime. James Woods is gloriously shameless, or perhaps recognizes the American equivalent, which is the way that Johnny Carson would portray Carnak the Magnificent. It's not about the script, just the fun of hamming it up for the audience.

I chat with Alfred Molina, who confirms that he tapped into the British love of dressing up and being silly. He asks to be excused for a minute, explaining that he'd lost his wife. "After that performance?" I ask innocently. Molina was taking a swig of his drink at that moment and my light jest catches him at the wrong moment. He doubles over to prevent the loss of drink that occurs when one laughs on an inward sip. "Good one, mate!" he sputters. "I'll tell the wife that one. If I find her..." His reputation for being a cheery soul seems well-founded.

One who doesn't seem to appreciate this particular art form is "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher. "Where are the stars?" he demands, apparently not seeing a high enough quotient. I enquire his views about the light panto on stage. "It's terrible," he opines. "I mean, I could get James Woods to wear a dress!" Since, on the face of it, this runs contrary to his long-established reputation, I leave the remark dangling. James Woods held a different perspective. "How did they get you to do it?" I asked him. "Easy," he explains. "They phoned up and asked. I'll do anything for a laugh." I didn't have the courage to ask James if he would have put on a dress for Bill Maher...

Amid the crowd I encounter "Meet the Parents" director Jay Roach exultant at that film's success. He tells me that he will start shooting the third Austin Powers film in the fall for release next summer. He exudes an enthusiastic charm. He knows he is laboring in terrain where pleasing the audience is more important than kissing up to Academy members, who usually ignore middlebrow comedy, and he seems quite comfortable with it.

Dame Judi Dench walks among the crowd with a relaxed, regal air, like a benign dowager duchess bestowing air kisses and greetings to old friends. She'd appeared in skits the previous year, and so was enjoying her night off.

Kate Hudson appears looking translucent and no older than your average teenage 'N Sync fan. She is accompanied by her new husband, Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson. I realize that this makes her Mrs. Robinson, placing a new, different perspective on that name. I chat with them about the fact that Kate's mother Goldie Hawn had eulogized the Beatles at the Academy Awards exactly 30 years ago, when they were nominated for an Academy Award for their "Let It Be" score. The disbanded Beatles were a no-show, and when they won the Oscar, Goldie Hawn's speech became the only public acknowledgement of the fact. Kate turns out to be an enthusiastic Beatle fan, but had no idea of her mother's role in Fab Four history, and was tickled to hear the story.

In the center of the ballroom sits Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein. In his speech from the stage he ruefully acknowledges that the company will probably have an empty-handed Oscar night for the first time in many years. But he rejects the view that Miramax had gone gooey with "Chocolat." "Wait till you see the first few minutes of "Gangs of New York‚" he teases, referring to the long-awaited Martin Scorsese movie, which has been shooting in Italy. This is vintage Weinstein. He turns this year's Oscar disappointment into next year's Oscar anticipation. He is part Louis B. Mayer, part P. T. Barnum. Kevin Spacey comes over to pay his respects to Weinstein, and is joshed for having shown up too late to reprise his skit participation from the previous year.

All around guests are chowing down on pancakes filled with Peking duck, carved in front of our eyes by two Chinese chefs, or on rare lamb chops passed by circulating waiters. The bar flowed champagne and cocktails all night, pausing only briefly during the stage presentation.

Russell Crowe arrives and goes into his customary mode, holding court among younger actors; he's a sort of Fonz character among the adoring young Turks. He joshes with the people who approach him, but becomes almost respectful when Steve Taylor, the producer of a local shoestring cable TV show, introduces him to "the Prince of Belgium" — a flaxen-haired man who resembles nothing so much as a middle-aged weatherman from Minneapolis.

He tells me that he is Prince Franz, presumably a distant cousin of the Leopold clan. My suspicions about the prince are heightened when he hands his consort one of those throwaway cameras and instructs her to snap a shot of him with Crowe. Certainly nothing that a real royal from Britain would do. But the Euro-royals are known to ride bikes in Holland and wait at bus stops in Spain. So perhaps having a mantelpiece snapshot with an Australian actor is part of that less starchy image.

Every party has a perfect exit point. The Gladiator posing with the Prince of Belgium seemed to be that moment.

The big night out

The Shrine auditorium seats approximately 3,000 people. And as you can tell by the voluminous list of names that stream from winners' acceptance speeches, there's barely room in the building for the nominees‚ parents, pals and agents, let alone studio executives.

So just like regular folks, actors, directors and executives not at the Oscar table want to to view the proceedings on a wide-screen TV at a party. Unlike regular folks, for whom some pizza or Chinese takeout round the TV is suffice, many celebrities gravitate to one of the viewing parties set up by charities. The blend of a big occasion and stars happy for exposure is a perfect fit — Hollywood's version of perpetual motion.

The longstanding favorite is the Night of a Hundred Stars, a fund-raiser for Martin Scorsese's Film Preservation Foundation. The night is as curiously old-fashioned as its name, and all the more charming for it. The attendees are an odd grab-bag of celebrities. Some are legitimately A-list names having a B-list year out of the Academy limelight. Others are B-list names with A-list aspirations. And some are just from the fringes of some People magazine "Where Are They Now?" list, TV stars whose aura sparkles just on Nick at Nite. The hippest partygoers are the ones who exude a happy-to-be-there joie de vivre.

I spot Cliff Robertson and Sally Kirkland... Cathy Moriarty and David Hasselhoff. Weird Al Yankovic here.... Peter Fonda there. I notice Michael Bolton dodging Darva Conger, and I see Amanda Plummer arrive with her beau Tobe Hooper, director of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." It's like watching 20 years of "Entertainment Tonight" compressed into two hours.

Whenever the Oscars go to commercial break, the party's organizer, Norby Walters, gets up to the ballroom podium and talks up the cause or introduces celebrities to polite applause. "Psycho" star Janet Leigh gets a big "oooh."

Holding court is the ebullient Gary Busey, who spouts philosophy on a more profound level than I can understand. I've met him at a few social gatherings, but I was unprepared for his greeting. "Let's get together sometime and talk about art and life; then we can dance like baboons." The meaning of this eluded me, and I queried him gently. "Dance like buffoons," he told me correcting my hearing. This made even less sense to me, but Busey is such a charismatic figure that one assumes that one's total lack of comprehension is because he is on A Whole Other Level. He gives me his card. It says: "Gary Busey. Since 1944..." I promise to call him.

Jeffrey Tambor, who played Larry Sanders sidekick Hank Kingsley, is there looking tan and engaged. He proudly introduces a beautiful Polish girl as his fiancée. He has shaved off his trademark moustache, perhaps because his semi-bald-head-and-moustache look has been stolen by that strange quasi-therapist who crops up daily on "Oprah."

I wander out to the small smokers' den outside. There perched on a wall with a pneumatic blonde is the unmistakable figure of Rick James, dreadlocks regrown and looking rather portly. When he was last seen, in the final segment of his VH1 "Behind The Music" documentary, he was Redemption Rick. Short-haired, proudly clean and sober and trim. He looked rather the worse for wear last night. Perhaps he is on his way to becoming the first musician to have a second edition of the show dedicated to him.

Outside the ballroom there are a panoply of TV crews. I wander around and see Robert Wuhl, the star of HBO's "Arli$$," being interviewed by one of the crews. Elsewhere I overhear young actressy types being urged by boyfriends and/or publicists to thrust themselves before the cameras. To my surprise I spot the prince of Belgium now working with his TV producer pal as an interviewer. "I thought he was the prince of Belgium," I ask Steve Taylor. "Yuh, he is. He just likes interviewing people too." Since Britain's current generation of royals includes media-hounds such as Fergie and Prince Edward (though he asks interviewers to call him "Mr. Windsor"), I cut him some slack.

There is so much schmoozing going on that scant attention is paid to the awards themselves. But there are cheers when Soderbergh wins Best Direction. Russell Crowe's win draws mixed reactions. Some women gush with happiness. Most of the men glower. One wag at the table defends Crowe's honor as an actor, saying that Crowe's acting skills have been underrated. This produces a murmur of assent from the ladies, until the speaker adds that by this he means that Crowe had obviously fooled Meg Ryan... The defenders of The Man Who Would Be Oscar drown this remark derisively. There is no mocking allowed about Russell.

As I wander the lobby area where the media is set up, I see a familiar face under siege from some paparazzi. It is the delightful Bridget Fonda. She is wearing a flesh-colored silky dress and is gamely responding to all the requests from this very motley crew. "Turn left Bridget!" "Look this way, darlin'." Then it turns ugly. A photographer decides that he would like his picture taken with Fonda. She politely accedes to his request. Pretty soon all the snappers want their 1/30th of a second with her. This is fan behavior, quite inappropriate for professional photographers. I gaze around and see that Fonda is unchaperoned by a publicist or boyfriend.

I'm not a brave man, but I like to think I know when a damsel is in distress. I lean over and ask if she minds that she is being used as a model for next year's Christmas cards sent out by paparazzi. She shoots me a "what can I do?" smile. I sense that I cannot duck my destiny with gallantry. I utter the words that I've heard from a slew of celebrity handlers over the years. "Come on gentlemen... last two pictures. Miss Fonda is due on stage right now!"

To my astonishment, this works, and I escort Miss Fonda from the evil clutches of the paparazzi back into the ballroom. She is most grateful and we have a pleasant chat, after which we are joined by Gary Busey who shares more of what he calls his Busey-isms. Bridget (we're old pals after five minutes' conversation) knows Gary and recounts some of her favorite Gary Busey acronyms. BIBLE, it transpires, stands for something about "Information Before Leaving Earth." In the din of the ballroom I can't make out the first word beginning with B. I worry that it is Baboon or Buffoon, but feel too embarrassed to ask.

Having rescued Bridget from the hands of the media and delivered her unto Gary Busey, I sense that I have reached the pinnacle of this party, and head out into the Beverly Hills night air for my final encounter of the night.

Last stand at Spago

Throughout the 1980s the key Oscar night party was held at Hollywood's hottest restaurant, Spago. When super-agent Swifty Lazar passed on, a range of other parties took its place, including the current favorites of Vanity Fair and Elton John. But to many people nothing captures the Oscar party mood more than the quirkily shaped restaurant. With the Hollywood venue having been supplanted in industry affections by the Beverly Hills branch of Spago, Oscar night was going to be the last big party thrown at the legendary original restaurant before it is closed by Puck.

The bash was hosted by Los Angeles magazine, a glossy monthly dedicated to celebrating the cultural best of this disparate town.

The cause benefiting from the night was Children Uniting Nations, a charity that, according to the press release, "was established to protect children who have no voice in the world.... whose fragile lives are being abused and lost by the millions due to uncertainties utterly out of their control."

It is hard, even in a cynical town like Hollywood, to find people against such a cause, so I encounter quite a few stars. For the main part these were folks apparently not hip enough to be swooned over by the Vanity Fair mob, but whose presence this charity clearly cherished.

In the parking lot was Tom Arnold, chomping on his perennial cigar and calling everyone "buddy." There is no such thing as a truly rhetorical question in Hollywood, so his response to my "How are you?" yielded the past weekend's grosses for his latest film, "Exit Wounds." Arnold's reply was quite the norm in this town. After all, you are what you gross. (For what it's worth, he actually looked pretty healthy too.)

Inside the famed restaurant a slew of familiar faces jostled for the trademark smoked salmon pizzas and other Wolfgang Puck delicacies. On a stage area the lead Sledge of Sister Sledge was leading the crowd and a Washington school kid choir in a rousing version of her signature hit "We Are Family." She lured onstage a sprinkling of other entertainers, including Halle Berry, though Halle resisted attempts to get her to sing into the microphone.

An array of familiar faces trooped onto the stage to receive awards honoring them for their contributions to the cause. Steve Guttenberg for financial contributions. Ed Begley Jr. for speaking out on the environment that kids will inherit. Begley spoke about driving to the event in his famous electric car.

Outside on the red carpet there was the usual array of TV crews and journalists, all eager for a bite out of the celebrities as they strolled down the aisle.I spotted one TV interviewer who was using a most unusual ploy to capture the eye of passing celebrities, who usually want to go straight inside a party.

His name was Colin Paterson and he was a Scotsman representing Britain's "Big Breakfast Show." He was wearing a very fetching kilt, and getting all sorts of unusual looks. I asked him if it had actually helped him secure any interviews. Apparently it had got him appreciative looks more than soundbites. He told me that he'd rather enjoyed the moment when an eager publicist had come down the line offering Quentin Tarantino's dad for an interview. He had even interviewed the father of the former wunderkind director in the hopes it would earn him brownie points on the next star. But alas, David Hasselhoff swept right by him. Perhaps it was because the "Baywatch" star hadn't recognized the colors of the Hasselhoff clan on the kilt...

Meanwhile, back onstage, TV host Byron Allen introduced a couple of young children who spoke eloquently of how it felt to be taken for granted in an unfair world. Moments later Allen reappeared to introduce a young boyband called No Authority, just signed up by Madonna's record label.

Four white kids in suitable Backstreet Boys mode strode onto the stage and performed some slickly choreographed pop confections. Perhaps this was a subtle underscoring of the message of the evening. Four young lads adrift in the world... "fragile lives" needing some mature sensible parenting and a role model for how to be grown-up. Step forward the ultimate mother-hen Madonna. Always willing to take young boys under her angelic wings.

I chatted with the group in the parking lot as they waited for their limo to take them home. I discovered that they were not as raw as they had been made to seem. In fact, they had been going five years and had been previously signed to the record label run by.... Michael Jackson! But they had left Michael because after his initial gush of enthusiasm, they felt neglected.

After being picked up then discarded by Michael Jackson, then picked up again by Madonna, these kids had obviously had a rough time.

Now the words about the charity in the press release seemed more resonant: "To protect children who have no voice in the world.... whose fragile lives are being abused and lost due to uncertainties utterly out of their control." Around the parking lot, things were winding down. The group Hanson arrived. It's now four or five years since the three brothers first burst on the scene, and that has brought adolescence. Even so, there was something bizarre about seeing the guy who was the cute young singer in the group chatting up a girl in her late teens. It was as though a Rubicon had been crossed. The End of the Innocence! The middle Hanson brother is now old enough to date!

On the other side of the parking lot there was gridlock. Celebrities waiting for their cars were being delayed because the valet parking people couldn't start Ed Begley's environmentally safe electric car! He hastened over to them and gave them instructions. "They never get it right!" he said good-naturedly. "They always forget the code..." Finally the metallic silver car was roused from its standby mode and Begley and his wife sped off silently, looking like the Jetsons headed home after a night at the Oscars.

In the parking lot a vivacious woman caught my English accent and nodding her head toward a bearded man standing next to her, inquired if I knew that I was in the presence of a legend?! As it happens, I recognized the figure as '60s/'70s musician Dave Mason from previous encounters. The woman, one Laurie Henry (who described herself as his publicist), then proceeded to give me that purest of Hollywood art forms, the pitch: This parking lot encounter had been preordained. The movie "Traffic" had won four Oscars that night — and here I was standing with one of the co-founders of the legendary rock group Traffic! (This was a stretch, and one of 12-seater-limo proportions!) Her final statement would win the Oscar for Outstanding Publicity Pitch (While Being Upstanding... Barely.) She proceeded to tell me that Hanson, the group I had just seen entering Spago, had just been determined to be Big Fans of Dave Mason and Traffic. (An influence I freely confess that I had not detected in their records.)

Here, looking embarrassed by this well-meaning publicist's words, was a musician who really had been a major contributor to late-'60s-early-'70s rock, and he was being shilled in a parking lot on the coincidence of a current movie title being the same as his band's name 30 years earlier! And the dubious claim of being an inspiration to a one-hit-wonder teen group whose claim to fame four years ago was a song called "Mmmmmmbop."

My Hollywood jigsaw puzzle was complete. It was time to go home.