“Grateful applause, please,” a booming voice announced to the people sitting in the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood last night, as the 91st Academy Awards returned from a commercial break. A prompt like that is standard practice for any live televised audience — celebrities aside, our role was to remind the people watching at home that this was supposed to be fun — but it felt particularly emblematic of this year’s awards season, which has been rife with controversy and ineptitude and tedium. Something about the word “grateful” made it sound like the Academy was scolding us for having been so rude, so inconveniently opinionated in the lead-up to the show itself: You insolent, minimally talented horrors, you’ll take our show and you’ll be grateful. What other choice do you have?
I’ve said this before, to varying degrees of reader disgust, but I don’t like movies. They’re too long, I’m not smart enough to understand most of them, and I think they’re too frequently used by dummies to signal that actually, they’re geniuses because they totally “get” A Clockwork Orange. I could go the rest of my life without someone asking me, “Wait, you haven’t seen Gone With the Wind????” to which I usually respond that no, I don’t need to watch racists be beautiful. But I love awards shows, and especially the Oscars.
I believe in the feeling. Acceptance speeches make me cry; I swim in the ebullience of others when they win awards that I will never get close to even holding; I love a big useless outfit, an unreasonable shoe, a mom sitting on the balcony crying when her daughter wins. Awards show pablum, small talk, tepid jokes? Fuck me up!! So when my editor told me to attend this year, I was thrilled at the opportunity to watch the sausage be stuffed into its casing, while somewhat concerned it would ruin sausages for me entirely.
For such an iconic awards show, the Oscars have had a really miserable few years. In 2017, they accidentally announced that La La Land, a movie about white people inventing jazz, had won for Best Picture when the actual winner was in fact Moonlight, a movie that will make you cry for the rest of your life. Last year’s ceremony lasted more than four hours, anointed a completely unremarkable Best Picture (The Shape of Water, in case you forgot, which I definitely did!), and achieved the distinction of being the least-watched Oscars in history. The lead-up to this year’s awards — owing to many, many bad decisions and subsequent reversals of those bad decisions — was absolute hell. I hoped that being physically present at the Oscars this year might either be entertaining enough to remind me why I like these freak shows to begin with or, at least, give me a not-quite-front-row seat to the oncoming train wreck that all signs pointed toward.
For us normies, just getting to the security checkpoint meant waiting in a 20-minute line that curled around the building. (Iconic Top Model judge J. Alexander was in line right in front of me, which must have been a huge bummer for iconic Top Model judge J. Alexander.) Once we were inside, it all felt surprisingly sincere and intimate. The auditorium looked like the venue where we held my junior prom, and the vibe matched — right down to a sort-of filthy carpet, people taking their heels off by 7 p.m., and a bunch of gals wearing poofy dresses and excitedly asking one another, “What happens next?” believing that their year at this yearly event was going to be the most important year.
I am pleased to report that yes, the stars did indeed all come out to shine and that Michelle Yeoh is an absolute snack in person. I regret to inform you that I accidentally stepped on Serena Williams’ dress when I was admiring her waist (SORRY, but like, WOW), and that Brie Larson is the kind of person who loudly talks at someone on FaceTime in a crowded bar without headphones. These are the kinds of insights you just don’t get when you’re watching from home.
I was seated in the first mezzanine, where there were hardly any celebrities at all, but it didn’t mean the people around me weren’t influential and rich. Other than nominees and garden-variety famouses, most Oscar attendees are investors, producers, Important Movie Folk, and Academy members. If you’re lucky enough to be allowed to buy a ticket for hundreds of dollars, you’ve purchased a very expensive way to drink Francis Ford Coppola–label wine and eat cookies and prawn crackers. The man seated in front of me was busy texting someone to let her know that he would not be bringing her to the Vanity Fair Oscars party, though I hear it might not be that great anyway.
The bathroom on the main floor was filled with all the famous cool girls, and ended up being the place where Allison Janney, Brie Larson, and Emma Stone met up to be beautiful and whisper to one another. “Allison, do you need anything?” Larson asked, to which Janney said yes. “What?” Stone asked. “What do you got?” Janney replied, and everyone laughed. I half-expected one of them to whip a joint out of their bra. Stars! They’re just like us.
But at the event itself, there were two distinct Oscars ceremonies going on. The first was the ceremony happening onstage, the audience in their seats, the telecast you watched at home. Everything was just so pure. People believed in the nominees, they gave a standing ovation to nearly everything, and they sang along intently to “Shallow,” gasping softly when Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper got so close to kissing and yet regrettably did not. A woman near me held her phone, zooming in and out on a photo she had taken of Jennifer Lopez’s beatific face on the red carpet, sighing rhythmically. Every joke got a far bigger laugh in the audience than it sounded like on television. These people loved movies, loved celebrities, loved art, loved both pomp and circumstance.
The other, less pure Oscars was happening at the bar in the theater lobby, and at the satellite bar in another room, where the ceremony was broadcast on TV and rich people went to talk to other rich people. It was cynical and drunk and rude, a near-caricature of what everyone imagines movie industry types are like when no one is paying attention. One man gave a bartender the Oscars program as a tip, which she politely accepted and then quietly threw in the garbage once he walked away with his ginger ale. A woman in an enormous black tulle gown, with two distinctly gigantic diamonds on her right hand, asked me what award they were currently handing out, it being too loud near the bar to hear anything. “Looks like a short,” she said. “Who cares, right?”
After Black Panther won for Best Original Score, the man she was with muttered, “Now Kendrick Lamar will be sorry he didn’t come,” as if Kendrick Lamar doesn’t have a Pulitzer Prize he could spend his time with instead. I had no idea who most of these people were, but they were definitively white and obsessed with Green Book. This room murmured appreciatively when Rami Malek talked about making a movie about a queer man — despite the fact that this particular movie largely sidestepped the queerness of that man — and everyone seemed to be happily ignoring that Bohemian Rhapsody has been mired in controversy because its director has been repeatedly accused of rape and sexual misconduct.
If whatever was happening in the auditorium itself was intended to be like magic — hopeful and glamorous, with seams unseen to the naked eye — then the bar was a hideous dose of reality. Going back and forth between the two gave me a kind of whiplash; one minute I was tearing up watching Olivia Colman win for Best Actress, and then the next I was finding out that Octavia Spencer entered the fucking Oscars lottery to win a seat at the awards, even though she executive produced the Best Picture winner and is a former winner herself.
Such is the core tension for so many of us watching the Oscars, for some reason, every year. We know the Academy’s version of progress is slow and frustrating. We know that while winners are getting more diverse than ever, not all roles are created equal. Wasn’t it nice to see Spike Lee remind everyone to “do the right thing”? Except, you know, they definitely won’t.
It’s no wonder that the Oscars, as a tradition and an institution, are struggling with an identity crisis. Do you want to be an awards show that recognizes people like Black Panther costume and production designers Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, both the first black people to ever win in their respective categories? Do you want to enjoy Awkwafina and John Mulaney marveling at how exciting this all is? (Mulaney is, by the way, extremely hot in person and that alone is going to require weeks of personal recovery.)
Or, instead, do you want to lean into cynicism? Because this is, after all, about movies, the most cynical show business of all, and one historically controlled in part by alleged serial abusers who ruin people’s lives and careers in countless different ways. Watching the Oscars from a seat in the mezzanine lifts your spirit and makes you feel drunk off everyone’s excitement and success. Watching it from the bar outside just makes you want to get drunk.
The Academy likes to talk about this ceremony as if an Academy Award is something that anyone can work toward, thus seeing a dream fulfilled. Hold your hairbrush and recite your speech in front of the mirror! But when you see both versions of the Oscars happening simultaneously — the surface and the underbelly, sitting right next to each other — it’s much harder to believe in that dream. How can you trust people who clapped harder for Viggo Mortensen playing a white savior than for Spike Lee leaping into Samuel L. Jackson’s arms? One version of the Oscars is beautiful, and one is the truth.
Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that the Oscars really didn’t need a host after all. I’m glad we sorted that out. It was important. ●
The language in this piece has been updated to clarify that Octavia Spencer said she got a seat through the Oscars lottery before being offered tickets by the studio once Green Book was nominated.