HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 27 -- Oscar night, people in Los Angeles often say, is to Hollywood what Christmas is to the rest of America, which means people gripe a lot about the loss of its true meaning, and spend a big part of the night remembering when it was better, simpler -- and the rest of us say, oh bosh. (Most other Christmas rules apply to Oscar time, too: Better not pout. Shop till you drop. Naughty, nice, whatever.) And just like that other holiday, you wind up believing in it at the very last minute, despite your crotchetyness.
It's the girliest night in the world, even if you're in a tuxedo. Like now, leaning in for a look at the high pageantry of the red carpet: The high wattage of celebrity arrivals, as the limousines are carefully choreographed toward the corner of Hollywood and Highland in the breezy, gently cool late afternoon.
We've got a blimp, we've got helicopters and, of course, we've got European paparazzi threatening to kill one another. Peace on Earth, packaged breasts covered in body makeup, steely-eyed publicists, bomb dogs, spray-on tans, Adam Duritz dressed like a clown. ("You haven't even seen my green shoes," the pop singer shouts to a television camera.)
"It looked like it would keep me warm," Best Actress nominee Hilary Swank says about her midnight blue Guy Laroche frock, which covers her chest and shoulders. But, um, Hilary, the back is cut open to your derriere. "Oh, yeah, that," she says to us, and to Us, and then turns around. "Can you see goose bumps?"
"Oh, well," Swank says and is led away by her publicist.
If you just treat all this like someone's overdone Christmas (and yes, we're going to extend that metaphor), the red carpet is where the presents get unwrapped, and Star Jones Whatever (Reynolds, awright) is cooing and fondling the goods, while Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, suggest, like loudmouth crazy aunts, what presents should be taken back.
Army Archerd, the 83-year-old Daily Variety columnist, is atop his traditional platform midway down the carpet as he has been for 40-plus Oscar nights, just a few paces from our own jealously jostled-for elbow room, and only now it occurs to us: Army Archerd is like a mall Santa, and he's slowly losing it, getting names and nominations wrong.
And the Kodak Theatre is but a theater wrapped in a mall. The red draperies hide Auntie Anne's Pretzels and a Hot Topic clothes store from view. You do believe, you do believe. (But stop worrying, children: There is no Mel Gibson and the baby Jesus joke coming.)
There is no better place to feel like a small, small person than here, on the non-famous side of the thigh-high greenery hedges that border the red carpet. It's a reminder of the order of things, of the world as stars would prefer it. Disembarking from their limos at the hangar-size entry tent, celebrities can choose one of two paths -- to walk down the side facing the press and photographers, or to walk down the side where bleachers of fans will generously scream at anyone they recognize.
So: Press gantlet? Or pure worship?
Yes, we thought so. Please know this: Most celebrities still choose the side with the media exposure. How can they not? It's where the contract of red carpetdom is fulfilled: Designers are plugged, pithy expressions of a practiced humility are spoken, publicity is free.
"You gotta have Tic-Tacs," says Sam Rubin, a reporter for KTLA-TV who has done red carpet duty for the last "1,000 years," he says, and he lays out little boxes of Tic-Tacs along the hedge, like movie star bait. "It works every time."
Morgan Spurlock, who is up for his documentary "Super Size Me" (he's the guy who ate nothing but McDonald's hamburgers and fries for a month) walks by with his dolled-up vegan fiancee. "I dress a lot better these days," Spurlock says, making note of his Ted Baker tux and purple-paisley necktie. "This sort of suits my style better. And they gave it to me. Before all this, I couldn't get anyone to give me a nickel."
"The aroma of Beyonce," Rubin shouts into his microphone, to his viewers, as the pop diva nears in her black Versace -- before heading in to who knows how many outfit changes for all the songs she's going to perform. "She is so close you can smell her."
Laura Linney is describing her getting-ready process, especially her J. Mendel gown in a shade of taupe. "It arrived, I put it on." (Genius work!) Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas (still here, still invited) come next. Griffith, in Donatella Versace, is walking with a cane. She says she got mad and kicked a door.
Natalie Portman comes our way, wearing Alber Elbaz, in a shade of jet lag, she says. Then Leonardo DiCaprio. Then Clive Owen. These are the ones you want to touch, if it weren't for the imminent threat of security guard violence. (And hats off to Shorty, the enormous man with cornrows who follows Beyonce around. They make tuxedos really, really big.)
Each year's red carpet spectacle seems to bring fresh evidence that it's all gone too far. Last week, a fashion critic at the Los Angeles Times looked into the increasing number of celebrities who sign exclusive deals, months in advance, to don only the clothes and baubles of certain designers and jewelers -- right down to their underwear. Celebrities used to lend their bodies on Oscar night in return for free clothes or loaner jewels. Now they want six-figure checks upfront; publicists and tastemakers find themselves shut out of the game.
The selling of celebrity bodies as advertising space wouldn't be a big crisis, except that it punctures one of the last myths of red carpetland -- the shred of belief that stars have a sense of personal style. That ultimately they are in control of how they look, or what they wear. And where they go, and what they do.
But let us take the advice of our new momentary friend DiCaprio, quick before he's gone: "You have to sort of separate from reality."
They keep coming and coming -- more famous people than you've ever seen up close in your life, the tiniest people, possessing the largest presence. You spend a nanosecond speaking to Andrew Lloyd Webber, only to have Halle Berry sneak by. There is no pace, only gridlock. "Feel?" Scarlett Johansson asked, when asked how she feels -- looking more and more starlet all the time, except for what appears to be a wacky mishap with a home perm kit. "I feel like I can't breathe," she said. "But I feel glamorous."