By Jen Chaney and Amy Argetsinger
Monday, March 8, 2010; C01
LOS ANGELES -- It starts slow, as it always does, at an hour of the day that's too early and bright for eveningwear. At 2:30 in the afternoon, not even E! is training its lenses on the arrivals. The crazy bleacher people, stuck in their seats since dawn, go berserk for the likes of poofy-haired Mary Hart and flat-ironed Steven Cojocaru, the folks who get to walk the carpet for only seconds before it's time to work it.
It begins, for real, with the arrival of Zac Efron, the made-for-TV tween idol of "High School Musical," legitimately in the house this year because of his art-house debut in "Me and Orson Welles." As he walks in, the rain starts -- pattering lightly on the translucent canopy -- and we know he's Hollywood royalty now because he breezes past with just a wave and smile.
Here on the red carpet, early signs that these Academy Awards were darned if they weren't going to be the most populist in years. Mileys mingled with the Meryls, autoworkers (subject of a nominated documentary) rubbed shoulders with Wolfgang Puck, flacking his gold-dusted chocolate Oscars.
They democratized things this year -- opening the Best Picture field up to a staggering 10 nominees, with the hopes that some of the millions of you who've stopped watching had maybe seen some of them, and would care.
The result: A red carpet pile-up as crowded and diverse as the Iowa caucuses, with seemingly as many random, hard-to-predict outcomes. If Mike Huckabee could win, well, so could "District 9"! (Not to be confused with "Nine," or "9" -- but if you're a fan, hey, welcome, it's a big tent this year.)
Mo'Nique glows in royal blue Tadashi, a flower tucked in her updo. Will the Baltimorean give a shout-out to her home state if she wins Best Supporting Actress? "Maryland knows how I feel about them, and when they know you don't have to keep shouting about it."
Her "Precious" director Lee Daniels is right behind with daughter Clara on his arm. His connection with Mo'Nique: "It's a very deep one of love and respect, almost like we're lovers without having sex."
Nice! Has he been saying that to every reporter along the line? Maybe, but we'll take it!
It's dry under the canopy but as raucous as a scene from "Drumline," and speaking of, look! It's Nick Cannon. On the arm of wife Mariah Carey, who embodies just how hard Hollywood is trying, trying, this year -- the platinum-selling diva enlisted into a mousy supporting role in a gritty indie flick ("Precious").
The high-low parade continues: Carey Mulligan, the British art-house ingenue and nominee for "An Education," suddenly a fixation for the Us Weekly-reading legions who've never seen it by virtue of maybe-dating blockbuster boytoy Shia LaBeouf. (Where is he?) Jeremy Renner, the guy you'd never heard of six months ago, already pulling the A-list heartthrob shtick of bringing as his date . . . his mom. And Anna Kendrick, one of those "Twilight" kids suddenly morphed into the Supporting Actress nominee of a total grown-up movie, "Up in the Air." Porcelain-skinned, petite in pale pink chiffon. She insists that she ate carbs today. Sure, if you say so.
Everyone look now: It's Zoe Saldana, the fabulous babe of "Star Trek" and also the fabulous babe of "Avatar," wearing a jeweled bodice, lavender satin cupping her exquisite bottom, and . . . well, some big foamy ropes of purple and black, like some weird new flora invented by James Cameron's team of CGI crypto-botanists.
Tina Fey -- isn't she a TV person? -- zips by, hair piled high. But this is still a democracy, and they still allow the documentary folk, the shorts directors, to tread the same path. Gregg Helvey, a Loudoun County native and nominee in the short film category, looks giddy if a little shaky. He has given his potential speech some thought after watching a nine-minute video from the academy on what not to say.
Penélope Cruz air kisses Mo'Nique while ABC's camera guy almost knocks over Diane Kruger. Matthew Broderick -- suddenly so gray -- with SJP, who is looking very '60s hostess, big pillows of hair in an oversize bun.
Quentin Tarantino stops by, already losing his voice. He promises the theater won't blow up "Inglourious Basterds"-style, ha ha. One of his actors, Eli Roth, divulges that the whole "Basterds" gang pre-partied at Tarantino's house -- drinks, pizza, whatever hipster vinyl QT was spinning.
"We're wasted," Roth explains.
Kristen Stewart, with long fake eyelashes and a grand lady black dress, sighing ever so slightly, winces more than smiles as she poses for a photo. Waves of teen angst. Maybe it's not just brilliant acting in those "Twilight" movies after all.
Sandra Bullock stops by in shimmery Marchesa. We ask how she feels about possibly being the first person to win both a Razzie and an Oscar in the same weekend -- which she eventually did -- and God bless her, she's owning it.
"I'm also the first person to buy 300 'All About Steve' DVDs," the gift she handed out when she gamely showed up to accept the non-prize.
(Or, heck, the first person to buy one "All About Steve" DVD! HAHAHA! Think it, don't say it -- no one's gonna step on La Bullock's punch lines tonight.)
We ask George Clooney what makes this Oscars different, and so help us, he looks us right in the eye.
"It feels a little different because you're here," he murmurs.
He continues: "Once The Washington Post shows up, once the publication of Woodward and Bernstein shows up, it's clear we're sliding downhill."
We have no idea what that means, but -- swoon.
He adds that he's going to work next on a Sarah Palin musical, and we convulse like this is the most hilarious thing in the world. Is it? We can't tell! It's CLOONEY! Ah, Oscar, we like you. We really really like you!