It’s basically the Oscars without the scrutiny of public eyes or the pressure of a big prize — or a much more good-looking version of your high school graduation.
I happened to be at the 2018 edition of the luncheon, at the Beverly Hilton. (A handful of reporters are invited and scattered at tables throughout the room.)
You could feel the star energy in the air that day — Jordan Peele, Meryl Streep, Allison Janney, Christopher Nolan, Greta Gerwig and many others. All were hobnobbing — with friends, with idols, with rivals. At my table alone was Margot Robbie and Paul Thomas Anderson.
At one point, I got up to hop between tables. I was moving between two of them when a man who’d stopped to take a selfie whirled around abruptly and nearly knocked me over.
He was a big guy, with quick reflexes, and as the potential collision was unfolding, he reached out reflexively with one arm to stop me from going down.
It took me a second to realize who the man was. It was Kobe Bryant — as boyishly enthusiastic and endearingly swagger-y at this Hollywood insider event as he was scoring his first points in an NBA Summer League game more than two decades earlier.
Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash Sunday, had been nominated that year in the animated short category for producing “Dear Basketball” — a film he’d made with the celebrated Disney animator Glen Keane. In the film, Bryant narrates his long relationship with the sport from the brink of retirement. It was a love letter to the game Bryant was raised on and eventually came to dominate, penned just as he was about to say goodbye to it.
More to the point for me, he had nearly laid me out on the floor.
“Whoa, sorry, I guess I’m a little excited to be here,” Bryant said, and flashed me a million-kilowatt smile — a man, for all the celebrity encounters he’d had over the years, exuberant to be in a room full of people whose jobs often involve reading scripts or standing behind monitors.
The room was equally eager to have him. Assorted nominees came up to mingle with Bryant throughout the afternoon and take some of those selfies. (Janney was one.)
In fact, when the final class photo was assembled, Bryant was sitting right next to the gold statue. It was a fitting image, an outsider who became an insider with the snap of his fingers.
Hollywood can be clubby, even — sometimes especially — with A-list outsiders. There’s a feeling that these people are short-circuiting the system, that they haven’t paid their creative dues. But Bryant deployed his presence, and they accepted him, pretty much right there in the room that day.
Bryant became part of the firmament, it should be said, despite the fact that he was accused of rape in 2003 by a 19-year-old hotel worker in Edwards, Colo., right before he was about to have surgery at a nearby facility.
He was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment and jailed. Bryant eventually admitted to a sexual encounter with the woman but denied the assault allegation, saying the encounter was consensual.
The criminal case was dropped when the woman declined to testify after a year of relentless news coverage of her personal life. Bryant later settled a lawsuit with the woman and publicly apologized — acknowledging in a statement in court a belated realization that she had not considered the encounter consensual, even if he had. He would later become an advocate for gender equity in sports, particularly with regard to his daughters.
In that respect, the timing for Bryant’s Hollywood coming-out party that February afternoon could not have been worse. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements had been launched just months before, and the table talk in the room was about how the Oscars and Hollywood should make fundamental changes after the Harvey Weinstein accusations to make sure such abuses didn’t happen again. And here was a man who had been accused of sexual assault.
Yet there was no feeling in the room among Hollywood insiders that Bryant was unwelcome. The dozens of people who could be seen greeting Bryant, many of them Angelenos, did so warmly.
That remained true Monday, too, as several nominees who were in the room that day declined to comment on Bryant and #MeToo. The publicist for one noted that his client was simply very sad and grieving with everyone else. On Twitter, Hollywood mainstays ranging from Cher to Ellen DeGeneres offered their solidarity with the Bryants; the former called him a “bright light.”
Only one prominent Hollywood figure seemed to voice ambivalence. Actress Evan Rachel Wood tweeted shortly after the crash, “What has happened is tragic. I am heartbroken for Kobe’s family, He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of those truths can exist simultaneously.” Her tweet had garnered more than 6,300 responses by Monday, most of them critical.
Whether because of amends he’d made, because of the charisma he brought, or simply because Bryant embodied the self-narrative skills and grinder work ethic that Hollywood figures value and relate to, Bryant was embraced with open arms.
This is true even though he hadn’t become a significant player in the Hollywood trenches — the agent meetings, the script reviews, the casting sessions — where much of the entertainment battle is waged. Outside of “Dear Basketball” (which would go on to win the Oscar), Bryant’s company, Granity Studios, has not gotten much screen entertainment off the ground. The former Laker was a creative force behind an ESPN nonfiction series, “Detail,” in which he breaks down the game of basketball, inspired by his work with his daughter Gianna, who also died Sunday.
But mostly he and Granity had made strides in book publishing and podcasting. Hollywood development is hard, production is harder, and it has been an open question for some time whether Granity would become a bona fide Hollywood production company, with a range of projects across genres and budget levels, or a more modest vehicle for the occasional sports-themed project.
The Oscar lunch this year took place a day after Bryant’s death, less than two weeks before the big show. Lynette Howell Taylor, one of the Oscars’s producers, did not reply to a message seeking comment about tribute plans. But Bryant will surely get a spot in the In Memoriam section and likely something even larger. He was a part of Hollywood, even if he had yet to spend much time in it.