LOS ANGELES — The gowns swish up to the gate. Checkpoint Charlize, let’s call it.
“Not on the list, sorry,” says a pert Vanity Fair staffer, checking her papers as black town cars creep along barricaded Sunset Boulevard in the police state that is Hollywood on Oscar night.
A brunette in a beaded emerald gown turns her head sharply to her companion, a dirty blonde in a red scaly dress who insists they’re on the list.
“The name,” the blonde says, “is B-A-R — ”
“Not on it. So sorry.”
The gowns seem spun around by this rejection. Somewhere beyond the barricades there is a world they long to see. They won’t be seeing it tonight.
Us? We’re on the list. ’Scuse us, ladies. Down the gated sidewalk we strut, in time to arrive at the doorstep of the Sunset Tower with Harvey Weinstein and Kristin Chenoweth, who next to the hefty producer looks like an hors d’oeuvre.
“You were great,” rasps Weinstein.
“Thanks!” Chenoweth squeaks.
Then a short gantlet of lush topiary.
Then a lightning storm of bleachered paparazzi.
Then all is vanity.
Set foot inside Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair Oscar party at the Sunset Tower and be slung almost instantly between Halle Berry and Olympian Gabby Douglas, who then start to talk around you, as if you were an underage Chinese gymnast, or a “Catwoman” sequel. They can barely hear each other over the funky strings and sweet crooning of a Marlena Shaw track:
Like a sound you hear that lingers in your ear but you can’t forget from sundown to sunset.
California soul, indeed.
Assuming it has one.
Let’s find it here, among the glass goblets of peach roses, between the creamy leather-padded walls, in the womby glow of pink sconces, lost in a Boschian landscape of writhing limbs, where the soul survives on rum and Cokes and Perrier and vodkas and passion-fruit marshmallows on shortbread and errant glimpses of Penny Marshall and Peter Fonda, of the Hollywood Wearers of Indoor Sunglasses.
“Paw paw paw, wuh wuh,” Marshall says, waving her cigarette in circles as she holds court in one of the eight semicircle booths in the party’s expansive back room, which overlooks a Los Angeles that is night-for-day’d by a full moon.
And then suddenly we hear the strangest observation: “I love Buzz Aldrin’s outfit.” We turn and there he is, a moonwalker among a galaxy of stars, picking the wrapper off a mini red velvet cupcake at a chest-high cocktail table, wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I keep asking to come because it’s one of the better parties,” Aldrin says, accounting for his presence. “I keep looking for a fighter pilot in Beverly Hills. But there aren’t any.” He says this with such practiced eloquence that we assume it’s a precious profundity whose meaning will dawn on us at a later time.
Now, back to Earth. Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney? Maybe neither. But that’s definitely Patricia Clarkson, and Emily Mortimer, and Kate Beckinsale being told “You know how much I’d love to work with you,” and Ryan “The Shrimp” Seacrest, and Diane von Furstenberg showing a ton of go-girl leg at booth No. 2, and Piers Morgan putting off that self-deportation thing, and the widower-making lashes of the Collins sisters. Everyone keeps one eye on the party’s many mirrors (you look fine, honey; who did your neck?) and all but the A-plus-list begin to put on their boogie shoes to the bar-mitzvah-caliber DJing.
Awwwwwwww freak out!
Amid some poupon-colored drapery, Chris Evans turns to Hemsworth the Younger and says, with finality, “Jane Fonda.” Hemsworth the Younger nods, stealing a glance at Barbarella herself, who is vacuum-sealed in a snow-leopard print number in the northwest corner of the party, where Judd Apatow is saying “This is my wife, Leslie” to Robert De Niro and Martin Short is throttling Bradley Cooper by the shoulders and bellowing, “He was robbed! He was robbed!” Beneath them all, beached alone on a suede couch, is Quincy Jones with a glass of rosé.
Sergey Brin is one of two attendees wearing Google Glass eyewear. Richard Gere doesn’t care if you’ve been waiting longer for a drink than him. One of the Olsen twins is wearing what appears to be the deployed parachute of a steampunk skydiver. “50 Shades of Grey” novelist E.L. James is allegedly here with her agent, prowling for young bankable talent to play Ana Steele in a film adaptation of the book that ate the world. Flatscreen TVs embedded in the padded walls show Rock Hudson and Mae West performing at the 1957 Academy Awards.
Around zero dark thirty, the Oscars begin to accumulate. One statuette rests on the back of a couch near the front entrance, seemingly unescorted until a tall man reaches his weathered hand backward to make sure it’s still there. Daniel Day-Lewis. D-Day. Now officially the best actor of them all. We gravitate toward him, only to have a woman in a red sequined dress lunge at us and pull us down to an ottoman. Her breath is rotten with red wine. She is struggling, and handsy.
“They’re getting someone for her,” says a nearby attendee, also freshly molested.
“This is too much for me,” says a nearby Bill O’Reilly, as if on cue, to a well-wisher. “But I learned a lot. Got a lot of material.”
There is so. Much. Material here. The density of stars bends space time. This is not an event so much as an event horizon, from which no light or matter or gawker escapes. Sally Field and her son are passing an In-N-Out Burger back and forth and it’s the most adorable thing ever. Turn a corner, peel back a drape, and there’s a gleaming outstretched Oscar, with Anne Hathaway saying, “Wanna hold it?” Turn left and catch Hugh Jackman endure eight lonely seconds of having no one talk at him.
Quentin Tarantino’s lapels have run amok.
There are several children walking around with Oscars.
Chris Pine is next to you at the urinal.
All the 20-something minglers look like they’re on “Girls.”
The Burton-Bonham-Carters are sharing a booth with the Douglas-Zeta-Joneses.
One woman’s sole job is to continuously hoist a section of Jennifer Lawrence’s gold-metallic dress to the southern hemisphere of her buttocks so the best actress can use her knees properly. The crowd currents eddy toward and around her, and sometimes it’s impossible to move, and sometimes it's impossible to stop moving, and excuse me, ma’am — er, David Spade. Don Rickles, his face saying what words cannot, is propped up in a booth at the southern end of the party, and Martin Landau has sunken into suede cushions at the north end, a cane resting on a thigh.
Mr. Landau: Your thoughts on the Oscar show?
He gives the perfect answer: “Better than some.”
A champagne cork pops and a booth full of non-celebrity Oscar winners (sound men, short-film producers) clink glasses and statuettes in a flurry of camera flashes. They whoop. They double over with laughter. They wedge their hand-held golden calves between their thighs. It’s the height of idolatry. Where is our Moses? Who will descend from the Hollywood Hills with tablets of wisdom and shame us for our hedonism?
We spy Catherine O’Hara, who once played an Oscar-hungry actress in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Catherine O’Hara seems like a real person. Catherine O’Hara will surely have something witty and wise to say about this display of biblical decadence.
“No,” she says.
“Nothing,” she says.
We let the awkward silence compel her to vamp.
“I don’t know that it means anything,” O’Hara says of this party. “I don’t want to say it’s superficial because it’s not. It means different things to different people. The first time I came it was like an actor’s dream. All these faces coming at you” — here she sweeps her white-gloved hands through the air — “ and everyone loves your work and everyone belongs. It’s the opposite of the actor’s nightmare . . . where you don’t remember your lines and you don’t know what you’re doing and no one sees it anyway. It sounds superficial. But it’s not. It’s fun. Because everyone needs superficial fun every now and then.”
She pauses, having arrived at a kind of paradox, then says: “I told you I didn’t have anything to say.”
Honey, you said it all.
We look at the scene with open eyes. The inescapable anthem “We Are Young” drums away. There’s a dusting of Parisienne cigarette ash on the suede couches. Shirts have untucked themselves. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, the Washington couple who won best documentary short earlier in the evening, pose for a photo with Day-Lewis, his wife Rebecca Miller and their little gold men as if they’re all friends who have worked with each other for years. Hathaway and John Kahrs, winner of best animated short, pay their respects to each other as equals. What Moses O’Hara was saying starts to feel prophetic.
Then, around 1:15 a.m., the temperature starts to drop. What was a hothouse of notoriety and cleavage becomes just an emptying, drafty lounge as attendees air-kiss their way out of the Sunset Tower. The party, at its peak, feels like a grand eternal tradition, but now, on a 3 a.m. walk down littered, liberated Sunset Boulevard, it seems like Rome after the fall, or Brigadoon, where the only list you’re on is your own. Sprinkler systems hiss over this unnatural oasis in the chilly desert night, and we think about something an astronaut once told us.