Kevin Spacey is making a run for it. “I’m going to Franco’s,” he says as swells of velvet and chiffon heave him through the breezeway of the Sunset Tower.
“What about Madonna’s?” asks a tuxedo who’s being towed the other way.
“Nooo,” Spacey says, twisting in the eddy of bodies. “No, that’s all the way up Mulholland. It’ll be a nightmare.”
“Life is a nightmare,” the guy says, and they both cackle. This is not to suggest that Vanity Fair’s Oscar party is nightmarish, though it’s as rattling and fleeting as a dream deep into one’s R.E.M. cycle. Think “Inception,” but more bewildering. It’s a madhouse, a funhouse of mirrors and topiary, a wax museum come to life, a half-dozen tax brackets and Zip codes away from a really good frat party, where the drinking game is How Many Flutes of Moet Does It Take to Work Up the Nerve to Pet Donald Trump’s Hair?
Answer: 1.5. (It feels like corn silk.)
Another question: How does one pass the hours between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. at Vanity Fair when one doesn’t have a director to corner, a starlet to seduce or a powder to snort? One does what most everyone else does: play the world’s most opulent, expensive game of musical chairs. Turn and pose and sit here, in the glow of George Hamilton’s tan. Turn and pose and sit there, in the shamrock-green shadow of Gayle King’s gown (just in case Oprah shows).
Someone bid $80,000 at Elton John’s party for two tickets to this one. The cost of a top-tier college education — for what? To get elbowed in the ribs by the most skilled crowd-parter in the world: Serena Williams, whose backhand is crippling in a roomful of people who ignore every “Pardon me.”
The crowd is extra knotty around a particular booth on the terrace, underneath planet-size white balloons that change from yellow to green to purple as colored spotlights revolve on the roof. What rank of celebrity commands such commotion?
“It’s a cluster-[expletive],” mutters a waiter, emerging from the pile, dressed like a naval midshipman and balancing a teetering tray of beverages.
Let’s crowbar our way toward that booth, toward the entity ensconced in admirers. And now, a glimpse of the person at the center. She’s petite, button-nosed, doe-eyed, with a boyish thatching of short hair flopped over her forehead.
She’s Justin Bieber. Bieber . We should’ve known. What a kick in the teeth. We were hoping for a Beatty, a Julia, a Mr. Sidney Poitier perhaps, not this . . . this . . . this haircut. We must seek consolation elsewhere.
Who else commands one of these semi-circle booths along the perimeter of the terrace? The two Janes — Fonda and Lynch — sit shoulder to shoulder (the former’s is bare, the latter’s is covered by a glittery blazer) in a booth back by the bar. A rakish Paul Rudd captains another, and George Hamilton’s tan has the next one over.
But now the tykes from “Glee” are swarming like gnats. There’s the bossy belter at the bar. There’s the pregnant cheerleader fussing with her shoulder straps. And by the front door, sitting on a padded pew, are the gay kid and the heavy girl, wallflowering, perfectly happy to gab and watch, as if this were an actual high school cafeteria instead of a dolled-up version of one.
In honor of youthfulness and of “The Social Network,” which won three Oscars, here is five minutes of the Vanity Fair party in the form of a Facebook news feed:
l Russell Brand is now friends with Danny Boyle. (Ryan Murphy likes this.)
l Elizabeth Banks: My husband just lit up with Jane Fonda. Stuff is going down.
l Adrien Brody is in a relationship with an In-N-Out Burger.
And lordy, those burgers. The cocaine of the 21st century. Gotta have ’em.
“I think I’m gonna have to,” Quentin Tarantino says, reaching for one from a passing burger lady. He turns to Brody in the carpeted breezeway between the terrace and the oak-paneled lounge. “On three, ready?” the motormouth director directs. “One . . . two . . . three!”
Tarantino and Brody take enormous bites of their burgers. The actress Paz de la Huerta takes a photo with her BlackBerry, before stumbling backward into Tarantino, kicking one leg up against the wall and howling like a wolf. Tarantino hoists her upright. She totters forward into the lounge, stepping on the jade-colored train of her dress, bosom lurching. Her cigarette ashes itself.
“You’re hairy,” she accuses a guy with a prodigious beard.
“It’s Raining Men” kicks into high gear, claps of disco thunder drowning out crucial clauses of conversations.
“I don’t want Best Picture,” says one suit, presumably a producer. “Too much pressure.”
“[Expletive] Best Picture,” agrees a friend.
“And I’d wake up every morning and not know,” Charlize Theron says to Jason Bateman, a pairing that would arouse any fan of “Arrested Development,” the TV show in which they co-starred.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” shouts Sacha Baron Cohen as a purveyor of mini red-velvet cupcakes skirts past him and his conversation partner, Larry David. The cupcakes are frosted with the names of nominees. JEFF. NICOLE. HELENA. Eat your faves.
Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, recently broken up, huddle in a nook by the bathrooms, under the forlorn gaze of a portrait of Greta Garbo. Gyllenhaal is using words like “care” and “feel.” It is not a good spot to linger.
Around the corner, Natalie Portman, chatting away with her fiance-choreographer by her side, absentmindedly runs the head of her Oscar back and forth over the curve of her pregnant belly, as if to coax her fetus into the profession before it takes its first breath.
News: Matthew McConaughey has a shirt on. And a tuxedo jacket.
More news: Gwyneth Paltrow has (mercifully) not gotten her hands on a microphone yet.
In a room where everybody is somebody — Colin Firth swarmed by women demanding photos, Anne Hathaway giddy as a gazelle after hosting the show — is it possible that everyone’s just nobody?
Harvey Weinstein, once again king of the Oscars, is begging Matthew Morrison for a photo. Brendan Fraser demands a moment with the “Alice in Wonderland” art-direction winner who had fashioned a top hat for his new Oscar.
Pushing through the crowded room, we’re suddenly up against the hipster who was just talking to 50 Cent. That proximity is enough to make the superstar think we’re someone he’s supposed to pretend he knows. We get a dazzling warm smile, and a polite kiss on the cheek.
“Did you go to the show?” we ask, emboldened.
“Nah, I missed it! Just flew in from New York!”
“Oh, it was great!” We are lying. “But the party’s better. Good to see you!”
Game change: We’ve been coming to this party for a few years now, and our strategy has always been to remember our place, to call no attention to ourselves, to lurk and to listen. But Fiddy has lifted us up. Maybe we belong here after all.
And so we catch Sarah Silverman’s eye as she tries to sneak behind the bar to grab a bottle of water, as we patiently wait in line. She grins conspiratorially. We’ve met a few of the “Real Housewives,” so that gives us an excuse to chat up Bravo’s Andy Cohen. We own a copy of George Hamilton’s memoir, and that gives us license to smile knowingly and reach out for his hand.
“Read it?” he asks.
“Looking forward to it!” we say.
We did read that New Yorker story about Paul Haggis’s defection from Scientology — the whole thing! — so naturally we have much to discuss with him after he orders a tequila on the rocks with pineapple and a vodka soda with cranberry.
Yes, he said, he liked the story. “And you are?”
A reporter, we confess. The writer-
director is civil and discreet and quickly moves to greet a woman we don’t recognize a few feet to our left.
Ah, there’s a real person. Luke Matheny, the shaggy young director of the Best Live Action Short who took the stage and joked that he shoulda got a haircut. That guy! We met him last fall when he was just a film-school nobody with the best movie at the D.C. Shorts Festival. And yes, he remembers how he called in that correction on our story. Good times!
He moves away, and seconds later Tom Hanks is greeting him like an old pal. Rita Wilson, dripping with turquoise and bristling with silver fur, murmurs “so excited, so excited” to Matheny. Around the room, important people spot that mop of hair and flag him down. He’s one of them now. For now.
The stragglers are digging in their heels. The only guest wearing jeans is dancing to Madonna’s “Holiday” with the only guest wearing an indoor scarf and Keds. Soon an elderly man with his tie tied backwards joins them, followed by a brunette in a pencil skirt whose hemline is two inches from committing a crime. The quartet thrashes and pivots madly, silhouetted by amber-colored sconces. The scene calls to mind Plato’s Cave, and questions about the durability of reality at 2 a.m. on Sunset Boulevard.
The paparazzi are taking photos of one another.
“God, they should just shut the music off now,” says a doorman near the front entrance. “We’re not getting out of here.”
Someone spilled an entire glass of inky pinot on the taupe carpet in front of a giant illuminated photo of Sammy Davis Jr. Where’s Michael C. Hall? We know we saw him earlier. Dexter could study this impressive splatter and tell us which celebrity committed the party foul.
By 2:30 a.m., there are no famous people on the premises. The thing is: Only a tiny portion of Oscar winners are recognizable faces. The rest are tradesmen and off-screen talent. These unsung but awarded survivors huddle around their glinting statuettes like they’re campfires. The clusters talk in hushed tones, waiting for the end.