BEVERLY HILLS — The Chevy Suburban circles around the back of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts just before 11 p.m. Sunday night where it is funneled into a single lane of black car traffic set off by orange traffic cones soaked pretty good from the evening rain. Our driver — our man from Uber — rolls down the window as he reaches the first check-point where a security guard eyeballs the dashboard looking for the golden ticket, the one that says you’re ok. You’re Vanity Fair approved.
The Suburban continues down the lane to checkpoint two where a woman with a bouffant peers into the vehicle.
“How many passengers to do you have?” Just one. One invitation. Just me. No one is tucked into the trunk trying to hitch a ride into the famed Vanity Fair Oscar party hosted by the magazine’s editor Graydon Carter. But surely more than a few intrepid souls have tried subterfuge to enter these gilded walls.
The chariot pulls up to the stately stone entrance. This is it. Up the steps and into the center of our pop culture universe. It feels as though we have landed on the sun.
It is strangely calm and quiet during the promenade through the carpeted tunnel towards a massive temporary pavilion. And suddenly, only a few paces ahead — that halo of hair, that swish of blush-colored silk. Oprah! Or as she might says, O-praaaah!
To walk in Winfrey’s wake is to watch movie mogul Harvey Weinstein pause on his way out for a handshake and a moment of knowing banter. It is to listen as Vogue editor Anna Wintour leans in for a chipper “Hi, Oprah” greeting. It is to hear the step-and-repeat photographers scream and to feel her gravitational pull when she enters the main party tent and eyes that are used to looking at the greatest stars in the galaxy turn and stare. You can practically hear everyone sigh, Oprah. She is the ultimate green-lighter.
But one can’t stare for long before another shiny object catches the eye. It is platinum-haired Lady Gaga. Having served up fine pitch and multi-octave range in a salute to “The Sound of Music,” she is gliding through the crowd, freed of an Azzedine Alaia gown that surrounded her like an I.M. Pei pyramid, she is now trailing a long black train which one gentleman kicks out of his way like an errant soccer ball. The poor fellow is seemingly exasperated by having to dodge taffeta and tulle all night.
Excuse me, says a nearby pretty woman in a black gown with an extended skirt to another pretty woman in ivory stilettos, “Can you get off my dress?”
Doggone it! Why do women insist on a dragging around a dress with a train when they know they’re going to be maneuvering through a crowd? Simple, my friends, because those dresses look so glamorous and grand — and when else do you get to wear something straight out of a fairy tale? And the Vanity Fair party is fantasy — one that is combustible with blinding jewels, glittering gowns and the searing heat of fame.
Gaga disappears through the crowd and into the farthest reaches of the block long tent, back into what was the dining area where 150 guests dined on Thomas Keller fried chicken and watched the Oscars. Now it has become a cocktail bar where actor Steve Martin is holding court, the Collins sisters — Joan and Jackie — preside over one banquette and Amy Adams has taken up residence in another. They have come here to schmooze with friends and powerbrokers but also because it is Oscar night in Hollywood and this is what one does if one is a person of note.
The barkeeps are working hard, swiftly pouring glasses of champagne, vodka tonics and shots of tequila. Pressure’s on: This is a crowd that never has to wait for anything. They have people who do that for them. People who stand around them with ear pieces and shifty eyes.
A leg! Over there in the corner. A beautiful and toned leg jutting out from a sheath of dove gray sequins. The leg belongs to Jennifer Aniston and she looks splendid in her sexy Atelier Versace gown with her pocket-sized man Justin Theroux standing alongside her. Why is coming to Hollywood like landing on Lilliput?
At 11:45, an Oscar winner is in the house. Julianne Moore arrives wearing her Chanel dress with its 80,000 hand-painted sequins and flowers and holding her gold statuette. She gives photographers a big tooth smile and settles into a banquette from which she does not really stray more than a few feet for the rest of the evening. It is the best actress winner’s night and everyone comes to her.
The Vanity Fair party is the sort of place where it is possible to feel as though you know everyone even when you know no one at all. There are so many familiar faces — Don Rickles slumped onto a tuffet; Shirley MacLaine lounging on a sofa; Queen Latifah and Serena Williams considering a breath of fresh air on the patio only to recoil in horror when they realize it’s raining, and rain does a black woman’s hair no favors.
Elton John has left his own party to crash land into a conversation pit here. Anjelica Huston stands in a corner looking regal as heck. And Jane Fonda — sexy, sexy — is cruising out of the joint at top speed before you can ask exactly what’s in the water she’s been drinking.
The clock strikes midnight and the Oscar winners flow through the doors like some dam has just broken. J.K. Simmons, all sinewy and seductive, with a black fedora atop his head strolls through with his best-supporting actor Oscar in his hand. Tonight, the statue is like a skeleton key. It opens all doors, unlocks mysteries, releases magic. The character actor, commercial pitchman and supporting thespian is a star this evening. The crowd parts.
John Legend arrives with his wife Chrissy Teigen and they are shimmying with joy. He’s got his Oscar for best original song and she’s feeding him a bite of her In-and-Out burger, which is one of the chic comfort options on the party menu. People gather round to take his picture. We compliment his eloquent speech. He says thank you and then laughs, “The Tea Party hates me.” Well, John, there are far worse fates.
Did you hear that? That was us gasping. We snake our way through a thicket of Ed Norton, Robert Duvall, Kevin Hart, a shaggy Jared Leto (whither the man-bun?), Iggy Azalea (Iggy! Iggy! yells her buddy — or some overfamiliar fan) and Rob Lowe looking like Perplexed Rob Lowe who doesn’t have DirecTV. We emerge to brush shoulders with Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba. Holy Mother of God in heaven! It is as though shooting stars have just spiraled across the horizon. We want to turn up all 6,000 pounds of LED lighting fixtures to admire Cumberbatch’s white dinner jacket. We want to tell the DJ to turn down the music just to hear the smooth velvet that is Elba’s voice.
Black people may not have been on the list of Oscar nominees but they were all over the Vanity Fair guest list. Black people are everywhere. Shonda Rhimes, David Oyelowo, Common, Chadwick Boseman, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Paula Patton, Lupita Nyong’o — although she has slipped out of her pearl-drenched Calvin Klein dress. Francisco Costa, who designed the dress, is revved up about how well the dress was received and how beautifully Nyong’o carried it. The fashion house had been working on the dress since November, Costa says, and all that hand-sewing of South Sea pearls was done in the New York atelier.
The chattering goes on with famous voices shouting into famous ears. A few hips sway, but the gowns are too precious for dancing. Still, the music plays on.
“Fame makes a man take things over
Fame lets him lose, hard to swallow
Fame puts you there where things are hollow
Hey, Mr. DJ, what are you trying to tell us?
The clock nudges towards 2 a.m. And the crowd begins to flow out into the night, towards the black car traffic. The rain comes down. The sun will soon be up.