I always thought the first time that I went to the Oscars, it would be related to a fabulous performance I had given. As most of you know, I’m both an actress and a journalist. I’ve watched the Academy Awards (and practiced my acceptance speech) since I was a little kid.
But wait, you say, how can you be an actress and a journalist? Well, let’s see...Angelina Jolie is an actress and a UN Goodwill Ambassador. JJ Abrams is a prolific television creator who composes his own theme songs. And Seth Rogen is an actor and a writer and a producer. So acting and journalism? No problem!
But I digress.
Tonight, I’ll be popping my Oscar cherry covering the event for Documentary Magazine. We’re thrilled that the Academy granted us credentials this year to witness the behind-the-scenes action in the Interview Room. But just because I’ll be in a hotel ballroom and not on the red carpet or up on stage making a speech doesn’t mean I get to be all schlumpy. Quite the opposite, in fact! The Academy mandates that anyone attending the event in ANY capacity must abide by the dress code. The Oscars are black tie for everyone – guests, presenters, staff, security, journos, crew. It’ll be the most glamorous typing I ever do.
I spend Oscar morning editing the video of my James Marsh interview from the IDA Nominee Reception earlier this week, and send it over to my colleagues to post up on the site. Unless there’s a major upset, Marsh and the Man on Wire team should be taking a statue home this evening.
Once the video is done, I spend the next hour getting doing my version of Oscar prep. For some this means being attended to by an entire team of stylists. For me, it means schizophrenically running between the bedroom and my office as I shimmy into my dress, print out reference notes, curl my hair, pack up my laptop and extension cords, and slip on the fancy shoes.
It’s Oscar time, baby! Here’s the moment-by-moment account of my experience, seen of course through docu-colored glasses.
I am making my way up Vine Street, which is surprisingly uncrowded. The traffic hell I anticipated has so far not materialized.
I leave my car at the Palladium parking lot and snag my seat on the official AMPAS shuttle. Everyone is very quiet as we take off through the back streets of Hollywood on our way over to the venue. We drive past Highland, which is choked up with limos. A group of demonstrators on the corner hold up signs saying, “God hates America” and something about idolatry. We whiz by too quickly for me to see if they are referencing a particular movie, but I’m guessing the protestors have something to do with either Milk or the general liberal bent of Hollywood.
I pass through the first security check and make my way through the deserted Hollywood and Highland complex up to the Interview Room. On the way, I make a pit stop at a balcony that affords a view of the red carpet below. Several members of the press, along with a few vendors, are enjoying the view. The timing gods are with me – the Trouble the Water and Man on Wire groups are just passing through. I don’t get to hang around til then, though – a security guard comes by and politely tells me and the other onlookers to continue on to our assigned areas.
I arrive at the Interview Room, take my spot at Table 15 and set up my laptop. Every member of the press corps is assigned a table spot and a number, which is printed on a card. When you want to ask a winner a question, you hold up your card, auction style and wait to be called on. For the next several hours, I’ll be known as #199.
The first thing I notice is that everyone has indeed followed the dress code. Even the friendly support guys from AT&T hooking up the phone lines are decked out in their bowties and cummerbunds. Gotta love a tech in formalwear. MacGuyver meets James Bond.
The second thing I notice are the chocolate chip cookies just outside the room on the catering tables. They are fresh. They are soft. They are hard to leave alone. Between the sweets at the HBO Documentary party last night and the snacks here today, Oscar festivities are gonna do some serious damage!
There is no wireless in the Interview Room. If you want Internet access, you have to pay for it. It’s on the pricey side, so the IDA didn’t swing for it this year (that’s why I’m posting this after I get home instead of blogging live). It seems sort of ridiculous to me that you can get free wireless at every Starbucks across the country if you just buy a muffin once a month, but AMPAS hasn’t yet figured out how to provide a low cost web solution for those of us who report for outlets operating on smaller budgets.
I glance up at the feed on the monitors in the room. They're showing arrivals and and I happen to catch a shot of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (Trouble the Water) posing for pictures. They look both excited and relaxed.
The sound on the monitors goes live, catching a suspiciously tan Sam Rubin in the midst of interviewing with Queen Latifah.
For just a moment, there’s a glimmer of hope that I can go online! Some of my fellow journalists are connecting via dial up. Alas, my Macbook Pro only has an Ethernet connection. The techs sadly inform me they have no magic adapter in their bag that will allow me to jimmy rig the phone line to make it work with my computer. I am definitely, officially sans internet for the next several hours. If my grammar and spelling start to get crazy, you’ll know I’m going through Web withdrawal.
Side note: they have handed out the order of the show. The press corps are sworn to secrecy. If we reveal anything that happens on the show before it actually happens during the broadcast, we will be escorted outside the security perimeter. Banished from Oscar Land. Set free to roam the streets of Hollywood with nothing but a laptop and a dream. And given the pair of high heels I’m currently wearing, roaming is not an option.
I love the pre-show. Totally plays into my girly side. I’m not a fashion maven – I can’t tell you "who" everyone’s wearing – I can just tell you when someone makes me go “Wow.” Anne Hathaway gets a Wow.
One of my favorite films this year was Frost/Nixon. When Sam Rubin asks Frank Langella what he’s been up to, the Best Actor nominee says he’s looking for his next job...and doesn’t have one yet. Rubin asks him what he’d say to every casting director watching and Langella quips, “I’m available!”
Grey seems to be the color of Best Actress Oscar winners past and possibly present.
Meryl Streep is glammed up in grey.
Kate Winslet is looking fantastic in darker grey (I’m sure J Crew would come up with a clever name for this color. Gunmetal?). Winslet’s hair is sculpted, her dress is sparkly. She looks like she’s supposed to win.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie progress down the red carpet. Sam Rubin mentions that they’ve done a lot for Katrina victims. I’m so curious if Pitt’s had a chance to see Trouble the Water. If he wins Best Actor, I’d love to ask him, but I have a feeling he’s not going to make it back to the Interview Room tonight (they only bring the winners back).
The entire Slumdog Millionaire team shows up, a mix of adorable and classy. Cut to Mickey Rourke in a white suit and dark glasses. This year, Oscar embraces all kinds.
I’m not sure which pre-show they’ve got up on the monitors – I think it’s ABC – but the production designers are now describing the beaded Swarovski crystal curtains that are part of the set. All I can think about is that the budget for the curtains is many times that of the total production budgets for the nominated documentary films. Do you think that maybe post-show, they’d be willing to donate a strand or two of beads to some of the IDA’s fiscal sponsorship films?
The show starts right on time, and Hugh Jackman jumps right in, winning over the crowd in the Kodak and the Interview Room. The Press Corps seems to like what he’s doing. I’ve read several times that the set was designed to evoke a nightclub feel. Jackman treats it as such, joshing with the crowd.
First surprise of the evening: five previous Best Supporting Actress winners showing up onstage to introduce the nominees. Maybe they are just really good actresses, but they manage to make their congratulations sound personal and sincere. The other night at the IDA reception, I talked with many of the nominees about the importance of the being part of a larger artistic community. This format brought a sense of that to the telecast.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt this because towards the end of her speech, winner Penelope Cruz said, “This is a moment of unity for the world because art, in any form, is and has been and will always be our universal language. We should do everything we can, everything we can, to protect its survival.”
Tina Fey and Steve Martin introduce the Best Original Screenplay award. They make me laugh, no matter what they do. The Interview Room agrees.
Dustin Lance Black accepts his award for Milk for Original Screenplay. Has he seen Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk? He must have, right? Will I get a chance to ask him?
Slumdog Millionaire takes the Adapted Screenplay honor, and quiet rumblings of a Slumdog sweep start circulating around the Interview Room. Writer Simon Beaufoy begins his acceptance speech by saying, “There are certain places in the universe you never imagine standing. For me, it's the moon, the South Pole, the Miss World podium and here.” Beaufoy’s now made it to the Oscars stage. Perhaps if he talks to nominee Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World), he can get some tips on how to cross the South Pole off his list as well.
Biggest surprise in the Animated Feature Film category? When the live broadcast cut from presenters Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black to Brad and Angelina. The Interview Room does not like. There are uncomfortable laughs and cries of, “That was cold!”
I agree. I mean, really? Really? Was that necessary? They just couldn’t help themselves, could they? Makes me feel like there was a dare going on somewhere in the control booth. I can just picture it: “C’mon, just do it! Cut to ‘em, cut to ‘em! Just a quick shot!”
Side note: During commercial breaks, the members of the Press Corp write, check their e-mail or facebook pages and help themselves to the food outside (did I mention the cookies?). Aside from the face that everyone is in gowns and tuxes and there’s no cigarette smoke, it feels like we could all be sitting at slot machines in Vegas or at tables in a Bingo hall.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig walk onstage to present awards for Art Direction and Costume Design. The pre-Oscars blather had talked about the idea that this year’s ceremony was going to have a narrative to it. It’s now become clear that the story they’re telling is that of how a movie gets made. Except, of course, there generally are no set constructions for documentaries, and make up and costumes are rarely an issue. So I’m curious to see as the show goes on how they’ll weave non-fiction into their theme.
Then again, I recently wrote a Sundance wrap piece that focused on the reconstructions used in several of the movies that played Park City. Maybe there is a place for documentarians in the set construction conversation after all!
My musings on documentary film’s place in the larger world of cinema are interrupted as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) makes his way backstage. He is warm and lovely, overwhelmed at winning his award and happy about the message it will send to gay kids all around the country. He says, “Harvey gave me his story and it saved my life. I just thought it's time to pass it on. So the only thing I really knew I wanted to say is tell those kids out there they are going to be all right.”
Side note: This is the multi-tasking part of the evening. When a winner is being interviewed, they turn down the audio feed of the live show. So I am now listening to the live broadcast via headphone in one ear, listening to Black answer questions with the other, and typing all the while. Sadly, they hurry Black out of the room pretty quickly, so I don't get to ask him a question.
I am a total sap for love stories, and the 2008 Romance montage is making me tear up. But as I watch closely, there’s a part of my brain that disconnects from the longing looks and triumphant kisses, wondering why no docs are featured in the montage. The definition of romance should include not only the teen age dreams of High School Musicals, the champagne bubbles of Sex in the City, Milk-y kisses, Slumdogs and Buttons, but also the against all odds love of Katrina survivors and the awe of a lady for her Man on Wire.
Side note: As I’m jotting down my thoughts about the romance, Penelope Cruz is now in the room answering questions. She’s beautiful, hanging on to her Oscar, speaking rapid-fire Spanish. Her dress looks much less voluminous in person than it did on the red carpet.
Another side note: I always wondered if the Press Corps actually got into the Oscars, or if they’d be too jaded. Would they applaud for the winners backstage in the room? Now I have my answer. Sometimes.
Adapted Screenplay winner Simon Beaufoy is still chatting in the Interview Room (he’s been here for awhile). He talks about working with the Indian crew and says, “If you can get Hollywood and Bollywood combined, you got a whole new genre of cinema.” For those interested in seeing another side of India, check out short doc nominee The Final Inch, by Irene Taylor Brodsky.
Jackman dons a top hat and puts on a good, old fashioned musical number. I had seen a tease of this via a YouTube video circulating around earlier this week. This part of the show is for folks like me. To put it bluntly, I am a musical theater slut. I love it. All of it (well, not Starlight Express, but that's a discussion for another time). So a movie musical medley replete with canes and kick lines? Count me in! West Side Story and Grease referenced in the same number? Right up my alley.
But now Andrew Stanton (WALL-E), the winner in the Animated Feature category, has walked into the room, so I’ll have to watch the rest of the song & dance number on my Tivo at home later tonight. I’ll be watching it several times. Go ahead. Make fun. I don't care. Because Wolverine still looks hot in his tux, even if he’s singing songs from Mamma Mia.
My favorite line from Stanton’s interview? His comment about winning his second Oscar. “It's like that song, ‘Love is wonderful the second time around.’ So is Oscar.”
Alan Arkin announces Heath Ledger as the winner in the Supporting Actor category. His family takes to the stage to accept it on his behalf and everyone in the auditorium stands. It’s an odd to see a family of ordinary folks celebrating a public and private moment simultaneously. I think it's quite kind of AMPAS to allow Ledger’s family to accept the award. They could’ve tried to get some of the actors who had worked with Ledger to do it, exploiting the start power. Instead, they let his mom, dad and sister have a moment with the community who admired their son so very much.
And now it’s documentary time!
Instead of a montage like the other categories, the docs get their very own piece shot by Albert Maysles, in which the nominees speak eloquently about digital tools, trust and storytelling. Scott Hamilton Kennedy (The Garden) points out that just because you have the tools to make a film, “Doesn’t mean you have a movie to make.”
Bill Maher presents the awards with a mix of humor and intelligence, making fun of his own film Religulous while at the same time lauding the efforts of all non-fiction filmmakers. He says he’s grateful to live in a country where he can put out a movie like Religulous, and that documentary filmmakers are truly our windows to the world. He ends with the suggestion, “You should go see their movies more...starting with mine.”
It’s no surprise that Man on Wire takes home the prize, capping a year of honors that began at Sundance 2008. Marsh also gets the award for quickest walk to the stage, while the irrepressible Petit gets it for most entertaining podium experience. When I interviewed him at the nominee reception on Wednesday, he said he wanted to juggle three Oscars. There’s no juggling at the Kodak, but he does manage to incorporate a magic trick and balance Oscar on his chin.
Side note: I'm disappointed they didn't ask Petit to wirewalk during the show. I actually thought that was a real possibility. No dice.
Smile Pinki takes the Documentary Short honor. Winner Megan Mylan takes the stage in a red dress, grinning and smiling, clearly thrilled to be “in a room with all this talent.” She gives a shout out to the various members of her team, including the crew, HBO Documentary Films Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller, and subjects Dr. Subodh and Pinki Kumari.
The interview podium is empty and the show is on a commercial break. I’m thinkin’ it’s time to duck out into the hallway for another chocolate chip cookie. Do you think there’s any chance that I’ll do enough typing tonight to burn off the equivalent amount of sweets I eat during the ceremony?
While Will Smith presents the awards for Visual Effects, they announce that the documentary winners will soon be coming heading up to the Interview Room. I’m happy to see that I’m not the only one who has questions for them.
James Marsh, Philippe Petit and Simon Chinn take the podium in the Interview Room. As they scan the audience to see who is holding up cards with numbers and asking questions, producer Chinn remarks, “It’s like Bingo!” Glad to see I'm not the only one who felt that way...clearly all the documentarians are on the same page (or we all just spend too much time trying to figure out creative ways to fund raise).
This time I DO get to ask a question, so I inquire about why they think their much-honored film has connected with so many different people all over the world. Marsh answers, “I think it's a very beautiful fairytale that happens to be true. And it's about something that's illegal and subversive, and what's created is something that doesn't take anything away from anyone. It gives something to somebody. Take all those little reasons, and that's why the film has connected so well with people.”
Petit then turns to Chinn and asks him what he thinks. The producer responds, “I think I completely agree with what James says. It does have this incredible context, post 9/11, which is never mentioned in the film. It does provide kind of poignancy to the story that lifts it to another level.”
There are several questions for Philippe about what’s next for him. He says he’s 60 years old and he still has thousands of projects. “I have to keep working – it’s in my veins.” He says he’ll tell us a secret about his next exploit (I’m not sure if it’s the language barrier, but you can’t tell a roomful of journalists a secret and expect it to remain one). His plans include a high wire walk in New York City in the fall that involves a library. He says it will be the beginning of a series of walks for literacy around the country to inspire the kids to read.
The Q&A ends with a question for Marsh about the relationship between story and facts. The member of the Press Corps asks, “Documentary has to blend the two. How do you do that? It must be very difficult.”
Marsh responds that the facts tell the truth, and in documentary, the filmmaker then selects which facts to use to tell the story. He says, “There’s nothing entirely mysterious about the story. With Man on Wire, the film is based on one event and how a group of people got together to plan to put Philippe on that wire. So the story itself was very clear to me.”
Petit has the final word, summoning the spirit of the documentary community, “I am always seeing the ecstatic truth that my friend Werner Herzog is always talking about.”
Megan Mylan from Smile Pinki takes the podium in the Interview Room. I have no idea what’s happening on the live broadcast. Right now I’m all about giving the doc folks their due.
Mylan is still flushed with excitement from her win, and when I say I’m from Documentary Magazine, she enthusiastically responds, “You care about us!” Sometimes when you work at a magazine, you have no idea how your work is received. You send it out there and hope others appreciate it. It was nice to know that the doc-makers can feel the energy we put into the publication.
I ask Mylan how it feels to be exposed to such a big audience, and about the challenges of getting a documentary short out to the world. She responds, “I think that's a challenge that documentaries in general face, like, ‘It's medicine.’ Well, they aren't – they're every bit as creative as movies and take you to some other reality. And the advantage of the film being short is people can gamble a little bit and they can walk into theater for, in our case, 40 minutes. So I feel there's a real advantage.”
When asked about how she decided to make her film 40 minutes, she responds that each film has its natural length. "My film is about a little girl who is born with a birth defect that's very easy to cure," she says. "We follow her on the journey to have that new beginning. Her inner beauty gets to be matched with her outer beauty. And it has the natural journey story trajectory to it.”
Mylan then talks about working with the of children and the wonderful social workers and team at the hospital featured in her film. She explains, “Society has blamed these parents; they tell them that their daughter was born [with a cleft palate] during an eclipse or because the mother was cutting vegetables. There’s all sorts of superstition all around the world about why children are born with a split lip, as if the parents have done something wrong to deserve it.” She says that the doctors educate the parents, who in turn become educators themselves.
Mylan ends with the thought, “Children sometimes aren't born in our definition of perfection. If you can seek out a way to help your child, you should try every resource that's out there.”
My attention goes back to the show. Liam Neeson and Slumdog’s Frida Pinto come on to announce the Foreign Language Film. It’s very exciting to be paying special attention to this category, which for the first time includes a documentary. Waltz With Bashir is a special film in so many ways.
Sadly, it doesn’t get the Oscar gold. The two other journalists sitting next to me are shocked – we all thought it was going to take home the statue.
Reese Witherspoon presents the Directing award to Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle, garnering applause from the Press Corps. Like a true director, he compliments the actual show. His speech is heartfelt, quick, specific, and he even apologizes for leaving someone off the credits.
While Slumdog was trying to find a home, I was working at an ad agency. The now defunct Warner Independent Pictures was a client, so the film has been on my radar for a very long time. It’s amazing to see where the film has journeyed.
The Best Actor category is one of the few that my table mates and I disagree on. I’m rooting for Sean Penn, they’re pulling for Mickey Rourke. I’ll cop to it: I still haven’t sent The Wrestler. Penn wins it, and begins his acceptance speech with, “You commie homo loving sons of guns. I know how hard I make it to appreciate me often. I am touched by the appreciation.”
He mentions the signs of hatred outside the theater that I noticed on my way over the awards, and advocates for equality for all.
Steven Speilberg takes to the stage to present Best Motion Picture.
Philosophical side note: Watching the montage, is there really a “Best?” How do you compare Frost/Nixon to Slumdog? And can a documentary be a Best Picture? Can an animated film? What defines best? And why are we obsessed with definitions? Why I’m asking these questions at an award show? Hmm. Maybe it’s the sugar high. I think I’ve had too many cookies.
Slumdog wins, as is expected. Producer Christian Colson says of the film, “Most of all, we had passion and we had belief, and our film shows that if you have those two things, truly anything is possible.” For just a sec, I think I’m listening to a documentarian...
After the Broadcast
The award show may be over, but the action continues in the Interview Room as the winners come by to take questions before heading off to the Governor’s Ball.
When Kate Winslet is asked about people’s potentially sympathetic responses to the SS guard she portrayed in The Reader, she responds, “I can't be responsible for the emotional response that an audience has to any film. I don't think any actor really can, and I think going into it, I was very aware that if an audience did feel any level of sympathy for Hannah, and they felt morally compromised as a consequence, that would be an interesting emotion for them to then deal with.”
Winslet is beautiful and candid and happy, and there’s a lovely moment as she stands on the podium and it really hits here that she’s actually won an Oscar. She says, “It's sort of dawning on me now that I just won an Oscar. It's only starting to sink in right now actually. Oh, my God!. And having been here before and lost – I've got to tell you, winning is really a lot better than losing. Really a LOT better!”
Sean Penn gets a mix of both personal and political questions. This causes a mini-discussion amongst the press folk I’m sitting with as to whether not you should ask personal and political questions during the Q&A, or whether the questions should stay Oscars-centric. Penn didn’t seem to mind either type of question (though I’m really glad no one asked him about his fashion choices).
Someone asks what he’d say to those holding the protest signs he mentioned in his acceptance speech. He says, “I'd tell them to turn in their hate card and find their better self. I think that these are largely taught limitations and ignorances. It's very sad in a way, because it's a demonstration of such emotional cowardice to be so afraid to extend the same rights to a fellow man as you would want for yourself.”
A beaming Danny Boyle greets each journalist enthusiastically, gripping his Oscar in one hand, his champagne glass in the other. He gives a shout out to the Toronto and Telluride film festivals and speaks passionately about the importance of supporting independent film.
He says, “One of the lovely things about this evening that the Academy has given us is that it's a triumph for this kind of film...We've got to protect them. The studios have got to protect them as well. Because that's where everybody starts, in those small independent movies. And you learn the business, you learn your craft, you learn what you are doing, you know. So it's very, very, very important.”