Like all enchanted isles, the Academy Awards derives its magic from illusion. As I was leaving the Dolby Theatre late Sunday night, amid a swarm of women in gowns and men in tuxedos (and Billy Porter in both), all waiting for their limo numbers to be called like Shake Shack orders, I heard a woman remark, “This is like when the kids get picked up at the bar mitzvah.” Spike Lee walked by, a tiny purple dynamo, clutching the statuette that he had won a few hours earlier, for the screenplay of “BlacKkKlansman.” Lee wasted little time letting his feelings be known about losing Best Picture to “Green Book,” a tale of racial reconciliation in the Deep South, twenty-nine years after “Do the Right Thing” got run over by “Driving Miss Daisy.” “I’m snake-bit,” Lee had told the press room. “Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose.”
Nevertheless, his ride came, and I looked up to see the glaring neon lights of the Ghirardelli soda fountain at the Disney Studio Store. The Dolby Theatre is part of the Hollywood & Highland shopping center, which, on Oscar night, transforms into something resembling the ballroom of the Titanic. As I left the hall, I could see a crew getting ready to roll up the red carpet and pack away the decorative, jumbo Oscars. A Hollywood Reporter columnist offered to give me a ride, and we joked about Marie Kondo, who had attended the ceremony, joining the post-show cleanup. “It’s like Cinderella,” the columnist said, “Within two hours, this is going to be a shitty mall.”
Forty-five minutes later, he dropped me off at the Vanity Fair party, where the dreamy atmosphere persisted. People were handing out bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and pretty much everyone was famous. I was still high off the night’s big surprises. Olivia Colman had won Actress in a Leading Role, a prize everyone expected to go to Glenn Close, and given a wonderfully dotty speech that turned the crowd’s shock into delight. (Whether Close was delighted, I cannot say.) Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert, had opened the show as if it were a stop on a mind-melting stadium tour. At the party, I talked to an Oscars attendee from Eastern Europe and asked what he thought of the show. He made a grim face. “It was all either corporate spin or political correctness,” he said, throwing cold water on the fantasy. “Everybody said what they were expected to say. It was very Soviet.”
My evening had begun with a lesson: do not walk to the Oscars. As a native New Yorker and stubborn pedestrian, I learned this the hard way, when I tried approaching on foot and wound up in a scrum of gawkers straining against a fence on Hollywood Boulevard. I pushed through, past a guy handling live snakes and a small crowd gathered for something called the Oscar Chinese Human Rights Awards Ceremony, conducted in Chinese outside the Church of Scientology Los Angeles Information Center. Near Vincente Minnelli’s star on the Walk of Fame, I saw a woman holding up a sign that read “Satanic Hollywood Elite Eats Babies!” “We’re just out here watching the Oscars and welcoming all the actors,” she told me sweetly. What did her sign mean? “Well, they eat babies,” she explained. “In pill form, in lotions. They think it’s a fountain of youth.”
She screamed at a passing black car, “Hollywood élite eats babies!” Her phone rang. “Hey, girl. What’s going on? Are you with Becky? Oh. We’re just having fun.”
I circled around the partitions, passing an AstroTurfed soccer field and a man peeing on North Las Palmas Avenue. Finally, a security guard let me slide through the gate, and I took an escalator into the mall. From a balcony next to a Johnny Rockets, a Japanese journalist and I watched the red carpet below. An announcer who sounded like a game-show host called out, “He’s nominated tonight for best actor, for ‘At Eternity’s Gate.’ Please welcome to the stage . . . Willem Dafoe!” The actor’s remarks were soon drowned out by a burst of cheers from the bleachers, as Melissa McCarthy arrived in a white cape and waved.
I went back down an escalator and showed my ticket to the ceremony. Security made it clear that, wherever I was going, this was the wrong way to get there. To my right, the red-carpet zoo was in full swing. (Later in the evening, Jeff Whitty, one of the screenwriters of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which was nominated for Adapted Screenplay, told me that it was like getting pushed along a broken conveyor belt.) A friend from Entertainment Weekly spotted me across the carpet and beckoned me over to the entrance line. “What were you doing over there?” he asked, as if I were completely insane; apparently, Lady Gaga was about to arrive where I had been standing. We passed through security and were suddenly, to my horror, in front of the bleachers, with fans screaming past us at Helen Mirren. Heading into the hall, I spotted Richard E. Grant, of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”—undoubtedly the nominee who has extracted the most fun out of Oscars season—gleefully taking a selfie.
Inside, attendees were drinking champagne around a staircase—more Titanic vibes. An entertainment journalist who was attending his third Oscars looked around and said, “Everyone here is richer than me.”
“Even the publicists,” his co-worker chimed in.
On the speakers, an announcer chirped, “Please take your seats. This year’s Oscars will begin in thirty-five minutes.”
I’ve been watching the Academy Awards since the year that Billy Crystal sang an opening medley spoofing “Unforgiven” and “The Crying Game,” which Google tells me was 1993. But this was my first time seeing the show live. (Two years ago, I was in the press room, just in time to witness the mayhem around the mixed-up Best Picture envelope.) I sat in the back of the first mezzanine, next to Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot, the executive producers of “Capernaum,” a Lebanese drama nominated for the Foreign Language Film award. “We were here thirteen years ago, with ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,’ and lost to ‘March of the Penguins,’ ” Vicente told me, dryly. They recalled how the winners had taken the stage with stuffed penguins. This year, they were up against “Roma.” “There’s a lot of money behind it,” Kliot said. “So it’s hard to compete.”
As the lights dimmed, someone behind me cracked, “Who’s hosting?” This was, of course, a reference to the rocky road to this year’s telecast, which resulted in bruised feelings, resentment, and the first host-less Oscars since 1989. There was speculation that the ceremony would be an unmitigated catastrophe. But, as it began, to the opening riff of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” I felt the spark of unpredictability. No one knew quite how things would unfold, which is, of course, the whole point of watching the Oscars. It was like a play without a protagonist—or, rather, one whose protagonists would emerge from the crowd.
As Queen segued into “We Are the Champions” and Lambert belted out the prescient line “no time for losers,” I tried to keep my eyes on the stage, rather than on the monitors on either side. So much of how we consume the Oscars is mediated—through television, through Twitter, through studio-concocted “narratives”—that I was determined to experience it as a live event. Queen wrapped up in a blaze of pyrotechnics, and I heard someone say, “Now what happens?”
As it turned out, not having a host was something of a blessing. The m.c. format, honed by years of ceremonies hosted by Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal, has grown as stale as late-night talk shows, and it was a relief to see Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler dispense with the comedy in a meta “no, we’re not your hosts, but here’s what we would do if we were” fashion. Then it was on to the winners, the first of whom was Regina King, named Actress in a Supporting Role, for “If Beale Street Could Talk.” “God is good all the time,” she said tearfully. I was more aware than ever of the choose-your-own-adventure quality of the Oscars—how certain people are seen and heard, while others who have prepared impassioned, witty, weird speeches miss out on the spotlight.
In recent years, who gets seen—meaning who gets nominated and who wins—has become a fraught political question. In 2015, the activist April Reign reacted to a slate of all-white acting nominees by tweeting, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair,” and the hashtag blew up. Now Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer of “Black Panther,” was accepting an Oscar to a standing ovation and declaring, “Thank you, Academy. Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead onscreen.” Cynical as one may feel about the Oscars and what they say about representation, this year’s ceremony felt far-reaching and full of heart. I thought about Yalitza Aparicio, the indigenous Oaxacan teacher nominated for Actress in a Leading Role, for “Roma,” who was sitting somewhere beneath me, probably not understanding much of what was said (she uses a translator) until Diego Luna introduced her film in Spanish. And, as clunky and trite as “Bohemian Rhapsody” is, it suddenly seemed remarkable that the Oscars would devote so much reverence to someone as strange and subversive as Freddie Mercury, a queer man with Parsi roots who died of complications from AIDS.
It seemed equally remarkable that the Academy ever considered cutting musical numbers to save time. There were thrilling performances by Jennifer Hudson, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper—all of whom knew how to play to the live crowd and the cameras simultaneously. As for Bette Midler, who sang the nominated song from “Mary Poppins Returns,” don’t ask—I had taken an ill-advised trip to the lobby bar during a commercial break and got shut out during her song. I’d been told that the bar was where all the fun happened, but it turned out to be a table of chocolate-chip cookies and popcorn and one monitor set to an inaudible volume. I am sorry to report that, just like the good people watching at home, everyone flees to the rest rooms during the Sound Mixing award. I returned to find that “Roma” had, indeed, won the award for Foreign Language Film, but my seatmates seemed relieved to have at least not lost to a movie about penguins. (“This felt more dignified,” Vicente said.)
There were many standing ovations, but a few moments felt genuinely electric. One, surprisingly, was the prize for Documentary (Short Subject), which went to “Period. End of Sentence.,” a film about low-cost sanitary pads in rural India. “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar,” the director, Rayka Zehtabchi, said, to which her producer, Melissa Berton, added, “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” Spike Lee won the award for Adapted Screenplay and leaped into Samuel L. Jackson’s arms. When he urged the audience to “do the right thing” in the 2020 election, the crowd roared, assuming the speech was over, but Lee kept talking to a cut-off mic.
Before the Best Picture winner was announced, I asked Kliot to make his final prediction, and he blurted out, “ ‘Green Book.’ ” I raised an eyebrow—but he was right. He explained his reasoning, based on the complicated rules for the preferential ballot. (Basically, if a lot of people choose a movie as their second choice, it gets a huge boost in the final calculations.) “I did not want ‘Green Book’ to win,” he clarified. He’d been rooting for “Black Panther,” whose victory would have felt like a definitive sea change. So would a win for “Roma” or “BlacKkKlansman.” The audience streamed out, some chuffed, some disappointed, some ambivalent. Was this the year that Spike Lee finally won a competitive Oscar, for a movie about how America’s race problem is as open a wound as ever? Or was it the year of “Green Book,” about how race relations had been warmed over with spaghetti, back at a Christmas party, in 1962? Did it make any sense at all that it was both?
I ascended another escalator, alongside the “America’s Next Top Model” runway coach Miss J. Alexander, and arrived at the Governors Ball. Trevor Noah was lingering near chocolate Oscars on sticks, courtesy of Wolfgang Puck. Pharrell Williams, in a camo jacket and shorts, was digging in to a chicken pot pie. Awkwafina, of “Crazy Rich Asians,” was lounging on a sofa, yelling, “I love you” to Krysten Ritter, the pregnant star of “Jessica Jones.” The drag entertainer Shangela, who appears in “A Star Is Born,” took a selfie with Queen Latifah. “She actually knew who I was!” she told me. “From one queen to another. Hallelujah!” No one was visibly eating babies.
I found Richard E. Grant eating dinner across from Melissa McCarthy, his co-star in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” He had lost Actor in a Supporting Role to Mahershala Ali, but he got what he came for: an encounter with his idol, Barbra Streisand, whose childhood landmarks he recently toured with The New Yorker. “She said, ‘You went to the Vanguard?’ I said yeah. She said, ‘Erasmus High?’ I said yes,” Grant told me, still giddy. “Melissa McCarthy beelined to her—they did a duet on her album ‘Encore’—and she said, ‘You’ve got to come and meet him.’ I got a photo and talked to her for ten minutes. Lovely.” His opening line? “Hello, gorgeous!”
At the Vanity Fair party, hosted by Radhika Jones, I was surrounded by surreal celebrity pairings. At an outdoor bar, Marilyn Manson was talking with Bill Maher. Spike Lee, who was talking with Paweł Pawlikowski, the Polish director of “Cold War,” pumped up a fist and shouted, “Poland power!” On the dance floor in the back, Billy Eichner craned his neck over a huddle of onlookers trying to catch a glimpse of Glenn Close boogying down with Marisa Tomei. (This made me feel better about Close’s spirits.) Someone handed me a cookies-and-cream milkshake, and I watched Jason Momoa, wearing a pink tuxedo top over his bare chest, groove to “I’m Still Standing” with his wife, Lisa Bonet. Suddenly, he turned toward me and said, “Who sings this?” “Elton John,” I stuttered, not knowing what to think about being Aquaman’s personal Shazam app.
Nearby, Melissa McCarthy, who had changed into a black-and-white tracksuit, was dancing with a barefoot Amy Adams, to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Later, “We Are Family” blared, and I spotted Richard E. Grant again, now in an untucked white shirt and happily dancing with himself. He leaned in to photobomb the Adams clan taking a photo, then resumed his reverie. Madonna’s “Into the Groove” came on, and Grant jumped up and down, eyes closed in ecstasy, sweat streaming down his face. I watched him for some time, this exhilarated man who was born sixty-one years ago in Swaziland, having the best night of his goddam life.