It’s two hours before the Oscars begin, and I am running barefoot down the sidewalk a block from the Dolby theatre in Los Angeles. In the multiverse of ways my first trip to the Academy Awards could’ve played out, there was a version where I remembered I had a vehicle pass, my Uber made the correct stop and I wasn’t barricaded from the entrance. (There probably was not a version where Everything Everywhere All at Once, the most nominated film of the evening and by far the most cheered inside the auditorium, didn’t triumph over the ceremony.)
But that’s not how things went, so I found myself on the wrong side of the theatre and unable to call a car that could reach me. My Saint Laurent heels, sourced from a friend’s mom in New York the day prior – which was less than a day after I learned I was going to the Oscars as a last-minute replacement for a reporter with a visa snafu – are beautiful, but not the best for navigating the sidewalks, fences and crowds around Hollywood Boulevard. This has been written and told to me several times, but it’s still notable – the Oscars are basically held at a mall. One replete with tourists gawking for a glimpse at a celebrity and passersby seemingly confused as to why there are hordes of police cars, but still. It’s a theatre next to a Hard Rock Cafe, not necessarily the glamour you’d expect for Hollywood’s biggest night.
But once inside – and yes, after a location move, several Uber requests and 45 minutes of waiting in the “limo” security line in a sea of tinted-out black cars, I did make it in – the mystique hits. The walls and ceiling are undulating waves of red fabric, the carpet (controversially) champagne, with imposing gold statuettes signposting the way to the theatre. I’m ushered into the civilian line, a hair’s breadth from the actual red carpet, yet spiritually distant. “To your right, Ana!” I hear through the curtain as I make the less spotlit way into the heart of the event. The gossamer barricade flutters just enough for me to catch a glimpse of Barry Keoghan, the best supporting actor nominee from The Banshees of Inisherin, mixing among the cadre of stars, staff and press.
Post-carpet merge, I watch Zoe Saldana’s husband watch Zoe Saldana take a photo in one of those 360-degree hi-def cameras, as another Oscars usher urges us (civilians) forward, lest we be a “fire hazard”. Such are the Oscars, it turns out – a lot of chaos outside, a lot of non-celebrity people everywhere and, in a welcome pivot after last year’s incident, a well-oiled, disruption-free machine within.
After nearly stepping on Ava DuVernay’s sequined train, I arrive in the great atrium, four levels of constant refreshments, stratified by ticket colour. Several ushers pitch the food and drink on the upper levels, which is confusing at first because there is also a bar and canapes on this level, but this turns out to be a very convenient way to unwittingly get the civilians (me) up and away from the VIPs and then block them from returning down the stairs. No matter – I gaze over the atrium at the starry ground floor, where everyone looks like a handsomer version of people I vaguely know. (I realise later that a striking trio of blonds felt familiar because they are in fact the family of imprisoned Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, subject of the best documentary winner Navalny.) “Jason Blum!!!” someone shouts over the railing at, I assume, super-producer Jason Blum. The energy is nervous and fizzy, wine glasses bottoming up, as an overhead announcer counts down to the telecast in five-minute increments starting 50 minutes in advance.
Naturally, everyone waits until the last five minutes to make a mad dash for the seats, and it’s on to the show itself. In the same way that the Oscars, as an annual awards show, struggles to appeal to both blockbuster fans and film nerds happy to see all the technical categories restored to the telecast, the Oscars, as an in-person event, strikes a weird balance between television production and party. The official business is segmented by lights-up commercial breaks, during which seat fillers tend to empty chairs left by audience members liable to hang out by the bars for anywhere from five to 55 minutes. Stay seated, and you’ll witness the seams of a live TV production – instructions to clap as the commercial breaks end, speedy set assemblies for the five musical performances, the overheard camera zooming vertiginously around the room. That, and the hidden-to-TV interstitials: Halle Bailey skipping off stage trailed by Melissa McCarthy after introducing a preview of the live-action Little Mermaid, Florence Pugh’s playful smack of fellow presenter Andrew Garfield during the video montage for best adapted screenplay.
After some negotiation that included sending a picture of my driver’s licence to a security guard’s cell phone, I am able to make it down the two levels to the nominee floor, where I nearly trip over Cara Delevingne’s dress coming off the stairs. Jessie Buckley, nearly unrecognisable with spiky, cherry-red hair, is huddling with Women Talking costar Rooney Mara. The newly sober Delevingne, post-presenting an award, clinks glasses with Florence Pugh, resplendent in a billowy gown and bow-tied ponytail. Nominees and presenters trickle in and out of the auditorium for refreshments – it’s a three-and-a-half-hour show – or maybe just a breather. In the mix is Charlotte Wells, Bafta-winning director of Aftersun, who, though not nominated, says she’s excited for best actor nominee Paul Mescal to have his moment but “it’s nice not to worry about speaking.” (I sadly did not get to meet Mescal, but several sources report that both he and his parents, who were in attendance here, as at the Baftas, are lovely people.)
Public speaking as lubricated/imperilled by the open bar was on the mind of Daniel Kwan, one of half of now Oscar-winning best directors the Daniels, as we both ordered another drink halfway through the show. Was he nervous for what was to come? “Of course,” he says. He is sleep-deprived and in a whirlwind – “the whole thing feels surreal, like a dream” – and nervously anticipating the possibility of having to speak on live TV. I note that my section (mezzanine 2 left!) seemed to have a strong contingent of Everything Everywhere All at Once people – standing ovations for early, emotional winners Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis, which drew tears from several people, myself included. “Yeah, we roll deep,” he laughs.
Kwan’s fears were realised three times over – he and co-director Daniel Scheinert seem unfazed by the alcohol if overwhelmed by the attention while winning for best original screenplay, best directors and best picture (much to the appreciation of the crowd – no film drew close to as many cheers, “awws” or standing ovations as Everything Everywhere All at Once). And with that triumph, the auditorium swiftly empties into the no-longer-velvet-roped atrium, which funnels into escalators toward the Governors Ball, the big-tent afterparty held immediately following the ceremony in an adjoining building.
The Governors Ball resembles a gilded conference centre, albeit one adorned with floor-to-ceiling, black-and-white stills from best picture nominees, framed by dozens of electric candles. The stars flit through here on their way to the more discerning parties – there’s Martin McDonagh and Phoebe Waller-Bridge parked at a table and sipping margaritas, Seth Rogen hanging with Steven Spielberg, Fabelmans nominee Michelle Williams deep in conversation with Ariana DeBose, Mescal leading his parents through the crowd. Colin Farrell hugs at least seven people during the two minutes our paths intersect, clearly not smarting from the best actor loss to Brendan Fraser. “Oh my god, we had a blast!” he says. And even when pressed on the non-win – “oh yeah, I honestly had such a good time today, me and my boy,” referring to his date for the evening, 13-year-old son Henry, before getting pulled back into the Banshees swarm.
The ballroom is, by this point, at peak crowd, so heavily trafficked that I nearly run into Jay Ellis and friends as they take a photo. The Top Gun actor is attending his second Oscars but notes, with a fist pump, that it’s his first time with a film in play – “a lot of good energy in there tonight,” he says. Co-star Monica Barbaro is, like me, attending her first Oscars and, also like me, finding it a bit demystifying. “It’s more personable than you’d expect,” she says. “You watch it every year and then you’re here and you’re like, they’re all just people, in the best way.” Both advise me to write drunk, edit sober and, duly noted, I order another “Best Picture Paloma” next to one Miles Teller, showing off the dance moves he recently unveiled in that Super Bowl commercial. “I can’t help it,” he admits when I point out the similarity. “It’s always fun at these things,” he adds. “You don’t really see your fellow actors unless you’re on set, so it’s nice here, there’s no pressure. You just get to hang out.”
There’s a frisson of camera clicks and cheers, and attention pools around Brendan Fraser as he gets his Oscar engraved and poses, triumphant, with Ciara’s 1, 2 Step booming overhead. He’s joined on the engraving stage by best actress winner Michelle Yeoh, a radiant presence in a white feathered gown and diamond headband. She practically floats on and off the stage, a cloud of celebration trailing in her wake – cameras, assistants, well-wishers and a line of people to personally congratulate her before she slips, still surrounded, toward the exit.
The crowd is thinning at this point, as celebrities start heading to the Vanity Fair party and various other later affairs. As I wobble to the exit, I run into a friend from college who worked as a writing assistant on the show. She recalls that, during the full rehearsal, stand-ins were so committed to their roles as nominees that they researched and delivered full acceptance speeches as potential winners. She finds it kinda cringe; I find it endearing, the amount of people doing the most to make this show work, on and off screen – waiters, ushers, security, registrars, very enthusiastic pizza-makers, seat fillers who didn’t miss a beat. The teams are already out, cleaning up the discarded complimentary water bottles and trail mix packets, as the stars head on to the next party and I pick up an Americano (sorry Jay Ellis) for the ride back to my hotel.