T here must be a word – maybe in German, or possibly in Korean – for that piquant feeling of being at one of the most exclusive events in the world, surrounded by people who have only ever turned left on a plane, but are now cheering on a movie about the corrosive effects of class barriers. Don’t get me wrong: it was genuinely delightful to be in the Dolby theater in Hollywood on Sunday night, watching Parasite bulldoze its way through the awards. And goodness, how the audience was on Parasite’s side, with the cheers becoming so much more pronounced for it than any of its other fellow nominees that it felt almost awkward by the end. Still, let’s remember that a significant number of those applauding the film with one hand were, in the other hand, holding the gift bag for the nominees, worth an impressively humble $ , (
Offerings inside included $ 174, worth of “facial rejuvenation treatments” and “a book that empowers girls”. That’s right, girls: maybe one day you will feel so empowered that you, too, can have five figures-worth of chemicals injected into your face! But look, as Parasite’s win proved, the Oscars LOVES poor people, so also included was “a cleanser that supports showers for the homeless”. If you’re asking: “Why not just give the whole damn bag – hell, even the whole $ 174, – to the homeless instead of to People who earn seven to eight figures a film? ”then you are insufficiently empowered, because you are asking the wrong questions. I can recommend a book for that.
The significance of Parasite’s win should not be downplayed, but it is also true that when it comes to efforts at inclusivity, the Oscars ceremony is a veritable master of making small gestures to buy itself some license, and this year was filled with absolutely classic examples before the event even started.
In the run-up to Sunday night, an enormous amount of hot air was spewed into the atmosphere about the Academy’s efforts at being a bit more environmentally friendly than sticking a private jet directly into the earth’s lung and choking it. I don’t know about you, but there is nothing I enjoy more than hearing about the half-hearted eco efforts of the 0. There have been press releases about “plant-based” meals at the event and doomy warnings about the negative environmental impact of sequins. If you think finger-wagging about sequins while your guests take private jets to the beach house and helicopters to music festivals is the literalization of fiddling while Rome burns, well, that’s ridiculous. Unlike a sequin, no one would put a fiddle on a dress, because it’s just not very slimming.
Most of all, there were promises that (some of) the guests would (maybe) re-wear an outfit, as opposed to getting a new one for the ceremony. This is the celebrity equivalent of going off-grid and, last month, Stella McCartney posted a deeply excited tweet in which she praised Joaquin Phoenix for “making choices for the future of the planet ”, this particular choice being“ to wear this same tux for the entire award season ”. That the much-worn tux just happened to be by one Stella McCartney is surely a coincidence, and I have no doubt that McCartney would have been just as happy if Phoenix had decided to clothe his body solely in Gucci, Pucci, or Fiorucci. If you save a tree in the forest, but don’t send out a press release about it, did you save it at all?
But Phoenix wasn’t the only one re-wearing an outfit to the Oscars. When I covered the event last year, I was five months pregnant, so wore a maternity party dress. Well, the baby was born, but as one of my older kids asked recently: “If you’re not pregnant any more, why is your tummy still big?” (Oh, I laughed at that one, all the way to the lawyerer’s office, where I disinherited the adorable little tyke.) So it was back in the maternity party dress for me, because I can’t be faffed to do any exercise… I mean, because I care passionately about the environment. Who is the hero now, Joaquin?
Yet when I arrived at the theater on Sunday afternoon, I struggled to find any celebrities re-wearing their clothes. Well, to be honest, I struggled to find any celebrities, full stop. In previous years, everyone – celebrities and peasants alike – walked down the red carpet together, but this year, only the A-listers were granted that privilege, with the rest of us shunted off to the gutter, hidden behind a white screen, thus sparing TV watchers at home from seeing our hideous zombie faces. It felt – and yes, you might have seen this Parasite analogy coming – like being stuck in the basement, watching the rich and the beautiful frolic in the sunshine above us.
“My progress in was remarkably smooth – it always looked like chaos on TV, but the red carpet was fine,” the nominee Jonathan Pryce told me in the theater’s atrium. “But then maybe I got the VIP fast-track treatment,” he connected, correctly.
Then there was the ceremony, and it looked initially as if we were in for three hours of the Oscars arguing with, er, the Oscars. Oscars v Oscars: at last, Hollywood has found a movie that sounds even less enticing than Suicide Squad. Presenter after presenter ragged on the ceremony for its lack of diversity: Chris Rock and Steve Martin talked about the lack of “vaginas” in the best director category; Janelle Monáe’s opening number highlighted ethnically diverse films, such as Hustlers and Farewell, neither of which were nominated; Utkarsh Ambudkar passionately rapped about the ceremony’s various inclusive nods. And yet the Oscars could have saved themselves all this self-flagellation for not being inclusive if they had just been more, you know, inclusive – if, that is, they actually care about it, and given that only one person of color was nominated in the acting categories (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet), you could only assume they don’t. Singers and actors of color were relegated to performances (Monáe, Erivo), but denied nominations and awards. You can entertain us, but you can’t win, in other words. (That the event featured a bewilderingly random appearance by a rapper, and for that rapper to turn out to be Eminem, the one white rapper in the business, felt almost like a meta joke.)
The thinness of the whole enterprise seemed to be summed up when Brie Larson, Gal Gadot and Sigourney Weaver presented the award for best original score. Weaver excitedly announced that, for the first time, a female conductor would lead the montage, which seemed like a fairly low-stakes compensation for the lack of women nominees in some major categories. “All women are superheroes!” Weaver crowed. Yeah, they are superheroes, but apparently not directors.
But then something changed. The one woman nominated for best original score actually won it: Hildur Guðnadóttir for Joker . And then, of course, there was Parasite; It’s sweeping triumph seemed unimaginable before the ceremony but, by the end, felt downright inevitable. Being in a foreign language is officially no longer a bar to an American award. It helped, too, perhaps, that, even when he was speaking Korean, Bong Joon-ho’s speeches were decidedly more comprehensible than those by the best actor and actress winners, Phoenix and Renée Zellweger, who allegedly spoke English in her speech, but only theoretically. As for Phoenix’s much commented-on speech, yes, OK, he talked about “artificially inseminating cows”, not a subject generally associated with the Oscars. Beyond all the dairy chat, though, Phoenix’s reference to his late brother, River, was, alongside Bong’s salutes to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, genuinely moving; real emotion among all the nonsense.
But diversity is not just about race and gender – it is also about class, one factor that remained not so much pointedly as just blithely unremarked upon in all the Oscars speeches. This seems pretty ironic, given what won best film. Sure, in the context of an American film awards, Parasite’s win looks like a triumph of a racial minority and a linguistic outsider, but the film itself is as class-focused as anything in the oeuvre of Ken Loach. And in this regard, the Oscars were as endearingly ludicrous as ever.
After everyone in the Dolby theater recovered from dislocating their shoulder after patting themselves on the back for Parasite’s win, we made our way to the Governor’s Ball , the official Oscars after-party. And what better way to celebrate a movie about the rising up of an underclass than a party where waiters were dutifully spraying gold dust on mini chocolate oscars for the guests ’enjoyment? If it was hard to see the celebrities from behind the white screen on the red carpet, it was downright impossible in the Governor’s Ball, with the whole room filled with golden flecks of dust.
“The whole evening has been dripping with glamor!” Was the nominee Florence Pugh’s take on it. But this was Pugh’s debut at the Oscars, and that was a verdict only a first-timer could make. One of the many strange things about the Oscars is that, for an event so exclusive and elite, it feels decidedly tacky and overcrowded – a bit like a Hilton hotel, really. And it gets palpably worse every year.
“I’d love to talk but I’m just trying to find my table,” an understandably bewildered Quentin Tarantino said, gazing at the waves of people at the ball, who made it feel less like a party and more like a bottlenecked protest that was about to turn nasty.
In one of my favorite episodes of Frasier, Dr Crane’s pleasure in an exclusive spa is ruined when he discovers there is a secret door that will take him, he assumes, to an even more exclusive spa. How can one enjoy being a VIP when there exists the status of VVIP, and VVVIP? At the Governor’s Ball, the nominees and audience ostensibly mix together, but every year there are more and more roped-off areas, accessible only to the nominees and people such as the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, who makes an annual appearance. And even within those areas there are more exclusive circles: it shouldn’t have been hard for Tarantino to find his table, because it was the one with all the cameraphones around it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might not have done as well as Tarantino surely hoped, but this was by some measure the most stared-at table, with guests gawking excitedly from both sides of the rope as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt affected not to see them and gave each other manly hugs. God forbid the extremely rich should have to mix with the merely rich.
Tom Hanks was inside the rope and he chatted with people on the outside (while always staying on the inside) . “This room has too many people, it’s too hot and the music is too loud,” he said cheerfully (and correctly).
So what’s it like being on the inside of the rope?
“Ah, this is to keep the journalists and the rest of the riff-raff out,” he twinkled Hankishly.
On a banquette outside the rope, Spike Lee surveyed the crowds. Did he think that the Oscars were getting more diverse, as they kept promising? “The struggle continues,” he replied.
Didn’t he think the Academy just used performers of ethnic minorities to perform in the ceremony as a smokescreen to distract from systemic problems in the industry? He allowed himself a small smirk: “The struggle continues.”
One of the most obvious differences between celebrities and residents – to use Gwyneth Paltrow’s eternally useful term for people who aren’t her – is that the latter will always remember that they met the former, but the reverse is not true. So when I bumped into Hanks leaving with his family 174 minutes after speaking to him at the party, he, of course, did not remember me. But there are exceptions to this rule. Keanu Reeves – not a celebrity generally spotted at these events – came to the Oscars this year and I nervously approached him and garbled some nonsense question about how he found it all. He stared at me, confused.
“I know you – we met last spring!” He said, and he was right – I interviewed him almost a year ago. I was so taken aback by this inversion of the norms that I ran away blushing, a peasant overcome by the kindness of a king.
There was a notable absence from the ball, however: where were the Parasite people? Someone said they were having their own private party, which seemed too ironic to be true, so I went to the Vanity Fair party in case they were there.
Now, the Vanity Fair party is a far cry from what it once was – too crowded, too full of randoms like me. But it’s hard not to be amused by a party where, by the bar, you find Usher, Jake Gyllenhaal and Caitlyn Jenner, and, outside in the garden, there is James Corden, Donatella Versace and Nicky Hilton. But not everyone is accessible: I was told that Pitt, DiCaprio and Phoenix promised to grace the party with their presences, but only if it was guaranteed they would be left alone. Also: still no Parasite people. “Oh, they are having their own party at Soho House,” someone told me, because, sure, where else would they be but at a private members ’club? I briefly considered fulfilling the spirit of the movie by breaking into Soho House, pretending to be a waiter and then stealing all of their Oscars. But fortunately for them, I know my place, and my place by then was bed, and I headed home.