Oscars at War: A Sombre Party, a Gentler Glitz
By Frank DiGiacomo. The New York Observer, March 30, 2003

Near midnight, Pacific time, on March 23, actor Ryan O’Neal pulled Dr. Ruth Westheimer close to him at the Vanity Fair Oscar party and began to dance. Disheveled in an earth-toned suit, Mr. O’Neal hunched over the petite sex therapist as he swept around a small dance floor of his own making that was bordered by the D.J. booth and a couch where his intermittent girlfriend, actress Farrah Fawcett, the novelist Jackie Collins and bon vivant actor George Hamilton, in a walnut-hued tan and modified military brushcut, watched with mild amusement.

But the look on Ms. Westheimer’s face as she looked up-way up-into Mr. O’Neal’s puffy, sleepy eyes was one of sheer joy; a joy that, were this any other place, would have been suspect on a day that reacquainted America with the real costs of war.

But this was not just any place. This was the Vanity Fair Oscar party in chilly Los Angeles, a tent pitched adjacent to the paradigmatic Hollywood insiders restaurant, Morton’s, in which the considerable forces of Condé Nast had been marshaled to provide a coolly coddling environment where none of the plasma screen televisions that punctuated the pastel-Mondrian-esque décor were tuned to the 24-hour news channels, and where hawks and doves, ex-lovers and mortal enemies could coexist. In a world which creeps evermore toward the acidically divisive black-and-white world espoused by The New York Post and the Fox News Channel, the Vanity Fair party-even in its admittedly pared-down state -seemed, on the surface, a surreal microcosm of ignorant bliss in which the owner of those media outlets, Rupert Murdoch, his heir Lachlan, and their wives could be seen lolling on couches near the rear of the tent while a crowd of what their tabloid would call “peaceniks”-acting couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Buddhist Richard Gere and Best Supporting Actor winner Chris Cooper-prowled the party space.

But even though the effervescent laughter and small talk that rose up in the tent suggested that the crowd was grateful for these few hours of escape, the war still managed to infiltrate the party. Like the butterfly that beats its wings in one part of the world and causes a thunderstorm in another, the great fetid beast of death and carnage had dug its talons into the desert of Iraq and set off an earthquake that rattled the cosseted wards of Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Los Feliz during the hallowed festivities of Oscar week.

Step out of LAX after a plane flight from New York and suddenly your tension feels like a suit of medieval armor. The fear of terrorism that permeates our city is as hard to find in Los Angeles as a good newspaper. But a different kind of tension was palpable as the war in Iraq and the 75th Oscars ceremony headed for a collision.

It was the kind of tension that results when an event that is both the most resonant and the most frivolous celebration of American culture takes place, for the first time in almost 30 years, while, thousands of miles away, a city of barely legal men and women were amassing for a prolonged risking of their lives for this country. As Talk to Her director Pedro Almodovar told The Los Angeles Times , “The Oscars and the war will always be at odds.”

And you could feel that tension ratchet to a formidable level on the evening of March 19, when, shortly after the first anti-aircraft fire was spotted in the green, nightscope-lit sky of Baghdad, NBC’s Tom Brokaw said that what was about to unfold was “probably the most televised event in the history of mankind.” That was a boast that once belonged to the Academy Awards-but no longer.

And, in the days that followed, as the brave journalists in Iraq and Kuwait adjusted their body armor and readied their broadcasts, the reporters who annually embed themselves in the fleshy flanks of Hollywood’s Oscar pageant began to get the calls informing them that because of the situation in Iraq, the press was no longer invited to cover the main events that surrounded the Oscars. Just as the Academy had decided to roll up its red carpet, so did Vanity Fair and the forces at InStyle .

Hollywood has a disregard for the press that’s pretty comical-when you’re not suffering the brunt of it-and suddenly there was a legitimate reason to give us the back of their hand.

At least in one case, the political situation was used as an excuse to disinvite reporters in the same way that Curb Your Enthusiasm ‘s Larry David used his mother’s death to duck his social responsibilities. On March 20, the day that The New York Times reported that art dealer Larry Gagosian and three business associates-including newsprint mogul and art collector Peter Brant-had been sued by federal prosecutors for allegedly “cheating the government of $26.5 million in unpaid income taxes, interest and penalties on art they bought using a shell corporation,” Mr. Gagosian’s publicist, Nadine Johnson, left a message about an art opening for Ed Ruscha at his Beverly Hills gallery that evening: “It’s just too crazy with the war escalating and the current political climate-we didn’t think it was appropriate,” Ms. Johnson said.

Oddly enough, one of the few companies that didn’t bar the press from their events was also the company that, this year, took a lot of guff from the press: Miramax. On Mar. 22, the company held its annual pre-Oscars cocktail party at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City, where, instead of holding their annual Max Awards skits in which they lampoon the movies they made, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, speaking in a quiet voice as if that’s what the times dictated, showed a “Best Of” reel of skits past, which exhumed the ghost of Tina Brown and Talk magazine. At the end of the evening, cabaret singer Michael Feinstein came onstage and tried to encourage the audience to sing along with him to “God Bless America.” There was some eye-rolling, but at least one person joined in with gusto: tycoon Marvin Davis, who was wheeled into the hotel auditorium in a wheelchair and then transferred to the throne-like chair that seems to follow him wherever he goes. Frankly, Mr. Davis did not look like a man who was making a run for Universal. He looked frail and thin and his dark head of hair had gone gray. But he sang along with Mr. Feinstein.

And when it was over and the crowd began filing back out into the party, we asked Mr. Davis if his presence at the party meant that if he acquired Universal he would attempt to hire the Weinstein brothers.

“Who?” Mr. Davis said.

Instead of canceling their parties, Hollywood’s elite just canceled the press. “Nobody wants to go out and be the happy idiot waving in their ruffled dress while there’s bombs dropping over Baghdad and our helicopters are crashing,” said Howard Bragman, a Los Angeles-based public relations executive-his firm is called 15 Minutes-who has done work for Monica Lewinsky, among other clients, and now teaches his profession at the University of Southern California.

“And it’s taken for granted that the media’s a pain in the ass,” he said, before adding with a little smile: “So when you power guys come from New York it scares us small town people here.”

Mr. Bragman had one other observation. “If Bill Clinton were President he would have delayed the war until after the Oscars,” he said.

But the luxurious, Hollywood-centric 90’s were long gone, and while a CNN report said that President Bush was urging Americans to take a load off and “embrace” the NCAA basketball tournament, no official voice seemed to be sticking up for the Academy.

By Sunday, March 23, the producers of the Academy had found the appropriate response. The dresses and the jewels were a little more tasteful, but hardly the Amish wear that was predicted to be modeled. And though the red carpet was eliminated, the press was not. Rather, they were pruned back to useful still photographers and a few ABC stand-up reporters interviewing mostly the home team-Disney and Miramax stars.

However, if there is one thing that saved the Oscars on March 23 it was Steve Martin and the stage patter that he and the writers put together. “Well I’m glad they cut back on all the glitz,” Mr. Martin said of the vanished red carpet. “That’ll send them a message.”

Although the chill Mr. Martin lost some of that cool when a few jokes into his opening monologue, he realized that the crowd was with him. He had an intimidating-even brutally scary-task on a day when the bloody, gritty reality of the war had first faced American viewers. “I thought I’d rather be Saddam Hussein than Steve Martin,” writer Fran Lebowitz said later. But Mr. Martin’s face seemed to flush with relief and gratitude as he turned the theater into a kinder, gentler and cleaner version of a Friars roast, replete with anachronistic jokes about the shortest guy in the house, still Mickey Rooney (“Stand up, Mickey!”) and the horniest guy in the house, still Jack Nicholson. Mr. Martin’s comeback to Best Documentary winner Michael ( Bowling for Columbine ) Moore’s “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” rant was a keeper: “The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo,” Mr. Martin said. And among the memorable unplanned moments was the freaked-out look on Michael Douglas’ face when he saw the mug shot of a strung-out looking Nick Nolte. That’s not funny , Mr. Douglas seemed to be thinking. That’s how I look in the morning .

As went the Oscars, so went the Vanity Fair party. The organizers did away with the red carpet, pared down the guest list, kept the glitz quotient medium cool, and in either a stroke of counterintuitive brilliance or just plain forgetfulness, left a yellow can of Original Scent Lysol in the men’s-room stall. Which may have been the McGuffin indicating that at the last minute, they had decided to let some reporters cover the post-show proceedings.

But first there was dinner. Mr. Murdoch, his pregnant wife Wendi Deng, son Lachlan and his wife Sarah, rocker Elvis Costello and his new musical girlfriend Diana Krall, Mr. O’Neal, Ms. Fawcett, Tonight Show host Jay Leno, writer Gore Vidal, Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, his date for the evening, Marisa Berenson, and Mr. Gagosian dined on steak and French-not Freedom-fries. Mr. Gagosian’s presence was especially interesting given that, in the days leading up to Oscar week, former New York Post editor Vicky Ward had been calling art-world sources and telling them she was writing a piece on the beleaguered art deal for the magazine.

After the dessert plates were cleared, many of the guests repaired to the couches and ottomans in the tent where D.J. Steve McMahon was laying down a low-key, jazz- and swing-inflected vibe. Among those who stayed in the restaurant proper were producer and The Kid Stays in the Picture documentary subject Robert Evans, who stood talking to agent Jeff Berg as Mr. Evans’ wife attempted to phone director Roman Polanski-who directed Chinatown for Mr. Evans when he ran Paramount in the 1970’s-in Paris, from the reservation phone. Mr. Evans wasn’t able to reach the director, whom he used to refer to affectionately as the “Polack.”

In the tent near the D.J. booth, Fran Lebowitz sat on one of the couches, enjoyed a post-prandial cigarette and gave Mr. Martin’s performance a thumbs-up.

At that moment, recently departed USA Networks chief executive Barry Diller bounded up to Ms. Lebowitz. The media mogul looked like he’d just come from the office after a day of crunching Expedia’s numbers. He was dressed in shirtsleeves and a tie.

“Do you know what this is?” Mr. Diller said triumphantly to Ms. Lebowitz.

The writer squinted at Mr. Diller and said she couldn’t see what he was brandishing.

“This is the order I placed for In-N-Out Burger,” he said, then walked away. Though some frills had been sacrificed in the interest of decorum-press line, live band, Mike Ovitz-the In-N-Out burger counter at the back of the tent, apparently a favorite of the magazine’s editor in chief, Graydon Carter, had been spared.

Ms. Lebowitz said nothing as Mr. Diller high-tailed it back to his burger.

What did she make of Mr. Moore’s speech?

“Michael Moore was right,” she said. “But the amount of self-regard … “

Just a few feet away, on the other side of Mr. O’Neal and Ms. Fawcett and her Zang Toi dress with the replica of the American flag sewn into one fold of the train, Mr. Vidal was struggling to his feet using his cane to steady himself. What did he make of the disconnect between the Oscar hoopla and the war in Iraq?

Mr. Vidal gave a perturbed look, but then he said: “Weird similarities.” He fiddled a bit with his cane, then added: “You know the U.S. could lose this war.” He mentioned Korea, Vietnam. “But the boastfulness,” he said, “of the President and the media.” Then he headed for the exit.

Passing Mr. Vidal on the way into the tent were singer Aimee Mann and her husband Michael Penn, brother of Sean. Ms. Mann seemed to hesitate a bit when she spotted Mr. Costello and the pleasingly zaftig Ms. Krall in the slowly growing crowd. Back in the early 90’s, Ms. Mann was known as Mr. Costello’s protégé-they co-wrote “The Other End of the Telescope” and there were always those rumors-and when she spotted the singer, she whispered something to her husband before plunging over to give Mr. Costello a big hug. Introductions were exchanged and then suddenly, Ms. Krall looked a little sullen and Mr. Costello reached out and massaged her back reassuringly.

It was a small gesture, in a night of small gestures. There were few abrupt moves, loud squeals, demonstrations of dirty dancing or excessive public displays of affection, save for Ms. Kidman-a bit too giggly and daft under pressure to be a real movie star-who, upon seeing the determinedly tweedy Royal Tenenbaums director Wes Anderson screamed, “Wes, OH MY GOD!” and dragged the pie-eyed director into a more private corner of the room.

Otherwise, it was wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and lots of discreet magic-finger massages, like the one that Sheryl Crow gave to Mr. Carter, even though Mr. Carter spent a lot of the evening with a petite beauty named Anna Scott, whose father was once in the employ of Queen Elizabeth. (“She’s a friend,” Mr. Carter said the following day.) Later in the night, Mr. Diller and his wife Diane von Furstenberg held hands as they walked through the tent, and in what seems like a case of stepfather worship, Ms. Von Furstenberg’s son Alex appeared at the party with a shaved head.

About the most brazen sexual display all night involved the model Iman and Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman Walker taking turns licking a lollipop that bore the photographic image of Dennis Quaid, just one of the magazine’s cover guys that had been turned into a celebrity sucker. The second-most brazen involved Heather Graham, who seemed intent on making a connection with U2’s frontman Bono, though he had come with his wife, Ali Hewson. At a moment when the Mrs. didn’t seem to be around, we saw Ms. Graham batting her eyes at Bono and overheard her telling him, “me and my friends were saying we’re not going to the bathroom, we’ll miss U2.”

Ms. Graham also seemed to be commiserating with the singer over the band’s loss to Eminem for the Best Song Oscar. “This town loves success,” Bono could be heard saying as he explained that the rapper’s movie, 8 Mile , had not cost that much to produce and had made a lot of money whereas Gangs of New York , for which U2 had written “The Hands That Built America” had cost more and not fared as well.”

As midnight approached, Oscar winners began to tumble in: Ms. Kidman, Adrien Brody, Peter O’Toole, and Chicago producer Marty Richards, who still seemed to be a little gaga from the experience. Mr. Richards, who had the Democratic committee’s Robert Zimmerman following him with his Oscar in hand, seemed to be realizing all the people he had forgotten to thank in the heat of his ecstasy. “It’s going to cost me a fortune in Variety ads to make it right,” Mr. Richards said. Vince Vaughn came, and Secretary’ s Maggie Gyllenhaal said she found it “interesting” that Chelsea Clinton had told her brother Jake in Interview magazine that Hillary Rodham Clinton had liked her movie. A lot. But then Ms. Gyllenhaal added a bit of a caveat to the Senator’s coolness quotient: “Although Hillary Clinton seems to have taken all sorts of weird uncommitted political strategies lately,” she said. She meant, it seemed, the war.

Nominee Martin Scorsese came and left like a ghost. Jack Nicholson didn’t come nor Warren Beatty, who’s been a regular there for years, and the party seemed a little light on the kind of heavy hitters-like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts-that have appeared in the past, although Mr. Cruise didn’t seem to be at the Oscars.

Near the airlock where the tent connected to Morton’s, Mr. Cruise’s former Days of Thunder producer Jerry Bruckheimer stood nursing a Heineken. Given that Mr. Bruckheimer is producing Profiles from the Front Line , a Cops -like series following the exploits of our armed forces in Afghanistan, we asked him how he felt about Iraq coverage he had seen on television.

“It’s rough,” Mr. Bruckheimer said. The sad thing is those kids don’t make the policy. They enforce it. And, he said, “I was just saying that this is the first war to be shown in living color.” The producer added that because of the relationships forged with such Bush Administration officials as Donald Rumsfeld, “we could have gone right into Iraq with them,” he said, “but we couldn’t get ABC to pay for it.”

It was the most direct conversation about the war overheard all night. And Mr. Carter concurred that once the party started, he didn’t hear much about the war either. “I heard a lot about it at dinner,” he said. “But I think people were relieved not to have to talk about it.”

But there were moments when the tension caused by the situation in Iraq seemed to manifest itself in other ways. As reported in dailies, ICM agent Ed Limato threw a vodka drink on Page Six editor Richard Johnson over items he had written about his former client Jennifer Lopez and a current one, Mel Gibson. Mr. Johnson said Mr. Limato seemed drunk. Mr. Limato denied the war had anything to do with his actions, but said: “I hope he likes vodka.”

And Tim Robbins took Washington Post Reliable Source columnist Lloyd Grove to task. Mr. Robbins declined to comment about it at the party, but, as Mr. Grove wrote, the peacenik’s comments to the reporter were: “If you write about my family again, I will fucking find you and I will fucking hurt you.”

Jennifer Lopez and her fiancé Ben Affleck showed up without any bodyguards in tow. A Vanity Fair source said that there was never a discussion over whether Ms. Lopez, who usually travels with an entourage the size of a football team’s offensive line, would arrive with any more muscle than Mr. Affleck. The couple stayed a long time, too, lounging on couches across the room from Mr. Murdoch and near the back of the tent. One guest said that he heard the couple talking about real estate in Savannah, Ga.

Hovering near them was the hip-hop artist Eve, who sported what looked like a tattoo of a bear paw above each of her breasts. They were real, she said, “and they hurt” when she got them. This being her first Vanity Fair party, Eve said she was “buggin’” because “I’m a fan of the movies and I’m studying acting right now and these actors keep coming up to tell me that they love my stuff.”

Like who?

“Like Ben Affleck,” Eve said.

Did that mean that Ms. Lopez was throwing some shade her way?

“No, I love J. Lo,” Eve said.

But the celebrity who seemed to be spreading the most love was Ms. Hudson, who seems destined to be the future mayor of Hollywood. The star of How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days seemed cover all the bases in the tent. Toward the beginning of the night, she could be seen chatting with fashion designer Donna Karan.

“Men, you know,” Ms. Hudson said to the designer.

“Men I don’t know,” replied Ms. Karan.

Mr. Brody arrived with his mother, the photographer Sylvia Plachy. He was besieged the moment he arrived at the party. His speech had struck a nerve, especially the part in which he talked about his friend from Queens, Tommy Zarabinski. Mr. Brody said his buddy was serving in the Army, but he seemed reluctant to offer up more information about his friend. He said he didn’t know if Mr. Zarabinski was seeing action. And when we asked him if anything his friend had said to him had influenced his articulate speech, Mr. Brody gave a sharp look and said, simply, “No.”

And then the crowd swallowed him up.

Harvey Weinstein toured the party in a rumpled tux, but, unlike previous years, where he presided over intimate after-parties in some secret location, he was only good until 2 a.m. “I don’t think anybody was in the mood,” Mr. Weinstein said on March 25. “The show had to go on, and the show did go on,” he said, “and if you saw Entertainment Tonight , you saw that some of our guys in Iraq watched the Oscars and they were why the show was worth doing.”

A year ago, after trying to sell Chocolat at the Oscars, Mr. Weinstein and Miramax officials had vowed to return to making and acquiring the movies that had made their reputation in the first place. And that’s pretty much what they did with Gangs , Chicago , Frida and The Quiet American .

“It feels great,” Mr. Weinstein said of the company’s performance. “He even took some credit for Ms. Kidman’s Oscar given that, he said, Miramax owned half of The Hours .” “And we won the Big One,” he said.

But they also lost a big one, when Mr. Scorsese didn’t get the Best Director Oscar despite a heavy campaign that rankled some Academy members. “Listen, I think that Marty was pleased that Roman won,” Mr. Weinstein said. “But what can I say. Gangs is the quintessential New York movie. We’ll get it more than $80 million. It’s a profitable picture for us.” And that, Mr. Weinstein said, rankled the West coast establishment. “They don’t want Marty to succeed,” he said, his voice taking on some heat. “I don’t care what kind of campaign is run. When Raging Bull was released, practically nothing was done for his Oscar campaign. And he didn’t win then either.

“It’s more about Marty and his maverick filmmaking style, which, I think, scares the shit out of people,” Mr. Weinstein said. “Maybe I fought too hard, but when I talked to Marty about previous campaigns virtually nothing had been done for him.”

And Mr. Weinstein called the flap over the Robert Wise column endorsing Mr. Scorsese’s nomination as best director of Gangs “bullshit.”

“With Marty it’s always the same thing. Los Angeles versus New York,” Mr. Weinstein said. “And he does not march to that beat.

“They want people to bleed without blood,” Mr. Weinstein said, then added that he had asked a “high-ranking” Academy official why they do this to us, and that the official replied, “Because you can take it.”

But then Miramax’s co-chairman seemed to calm down a bit. He said that Miramax was going to sit down with the Academy and seek the formation of “some oversight committee” that would clarify the rules about Oscar campaigns and put an end to the backbiting.

“Look, I love the Oscars. I love the Academy. I love all of it,” he said, sounding like a man who was looking at a medium-rare T-bone steak with all the trimmings. “The Oscars,” he said, “were good for the movies this year. This year, the Oscars grew up.”

Mr. Weinstein actually looked pensive.

“Yeah,” Mr. Weinstein added. “We did too.”

As the clock passed 2 a.m. the tents began to empty.

Near the airlock, Colin Farrell barreled up to Peter O’Toole and asked if he could be photographed with him. Dark-haired and twitchy, Mr. Farrell put his arm around Mr. O’Toole and said something to him about the Lawrence of Arabia star being “the elder statesman.” Mr. O’Toole listened as he clumsily inserted a cigarette into his posh holder and then put the contraption in his mouth. The cigarette hung at a 45-degree angle from the holder, but Mr. O’Toole made no effort to fix it. Instead, he stroked the back of Mr. Farrell’s neck as the amateur photographer snapped the photo.

And then it was over, Oscar night 2003.

The crowd moved onto the sidewalk . Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones star Natalie Portman stood with a group of friends, talking about school reunions. One of the valets-a strapping, unkempt Jason Schwartzman Doppelgänger -looked into the crowd of V.I.P.’s and nudged one of his fellow footmen. “She was checking me out,” he said, with a smile.

Hope springs eternal, but somehow, even in this heady setting hope seemed out of reach. It was impossible not to think that halfway around the world, girls and boys their age in fatigues were probably talking about something else.

Over in Century City, at the St. Regis Hotel, the Miramax party, usually an until-dawn affair, was already closing down and Harvey Weinstein, though his team’s Chicago had won the Best Picture, was nowhere to be found. Upstairs in the hotel’s penthouse, trays laden with sausage, eggs and other forms of breakfast went untouched. A few journalists walked forlornly through the empty rooms looking for star power, but there was none. Down in the St. Regis lobby a hotel employee stood cutting open freshly delivered bales of the next day’s New York Times . The headline read: ” ALLIES AND IRAQIS BATTLE ON 2 FRONTS; 20 AMERICANS DEAD OR MISSING, 50 HURT .”


articles from Vanity Fair by Frank DiGiacomo

The Game Has Changed
March 2008

John Mellencamp: One from the Heartland
February 2007

The Esquire Decade
January 2007

The Gossip Behind the Gossip
December 2004

articles from The New York Observer by Frank DiGiacomo

Puff Daddy’s Black and White Ball ’98
December 3, 2006

The Bling of Comedy
February 8, 2004

Baldwin Aroused
November 30, 2003

Triumph Sniffs a Hit
October 19, 2003

Jack Carter Smothers Brothers at Rip-Roaring Friars Roast
October 12, 2003

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