I watched the Academy Awards last night more out of habit than either curiosity or expectation of any great entertainment value. And, I suppose, a little bit of deja vu.
Except possibly for an invitation to a presidential inaugural, there's no greater one-upmanship than an invitation to the Academy Awards. I attended them for 12 years, and it was a sure grabber at a cocktail party.
"Can we get together for some tennis Wednesday?"
"No, I'm sorry. I've got to go to the Academy Awards."
I was amused at a piece in The Times last week about the unsuccessful efforts of Judge Joseph Wapner--who presides over TV's "People's Court"--to get tickets to the ceremony. The motion picture industry's "A" list is tougher to make than a World Series for the California Angels.
The public relations firm that handles the invitations for the Academy has listened to pleas from some of the most creative and most powerful people in the world, and they're impervious. The invitation list for people beyond the membership of the Academy is weighed strictly on what you have done recently or can do for the motion picture industry. When your usefulness ceases--or even comes into question--you're gone.
I used to be invited because I wrote about Hollywood in what the industry considered highly important outlets (particularly the National Observer, the weekly extension of the Wall Street Journal). When the Observer went under, I continued to write about motion pictures for several highly visible national magazines, but I became suspect. And when entertainment became secondary to other subjects I wrote about, I was dropped instantly from the "A" list. My old buddies in the industry were sorry, but you know how it is, Joe.
I know, but it was a good run while it lasted. The practice in those years (I don't know if this is still true) was to give the "A" list journalists press credentials and two guest tickets to the awards. I could sit in the auditorium with a guest or--as I always did--give away both my tickets and watch from the press room several floors up from the auditorium. We watched on TV monitors and then had the winners and presenters delivered in person to us.
My wife tired of the fuss after several years, and so my then-high school and college-age children and some close friends had a rare opportunity to rub elbows with Hollywood royalty. We tried to use these tickets for people who would really be blown away by the chance to go--and such people weren't hard to find. One of the most ecstatic was a student of mine at UCI named Stephen Silverman, who recently won a 3-year lawsuit against CBS to free him to put on a Broadway musical about Amos 'n' Andy.
There's nothing quite like walking past the screaming bleachers full of people who have waiting all day to see their idols. They gawk as you get out of your car, then let out a distinct "naaaah" of displeasure as they realize you aren't anyone important. We would then wait just inside the door for the celebrities to arrive, forming our own set of discreet inside bleachers. There's an unwritten rule that the More Important you are in Hollywood, the later you arrive at the award ceremony, so there was always a lot of friction between ushers trying to get us to our seats and the desire to hang out for late arrivals.
The action in the press room upstairs was frenetic. The foreign press would always arrive early and sweep the buffet table clean. Presenters and winners would be fed to each group one at a time, and it always appalled me that the technical award winners would be virtually ignored by reporters who would give all their attention to the presenters--usually actresses with considerable decolletage who would try to retreat to the background so the sound or cinematographer winners they were shepherding could be the center of attention.
Occasionally, there would be small dramas than transcended all this frenetic activity. The most vivid to me was the night Jane Fonda won the best actress award for "Coming Home" and Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" won best picture. When the lights were off, and the TV coverage had segued into the sitcom that followed, Fonda and Cimino got into a fascinating and acrimonious debate about the liberties with accuracy Cimino had taken in his tale about the Vietnam War. I was one of the few reporters still hanging around and listening when it happened.
I think on these things more than I pay attention to what is happening on the TV screen when I watch the Academy Awards now. And I guess I also wish I could make the "A" list one more time for the 11-year-old in my household who would happily give up his baseball card collection if he could go just once.