On TV, it played like the year of the Big Tent. Old Hollywood, black Hollywood, Spanish-speaking Hollywood, trailer-park Hollywood, Magic-Johnson-Theatres Hollywood -- this year's Oscars seemed to have something for every constituency.
But Big Tents are never as spacious as they seem from the outside, are they? Just getting into the Kodak Theatre on Sunday night was a tutorial in the price of inclusiveness as it is practiced in the world of stardom: Stop at checkpoint, present ticket and I.D. to uniformed police officers. Stop at second checkpoint, roll down all vehicle windows, pop trunk, let more uniformed police officers search car.
Pull past crowds of screaming fans lined up behind barricades on greasy Hollywood side streets. Present ticket again, this time to obsequious valet guy. Step forward onto very wide red carpet. Stumble toward yet another ticket-taker with a herd of surprisingly ordinary-looking people in nice clothes interspersed with a handful of very tiny and beautiful people in jewel-toned gowns and wee tuxes. Pass great banks of paparazzi. Blink at blinding bronze tautness of Joan Rivers' cheekbones. Stagger sideways into Leo DiCaprio, who is waving to the bleachers, his moon face beatific in the strobe lights.
Cross the threshold toward a big, open stairway down which the tiny and beautiful Kirsten Dunst and her look-alike brother are gliding. Watch yet another ticket-taker tell the schlemiel behind them that, sorry, he can't go down these stairs to the cocktail party where all the stars are. He has to go to a different floor if he wants a cocktail. The guy gazes over the banister -- here's Laura Linney, there's Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas -- as the tiny and beautiful Emmy Rossum of "The Phantom of the Opera" descends.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar parties -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about Oscar parties referred to Lars Ulrich as Metallica's lead singer. He is the band's drummer.
So it went under Sunday's Big Tent. As the evening wore on, it was clear that, really, a tent could only be so big. Nervous at the possibility of low ratings when fewer and fewer people care about more and more award shows, the Oscars took a chance and rejiggered the show's formula to emphasize mass over class, at least in front of the cameras.
But in the house, as host Chris Rock might say, the scene was more nuanced. Mass is democratic and inclusive, but Hollywood is all about social stratification. The stars have to be distant or they'll lose their magic and people won't buy tickets.
So the faces were a little different, but most of the rules remained unchanged. There were stars and then there were big stars and then there was everyone else. The pre-awards parties at the Kodak Theatre were divided into levels -- the higher the status, the lower the floor. Same with the seats. Same with the humor.
"Who is Jude Law?" Rock demanded a few minutes into an opening bit that drew roars from the cheap seats high in the back of the theater and raised more than a few hackles in the front rows. "Why is he in every movie I've seen for the past four years? He's in everything! Even movies he's not in, you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something!" Hollywood likes to be kidded (Robin Williams is beloved, and where was Jack with his famous shades) but only in a kinder, gentler way.
Later, Sean Penn took the stage to tartly remind that Law is "one of our finest actors." Penn spoke for a different constituency, the insiders for whom the Oscars aren't a mere TV show (the way they are, say, for the folks at the Magic Johnson Theatres, whose raves about the movie "White Chicks" were beamed in to varied amusement) but a celebration of a serious art form.
Still later, at the after-parties, the buzz was all about whether Rock, the "outsider" host who had been hired on the promise that he might do something worth watching, such as being offensive, had merely managed to offend the wrong people.
"I thought what he said about Jude Law was unacceptable," muttered one producer after the ceremony, as he awaited his Governors Ball plate of slow-braised Kobe beef short ribs.
"You know what? Lighten the ... up! That little speech Sean Penn came up with, that's the reason people hate liberals," opined another producer, Nelson George, sitting across the room with Sean Combs (ne "P. Diddy").
"You were great," former "Saturday Night Live" costar Adam Sandler assured Rock as a crowd of well-wishers thumped his small back and yelled (to his face, at least), "You killed -- killed!"
Chris Rock: the reviews
But early reviews of the show called his monologue "mean-spirited," and at the Vanity Fair party, Jermaine Dupri, the boyfriend of Janet Jackson, whom Rock also dissed gently, sailed past him without acknowledgment. Apparently interpreting it as a snub, Rock quipped to Def Jam's Russell Simmons, "I didn't touch the brother!" Simmons, acting fast, pressed his Buddhist prayer beads onto Rock's hand. "Here," he said. "Touch these."