THIS is an Oscar prediction: Thrice-nominated George Clooney will not stroll down the red carpet with a fabulous young woman on his arm. Nor, despite his joke the other day at the nominees luncheon, will he be bringing along Dick Cheney. He's going to be trailed by his publicist and possibly his agent. Or even his parents.
How do we know this? We don't, really. We're just guessing that Clooney, like everyone else in the camera's glare, will be following the unwritten rules of Oscar dating etiquette.
"The first rule," says talent manager Joan Hyler, "is to take someone you're comfortable with. The evening is high stress. When you start getting ready at 11 and you're in hair and makeup, it's completely nerve-racking. There's nothing about it that's not stressful." (This, undoubtedly, is why Angelina Jolie brought along her brother, James Haven, the night she won a best supporting actress Oscar for "Girl, Interrupted" in 2000. But why she then memorably deep-kissed him is an icky mystery for the ages.)
Oscar night, in other words, is not a time for first dates. Or second or third dates. It is, despite its world-class glamour and promise of memories unfading, a night for family, friends and business associates. Spouses, moms, kids, first cousins. Agents, publicists. Even best friends from high school.
"The Oscar date is always somebody you're married to or your mother. It's never just a date," said Oscar campaign strategist Tony Angelotti. "It's a long evening, and there's a lot of pressure. Who needs the extra tsoris of entertaining a date?"
The kiss of death
ONE Hollywood publicist said that Oscar night conditions are not conducive to bringing someone toward whom a celebrity is romantically inclined. "The pressure is so relentless," she said. "That whole thing of 'e're just friends....' It's the kiss of death. No one believes you. It's hard to make it fun."
That's true, said the always bashful Joan Rivers, who, with daughter Melissa, will be greeting arrivals for her TV Guide Channel gig. "Oscars is not the night to show off your latest conquest," she said. "And it ain't Slut City night. Oscar night truly is the family night, and people even dress that way; this is what you would wear to Grandma and Grandpa's 50th wedding anniversary."
Rivers said she makes a point of interviewing, and introducing, entire families as they traipse down the carpet. "It's very important, and if it's the child, no matter how prepubescent or ugly it is, you always say, 'Don't you look great?' You speak to the child even if the face is a pizza."
Actor-director Mario Van Peebles, who will not be attending the ceremony this year, said he usually decides who to bring based on "which family member bugs me the most and can come up with the tackiest outfit that we can match in." A few years ago, Peebles brought his young daughter, Maya. His cravat matched Maya's violet dress, and he described the overall effect as an "early Jimi Hendrix on the run kind of thing."
Last year, he and his pioneering filmmaker father, Melvin Van Peebles, attended together. "We were on the red carpet together and some British reporter said, 'What are you wearing?' And my dad said, 'Negro makes do.' It was really a kick." Part of the thrill of bringing his father, said Van Peebles, "was to take someone who so inherently gets the joke, who knows we are lucky to get to do what we do."
Indeed, bringing someone who does not understand the drill can be deadly. "You can never go with someone who gets anxious so that you have to take care of them," said Hyler. "Never go escorted by someone who may do the 'Oh my God, there's Catherine Deneuve.' It's difficult when you take a civilian because they may get star-struck. Stay away from relatives from Dayton who may take out a camera."
Newly divorced actresses, she added, "always come with their gay hairdressers, because you know that he'll look great, he'll adore you and your hair will be fabulous."
"You cannot go with someone you have to worry about," said Rivers, "because it is such a business night."
Part of the transaction is the stroll down the red carpet, which may look like a blast, but is actually something of an endurance test, said veteran publicist Pat Kingsley, whose clients include Jodie Foster (and used to include Tom Cruise). "Going to the Oscars is not always a fun night out. It's a lot of work. It can take up to 45 minutes to walk the red carpet. It's usually hot, it's the late afternoon." Friends and family who accompany a celebrity, said Kingsley, know to stay in the background during the red carpet ritual. "Everybody knows the drill."
The very married Felicity Huffman, a best actress nominee for her role as a transgender woman in "Transamerica," is expected to bring her husband, the actor William H. Macy. Nominees Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams would probably cause a scandal if they didn't show up together, since they are engaged to be married and are the parents of a baby girl.