There is nothing sadder than the sight of a hundred journalists forced into formalwear.
That is what I am greeted by at the Century City parking garage where I wait in line for the shuttle ride to the Beverly Hilton -- reporters and camera crews, looking uncomfortable or holding their chins up defiantly, daring you to make fun of them in their monkey suits and satin dresses. When we get aboard, an "Access Hollywood" anchor in a red gown begs the driver to turn down the air conditioning.
The carpet emerges from the limo drop-off, stretching past the fan bleachers and the photographers' pen before leisurely wrapping around the hotel's circular driveway. There is plenty of room for each of the hundreds of reporters to find space on the railing, like visitors at a very plush zoo.
Forty-five minutes before show time in the International Ballroom, people begin filing in. With red carpet time still available, the more important guests wait until the final minutes to take their seats. The seating chart is roughly divided as follows:
* The pit in front of the stage: movie stars and moguls.
* First ring around the pit: TV stars and producers.
* Second ring: TV supporting stars and others not involved with any heavily nominated project, and members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.
* Outer ring: journalists, hangers on and other flotsam who somehow conned their way in.
True to legend, a cocktail party atmosphere prevails.
Donald Sutherland stands at a table in the center of the room, seeming to hold court. The non-heavyweights in the outer rings attend to the tandoori shrimp appetizers on their plates.
In the near empty cocktail lounge off the main room, the cast of "Will & Grace" has its first drinks of the night -- Champagne for Debra Messing; beer for the gentlemen. Nathan Lane greets one: "Hello, Sean Hayes." Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams cower with endearing nervousness and discomfort in a corner.
Fifteen minutes to air and the waiters hover nervously around the tables, hoping the food service can be completed before the show starts -- leaping to swap devoured shrimp plates for the steak and fish with asparagus, the carrot and tater tot main course, then the vanilla ice cream topped by a hard chocolate gold dome.
With eight minutes to go, a flood of celebrities gushes down the aisle onto the floor. An announcer begs people to be seated, and celebs tumble in faster than I can identify them. Pierce Brosnan, Mel Brooks and Natalie Portman race past in one eyeful.
Ten seconds to air and "Lost's" Dominic Monaghan desperately looks for his table, a search made harder now that the table numbers have been removed. As the final countdown begins, he throws himself down at the table in front of me. And suddenly, the lights go dim, the opening montage appears on the big screens.
Miraculously, the room has seated itself and the show begins.
There is the sheer whiplash of seeing stars out of every corner of your eye, joined together in unlikely combinations -- Drew Barrymore talking with Paul Giamatti, Steven Spielberg and Ziyi Zhang. One woman tells me of her thrill in the ladies' room seeing Scarlett Johansson and Mandy Moore simultaneously "adjust themselves."
On the other hand, it's impossible to overstate how noisy the hall is.
The back third of the ballroom is filled with tables, which have almost no view of the stage. Accordingly, about 90 seconds into the ceremony, the people at those tables get up and begin milling around the room and into the smoking patio and cocktail lounge (where a buffet is served throughout the show), creating a din that at times overwhelms the stage.
Quiet, somber speeches like Anthony Hopkins' sound very strange under the sounds of this huge party going on in the back. By the second commercial break, the people in the front of the room are ignoring the announcers' admonitions to race back to their seats.
People stand and roam, wandering to the patio and to the bathrooms freely. By halfway through the show, stars are typing at their BlackBerries and making phone calls, not just at the breaks but during the show.
You hardly ever see anyone smoking in L.A., but every last single celeb seems to smoke. All of them were out on the smoking patio puffing away at one point or another. I won't even list them because it was really, truly every last one.
Stray thought No. 1
Johnny Depp seems to occupy some otherworldly tortured artist stratosphere that makes the rest of Hollywood look down-to-earth. He was the only star I saw who had a bodyguard escorting him around the room.
When he came out to smoke, the guard warded off a couple of thrill seekers who approached him: "Can we please leave him alone for a minute."
Celebrity wedding table
Throughout the evening, at the table directly in front of me, I am treated to the spectacle of what happens when a group of celebrities, many of whom don't know each other, must interact and make small talk through the course of a long event.