How NOT to attend the Oscars

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On Monday morning, water cooler conversations around the country  — and around the globe — will focus on Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast.  We’ll discuss the surprise winners (if any) and dissect the red carpet fashion triumphs and missteps.  We’ll talk about how good it was to see Billy Crystal back as the host and how the whole evening was a love letter to old Hollywood.  Inevitably, one of the questions that will be posed among co-workers is “where did you watch the show?,” as Oscar viewing parties are as ubiquitous as Super Bowl soirees.
When asked that question thirteen years ago I had the surreal pleasure of making this smug reply: “Oh, I watched them live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A.”  That’s right, I was fortunate enough to actually attend the 71st Annual Academy Awards on March 21, 1999.

All these years later, the whole experience still seems a bit of a blur.  How did I — a nice midwestern boy who grew up watching the Oscars on TV — end up walking down the same red carpet as Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks?  In short, I was working at Entertainment Weekly magazine at the time and by some fluke was chosen to attend the ceremony with a colleague and a couple of big advertising clients.

I planned everything perfectly.  Tux?  Check.  Room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, the epicenter for pre-Oscar hubbub?  Check.  Limo?  Check.  Invitations to what was sure to be the best after party in Oscar history?  Check.  What could possibly go wrong on that magical night?

Everyone warned us how horrible the traffic would be and that we should leave really early.  So we did.  In fact, we left so early and made such great time that we were pretty much the first ones there.  I think they were still vacuuming the red carpet.  That carpet was divided in half down the middle by a velvet rope.  Nominees, presenters and other glitterati walk on the side with the photographers and camera crews.  Regular people (us) walk on the other side, where disappointed fans in the bleachers practically sneer at you for not being famous.  We did manage to get a glimpse of Gwyneth Paltrow (hair slicked back, looking like a princess in that pink Ralph Lauren dress) before we were whisked into the auditorium by some very aggressive security guards whose job it was to make sure that looky-loos like us didn’t meander where we didn’t belong.  Ah, the glamour of the red carpet.

Once inside, we made our way to our seats.  Sure, they were in the nosebleed section, but we didn’t mind.  We were at the freakin’ Oscars!  We had two separate pairs of tickets.  We gave what appeared to be the better tickets to our clients, and my colleague and I took the “lesser” seats.  We were an hour into the Whoopi Goldberg hosted ceremony before we realized in horror that their seats were actually “obstructed view,” behind a giant spotlight.  Oops.  We immediately switched with them, and enjoyed the rest of the evening craning our necks to get glimpses of Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellan.  But that wasn’t going to bring us down.

The evening was magical.  Roberto Benigni leapt to his feet and stood on the backs of auditorium chairs when his name was called as Best Actor!  Gwyneth and Judi Dench each won for their performances in Shakespeare in LoveSteven Spielberg was named Best Director for Saving Private Ryan, which was a shoo-in for Best Picture!  When Harrison Ford came on stage to announce that final category, we were all looking forward to him handing the statuette to his old chum Spielberg.  I can still hear the gasps — including my own — when, instead, Indiana Jones himself said, “And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to…Shakespeare in Love.”

Huh?  Sure, I Ioved Shakespeare in Love, too, but it wasn’t supposed to win Best Picture!  In fact, I was so confident that Saving Private Ryan would win that I had begged and pleaded for invitations to the Dreamworks post-party which was sure to be the bash of the century.  After the surprise loss, it had the pall of a funeral instead of the joy of a victory celebration.  I heard that Miramax’s celebration was off the hook thanks to their victories for Benigni, Dench, Paltrow, Life is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love.  But, alas, we were at the other party.

So that, my friends, is how NOT to do the Academy Awards.  I’ll be watching this Sunday at a friend’s viewing party.  I’ll plan on showing up after she’s done vacuuming.

POLL:  Which of these Oscar Best Picture victories was most surprising at the time?

Crash beating Brokeback Mountain
The Hurt Locker beating Avatar
Ordinary People beating Raging Bull
Rocky beating Taxi Driver
Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan

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