Fifteen years ago, I was an unemployed 22 year-old living in a friend’s studio apartment near Los Angeles when I took a temp job working for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. My job was to process orders for a casting bible they’ve been putting out since 1937 called the Academy Players Directory. I was eager, smart, and didn’t steal anything –- apparently difficult qualities to find in a $400-a-week employee -– so they hired me full time.
Most company perks include things like free hot chocolate, discounted gym membership, and annual fleece sweatshirts screaming your company’s logo. When you work at the Academy, there’s one big perk: two tickets to the biggest Hollywood event of the year, the Academy Awards.
I attended both the 1990 and 1991 Academy Awards. The seats weren’t that great, but they were real seats that you couldn’t get any other way but for being an Academy employee, an Academy Award nominee, a friend or family of a nominee, or someone generally famous or important by Hollywood standards. When it came time to choose my date, I made one of the most regrettable decisions of my life. Consider: an unemployed 22 year-old living in someone else’s living room now has the chance to pick any beautiful stranger to accompany him to the most celebrated night of the year.
Instead, I took my Mom. Both times. If you looked up “pathetic” in the Hollywood Dictionary, you’d see me and my mom, decked out in tuxedo and off-the-rack sequined dress, driving my Mazda hatchback in between two stretch limos.
My mother and I were timid the first time around, when Dances With Wolves won Best Picture. After all, I had only been a true employee for a few months. We zipped down the red carpet as if catching a flight. Feeling like imposters, we passed on the invitation to share an elevator with Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford. We took the stairs. In a story I can’t possibly validate, my mother swears Joe Pesci hit on her outside the ladies’ room, his recently-acquired Oscar for Goodfellas in hand.
The next year, when The Silence of the Lambs won, my mother and I were more comfortable and strategic; we knew what to do. We planted ourselves firmly on the red carpet and let everyone from Tom Cruise to Barbra Streisand walk around us. We hobnobbed with the stars as if we were obscure documentary filmmakers, and my mother touched Bette Midler’s shoulder. I might have even given the “Hollywood nod” to a few people who mistook me for Bob Saget (to whom I bear an uncanny, and at times unfortunate, resemblance).
After the show, we had a late dinner at The Cheesecake Factory on Rodeo Drive. I was still wearing my rented tuxedo and my mother was still in her sparkly dress and borrowed diamond earrings. As we ate, I felt eyes staring at us, knowing where we had been, and wondering if we were famous. Good thing that place was open because I couldn’t imagine the same response at Denny’s.
In the years that followed, I began to lose interest in watching the Academy Awards. Maybe I was spoiled by the in-person experience. Maybe, not being able to see that many movies any more, I lost interest. Or maybe Whoopi Goldberg just did a lousy job hosting.
I’ve even sworn off Oscar pools. Most pools just cover the major categories. I’ll scoff and say, “This is nothing. You should see the Oscar Pool at the Academy. Make a wrong prediction at Best Documentary Short and you’re toast!”
But I can only run so far away. For the past 11 years, my local library has hosted a “Pre-Oscar Discussion” with columnist Allen Barra. And many families we know are hosting local “”Oscar Parties.”” These parties typically include food, drinks, and ballots. Sounds like a French election.
This year, host Jon Stewart was a big improvement over Whoopi. Also, having seen more of the nominated films than usual (and by that I mean one), and being an admirer of “”Brokeback Mountain”” for sheer guts, we created a new tradition more suited to our lifestyle. No tuxes, no limos, no amorous wise guys. Just the kids asleep upstairs, something hot to eat, a big glass of diet soda, and the comfort of my wife, my sofa, and my TiVo.
It was the start of a beautiful relationship.