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Mr. Null Goes to Hollywood – Behind the Scenes at Oscar Time

How a Texas boy braved the City of Angels for the Academy Awards
…and lived to tell the tale

Los Angeles is truly a city among cities. It rules the West Coast like no other place. It has been our nation’s Mecca for a hundred years. It is polluted, crime-ridden, and it is a pit of poverty, yet it is home to the richest and most powerful Americans. It is a den of greed, betrayal, and injustice, a place where dreams are more often smashed against the pavement but may be exceeded beyond one’s wildest expectations. It is a city that is often compared disfavorably with Hell itself. And I love it.

This will be my third trip to L.A., and my first at Oscar time. I have no idea what to expect this time around, but I know one thing: it ought to be a blast. The reason for the trip is, of course, the Academy Awards: the undisputed champs of all awards ceremonies. Televised to over one billion viewers, the event enters its 68th year on Monday with the awards for 1995’s releases.

While I am writing this before the big event, by the time you read it the whole thing will be ancient history. So I’m not going to write about nominees and winners. Instead I’m going to write about the L.A. experience, something which most people only know from the movies or Melrose Place.

Hopefully this travelogue will take you at least part of the way inside the Oscars, maybe shedding a glimmer of light on the reality behind the glamour, the substance under the silicone and sequined dresses, and the truth about what really makes Hollywood tick…and maybe what makes me tick, too. This story is true.

Saturday, March 23, 1996

I hate travelling, and today’s trip is no different than any other 2,000 mile flight. By 3:30 in the afternoon, I’m peacefully ensconced in my suite at the Argyle Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, a totally cool (almost too cool, like everything in Hollywood) joint outfitted with art deco furnishings and interiors. Formally the private St. James Club, the Argyle was remodeled and opened to the public last year. It has been home to Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and John Wayne, who, in what may be the most useless fact I’ve ever collected, kept his pet cow on the hotel’s roof.

Without further ado, my gang (which includes the gracious providers of this trip, my parents, and my sister Tracy) and I walk two blocks to a sushi bar for my favorite West Coast delicacy: uncooked pieces of fish. When we return to the hotel, we are greeted with a surprise that had been rumored for weeks ahead: my brother Brad and his friends Jim and Mickayela, who will be sleeping on the floor in my suite for the next three nights. But we can’t dally, because at 7 o’clock the doors open at the House of Blues, two blocks from the Argyle the other way–at the head of the legendary Sunset Strip.

Never have I felt so out of place on foot. It’s 100 percent true: no one walks in Los Angeles unless you’re living out of a shopping cart. You don’t even walk two blocks unless you’re an idiot tourist that doesn’t know any better. And despite my reservations, we walk.

The House of Blues, if you haven’t been watching your MTV, is a joint recently opened under the watchful eye of Dan Aykroyd and a few others. It’s basically a tribute to his old Blues Brothers days, and it’s maybe one of the cheesiest places I’ve ever been to. Los Angeles is a city built on raw artifice and maintained only through the willpower of its residents. The House of Blues is the physical embodiment of this.

The exterior is a faux-tin roofed shack. Inside, the walls are covered with faux-Louisiana artwork. The bands that play are faux-Cajun/roots rock outfits (or big-name Hollywood types). The food (which is served on a balcony equipped with a hydraulic swing-out section that opens up when the band starts playing) is, as the menu describes, ‘traditional po’ folks cookin” at traditional Hollywood prices. Getting a table generally means knowing an employee, being a celebrity, or kissing butt. We do the lattermost.

Tonight’s musical act is a series of harmonica players in some unfathomable competition. In all honesty, the music is pretty good, but I wouldn’t pay 20 bucks cover to see it (our tickets are compliments of the Argyle). Instead, I drop $18 on a t-shirt to prove I was here because, above all other functions it may have, the House of Blues is a place to be seen and nothing more. (The ‘HOB’ has one other function: for Aykroyd, it’s a retirement plan.)

But I’m both a sucker and a stargazer. The whole evening, I’m watching the doors for the inevitable celeb to show up. When none of them ever do, I figure buying a t-shirt is my way of saying to ‘them,’ ‘Hey, I stopped by, why didn’t you?’

Sunday, March 24, 1996

Today I hang out with the group sleeping on my floor. We eat brunch at the Early World restaurant at Hollywood and Vine, a coffee shop reminiscent of the one robbed in Pulp Fiction. The only twist here is our waiter, who is attired in a Nike t-shirt and tuxedo pants. And on Hollywood Boulevard, you don’t ask questions about stuff like that.

We trek up into the Hollywood Hills to visit Griffith Observatory, immortalized forever in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause (in fact, they have a statue of the guy there). The main reason we’re here is not an interest in astronomy, but rather, because of a deep-rooted obsession I have in physically reaching the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign. It isn’t on any maps, but Griffith is close to it–about a mile away–and I’m guessing that a tiny street known as Hollywoodland Drive (‘Hollywoodland’ being the full text of the original sign) will take us there.

We drive uphill on Beachwood, and as the road becomes narrower and narrower, and the houses become bigger and bigger, we suddenly find ourselves at a terminus a good half-mile from the sign. We halt at a mammoth iron gate bound with (seriously) 20 padlocks and a sign absolutely forbidding those who read these words from approaching the sign, either on car or on foot. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

After a few conciliatory photographs, a small video crew shows up there to shoot a music video of some girl in pink spandex. So we leave, because the dinner hour approaches. Tonight’s main course will be served at Lawry’s (apparently) famous Prime Rib restaurant, although I had only known them for their salt. The meal is good, but the really exciting part is that we have a real life limousine, compliments of the Argyle, to drive us there and back.

Now I’ve never been in a limo, and riding in one turns out to be no big deal, until I realize that everywhere we go, people are trying to see what big movie star is skulking within. While they seem disappointed when people like me crawl out, the look on their faces anticipating the opening of that door is priceless.

And there’s a gnawing inside me–something in there saying that I’m a pompous fool for taking pleasure in this. But I realize that it’s worse than that; the truth is that I don’t want to see disappointment on the faces of the tourists. I want to see elation. I want people to run for their cameras. I want to sign autographs, and I want to be a star star star of the highest order. I realize I am sick and I have no shame, but all I can do is run with it, because tomorrow is Oscar Night.

Monday, March 25, 1996

In Los Angeles, the Academy Awards consume everything for the month of March. Every day, the newspapers and magazines are filled with stories, predictions, and trivia about the most-watched event in the business. By the morning of March 25, this media frenzy has reached a boil. By 4 p.m., it has exploded, as the pre-show b
egins. And by 6 p.m., the city is dead. The Oscars have begun.

Now, my Oscar night dilemma has long been this: to go to the actual ceremony or not. Seems like an easy choice, but the problem is if I go to the ceremony, I will only be able to watch from a crowded press room, on what I’ve been told is questionable closed-circuit TV. (You’ve seen the blue rooms where the stars give interviews on television…that’s one of the Oscars’ four press rooms.)

My other big option is to go to a viewing party, where I’ll have to watch the show on TV, but it won’t be crowded, and there will be food. The way I see it, it’s the same show, and as my friends will tell you, I always go with the free food, so, I go to the viewing party.

This is a black tie affair. My tuxedo is a (rental made by) Perry Ellis and looks supercool…maybe too cool. We arrive in downtown Los Angeles at the Omni, where this particular party is being held. Our host is actor/comedian Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men, The Usual Suspects), but he doesn’t show up for a while.

The Oscars themselves are, as usual, no shock: Braveheart wins 5 awards and Pocahontas wins the music stuff. In fact, the party has a contest–who can pick the ‘big 6’ Oscars in advance–and to my utter surprise, I’m the only one who can. The only thing that astounds me more that the prize, a framed limited-edition Oscar night poster which sells for $500, is the question of how I’m going to get it back to Austin. (Note: I did get it back, and it now hangs proudly in my living room, the spoils from a battle well-fought.)

The poster.

When the Oscars are over, the ‘fun’ really begins, because L.A. is not just a city founded on falsity, but one built with overkill. The party features no fewer thanfour live bands (simultaneously) and one D.J. (and nothing to listen to), a cigar room, a girl wandering around in what I can only describe as green underwear and who is selling candy (what else?), some six cash bars (allegedly not open bars because ‘L.A. people drink too much’), and, the strangest of all, a guy who has four trick parrots and charges five bucks for people to get their picture taken with them.

While the ‘viewing’ part of the party is relatively sparse in its attendance, by the time 9:30 rolls around, the hotel is jammed. And is it full of celebrities, as I expected, all showing off their new Oscars and looking to meet the country’s hottest new screenwriter (that’s me)?

No.

Quite simply, it’s full of wannabes! Wannabes like myself, I guess…bit players, extras, underwear models, and secretaries, and, of course, there’s Kevin Pollak, who I discover is about 5’2′ and essentially lives in the cigar room. The women here nearly defy description. Most are short short girls in high high heels. Some are tall tall girls in even higher heels. Without exception their bodies have been artificially enhanced beyond the boundaries of both nature and good sense. They are dressed in chartreuse lace, purple sequins, just undergarments, black leather, or even plastic. Really.

And the men are worse. I thought I was going to be too cool…ha! I mean, I actually buttoned up all the buttons on my shirt. I even wore shoes…and tied them. This type of activity is clearly frowned upon, as cowboy boots, t-shirts, and less describable looks are de rigeur here. When my jacket button falls off, I figure that gives me a little edge, but all in all, I just feel out of place and uncomfortable, and I have to keep checking to make sure my mouth is closed and my eyes are really open.

We leave at midnight. Everyone’s had enough. I may not be cool, I figure, but hey, I’ve got the poster, so nanny nanny boo boo. I find it hard to be depressed. I mean, I saw the real Los Angeles, not the antiseptic, squeaky clean one on TV–the one that’s still on seven channels when we get back to the hotel, and the one that I desperately cling to as the fountain from which all my high ideals spring. After all, the way I see it, I’ll be going to the real Oscars next year–not as a member of the press, but as a nominee (wink, wink).

In this city, there’s room for both the stars and the posers, and they don’t seem to get in each other’s way. I think that for most of the city’s residents, the tough part isn’t figuring out which one you are, rather, it’s deciding which one you want to be.

I love L.A.

G.Q. all the way.

With my incredible date…er…sister.

(Oh, and I heard there was some little film festival in Austin, too.)

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