IT’S OVER AT LAST — Hollywood’s annual celebrity super suck-up.
Each year the ritualistic Oscar observance seems to assume grander proportions. Stars are accustomed to agents and studio executives bowing and scraping year-round, but at Oscar time these legions of supplicants are joined by superstar designers, media barons, marketing gurus and other intruders.
If ours is truly a “celebrity culture,” as the pundits insist, then surely it comes to full flower during Academy Award week, an event that began as an insider cocktail party and semi-roast and has evolved into a weeklong orgy of narcissistic self-promotion.
This year, for the first time, there were signs of scaling back, with most of the studios canceling their lavish post-Oscar parties. They decided that their sought-after celebrities, having marinated for five hours at the Shrine Auditorium and weathered the gantlet at the Governors’ Ball and Vanity Fair bash, were too washed out to be of further use when they finally staggered back toward Beverly Hills.
OVERALL OSCAR SPENDING, having risen exponentially year after year, also showed signs of leveling off this year, despite the closeness of most races.
And with strikes looming, industry leaders seemed to be asking that inevitable question: “How much is too much?”
To be sure, a few of the surviving social events surrounding the Academy Awards have become embedded in folklore. The Friday night dinner hosted by ICM’s Ed Limato displays old Hollywood elegance, with top stars sauntering across his rolling lawns. By contrast, Miramax’s jaunty exercise in self-parody has also become part of the scene, with stars each year cheerfully reading each other’s roles in exchange for the right to direct some barbs at the Weinsteins.
On the other hand, there’s a certain eerie resonance to Wolfgang Puck’s decision to close the doors of his Sunset Strip restaurant at Oscar time. There’s a new Spago now in Beverly Hills, but it was the old ramshackle one that housed the gala parties that began to outglitz the Oscar ceremony itself.
That’s because Irving Lazar, the bantam-sized agent with a genius for self-promotion who represented everyone from Bogart to Hemingway, decided to create the mother of all Oscar parties.
The first beneficiary of his decision was Puck, then a hyper-kinetic Austrian still in his mid-30s who had begun to make a name for himself cooking, of all things, pizza. Of course, Puck was a gifted self-promoter, too: His so-called “Jewish pizza” embraced smoked salmon, creme fraiche and chives, in addition to the obligatory dollop of caviar (it was more like a mini dollop).
Lazar, who disdained the nickname “Swifty,” was adept at courting journalists while appearing to turn them away. In the heyday of his Oscar parties, his room would be decorated by the likes of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, Walter Cronkite and Andy Warhol, Barbra Streisand and George Burns.
Of course, many of his guests would merely pop in after the Oscar show rather than sitting through the laborious dinner, but one could sense the magnitude of each celebrity arrival by the screams emanating by the crowds hanging outside the restaurant — a sort of “Day of the Locust” wail of recognition.
THE AUGUST LEADERS OF the Academy were becoming increasingly indignant that Swifty got more attention than their Oscar show, but the stalwart agent continued his parties well into his 80s. Toward the end, his guest list was growing distinctly geriatric. “I prefer to watch the show at the Motion Picture Home,” Billy Wilder once quipped.
Spago itself had also become rickety. It was always an unlikely celebrity haunt, noisy and cramped, with uniquely uncomfortable chairs.
But Puck was an energetic host, and his maitre d’ and reservation girls would assiduously study Daily Variety to ensure that industry figures would be seated in strict accordance to their stature of the moment. A waiter could always be counted on to bestow a surprise dish at the tables of the favored few — “Wolfie wants you to have this,” he would say.
The “gift” from Wolfie, of course, would customarily appear on the bill, if you happened to study it carefully. But no one complained. It was regarded as an honor simply to get a reservation, and one didn’t ever dare mention an overcooked dish or bloated tab.
With Spago getting old along with Swifty, Graydon Carter shrewdly pre-empted his celebration, moving it to Morton’s, where Vanity Fair’s party grew bigger, somewhat younger and vastly more frenetic. Indeed, the Morton’s site quickly proved to be an even greater traffic nightmare than its predecessor, as though gaining entry to the vaunted event should rightly entail a degree of self-sacrifice.
This was, after all, where the action was — not downtown.
Until, that is, a real Oscar winner happened to arrive clutching a statuette, with onlookers gawking in amazement, as though recalling, for one brief moment, that the evening wasn’t about Armani or Harry Winston; not about Wolfie or Jewish pizza; not even about Swifty or Graydon.
It’s all about those statuettes, stupid.