Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Academy Awards Night: toiling in Heaven, a Gown, and the Mystery of Faith

You see, the thing of it is... she bought a gown.

My assistant Ashley Avis informs me of this on Saturday afternoon. I'd stopped by her hotel room, having left her on her own while I went for a couple of "hi-hello" meetings, and...

...Let's back up.

I was in LA for a short trip over Oscar weekend. Just three days prior, Ashley had expressed her jealousy about my trip, and I'd tossed off a casual "you should come if you want..." and now, in that way that she has, here she was. She'd neglected to rent a car, so we'd pretty much been joined at the hip so far. After lunch I'd dropped her off at Sunset Plaza; her stated plan had been simply to "just hang out with a book." Instead, she'd ended up buying The Gown.

In truth, I have mixed feelings about "making the scene" this weekend. I love coming to LA during the winter; I care little for the temperature, actually preferring those chilly LA winter days that carry a little bite in the air and give all Angelinos an excuse to break out their chic winter leftovers from previous lives on the East Coast. That same wind that brings the chill brings rare clarity to the sky, and one is reminded that Los Angeles is, in fact, a beautiful place. I'd felt a sort of spa-weekend relaxation coming on, and I found myself looking forward to reconnecting with some good friends and laying low.

Nonetheless, I'd already made a few brief party inquiries on Ashley's behalf, but since out here The Oscars represent Christmas and Chanukah and The Fourth of July all rolled into one, well... it's a lot to ask, especially at the eleventh-and-a-half hour. I neither expected nor particularly desired success.

So the Gown. I'm thinking, you know, "gown" is such a broad word; maybe she simply bought a long-ish dress. She offers to try it on, and I'm hoping in some odd way to be underwhelmed. Moments later she emerges from the bathroom...

It's exquisite. It's breathtaking. It looks as if an Italian lady had spent a week making it specifically for her. The Gown is Ashley all the way, and she knows it.

And as I'm looking at her all I can think, truly, is this: where the hell is she going to wear that?

I decide to let it go. Big mistake.


I began the next morning as I do most mornings: lying in bed, thinking. The previous night, I'd been in touch with a composer friend; he'd confessed that while he very much wanted to meet up, he had some scoring due the following week so for him the weekend would be best spent working. I don't think he knew how much his simple statement-- "I'm working this weekend"-- had affected me. Let me explain.

There is a profound, never-spoken truth which guides every soul who toils in this business: we don't HAVE to work; we are ALLOWED to work. We work only when asked. And to work-- no, to be asked to work-- is a privilege. It's heaven. And no matter how I spun it, there was no way around the troubling fact that while my friend was toiling in Heaven last night, I'd been at Bar Marmont with my assistant. As I lay in bed that Osacr morning, contemplating the mercurial happiness of work in the film business, I had something of an epiphany:

I was not meant to party this weekend, at all. That will be for later. I found myself looking forward to watching the Academy Awards with a few friends; I imagined our gossip, our spirited rants on the obvious injustice of the inevitable poor choices, and suddenly I was happy. Maybe, I thought, true epiphanies can only occur on pilgrimages. Maybe it has to do with nothing more than breathing strange air.

I inform Ashley of The Epiphany at brunch. I rhapsodize about the writing I should be doing and the acting she hopes to do. I try to mentor her as best I can by suggesting that all of this-- the parties and the limos and the bling and the swag and the overblown, red-carpeted glory of it all-- are not why we're here.

Back in the car, silence. I assume Ashley, like I, is contemplating The Epiphany. Finally, she speaks.

"Sooo... did anyone get back to you about any parties tonight?"

My heart sinks. Ash had understood nothing about The Epiphany. Or, more likely, the whispered promise of The Gown was simply too strong.

Me: "Ashley, didn't you get any of it at all? Was my entire rap wasted?? These parties are not the point! It's the work!!"

Ashley: "But how do you know that you won't get work done a party?? How do you know we won't meet someone that will change your life?"

"Because I've been to these things, and they're always, always disappoining--"

"--but you never know unless you--"


"OK! That's fine!"

More silence in the car. Then, Ashley again: "I don't know, maybe we could just... " She throws a pleading gaze at me. "Are you sure you couldn't just....?"

She leaves the plea just hanging there. She blinks a few times, swallows, forces a grin. There is an air of such sadness in the car that I feel as if I just told her she wasn't getting a pony.

Know this: Ashley is the sort who gets the pony. Problem is, it's after three o'clock. Out of time and ideas, I blurt out: "Well, for Chrissakes. I really don't care, but if you want to go to something so badly why don't you just look on Craigslist?"

Five minutes later, as the sun sets on a beautiful Oscar Sunday, I find myself in an abandoned Starbucks on Olympic Boulevard as Ashley hunches over my laptop, scrolling through Craigslist. To my surprise (and Ashley's disappointment) there are a grand total of two items. The first: two awards ceremony tickets, which include two tickets to the Governor's Ball. Price? Forty thousand dollars. The second is this: ACADEMY AWARDS PARTY TICKETS-- ESQUIRE PARTY ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY. After a little blah blah puffery, there's a # to call, and a price: $5000 a ticket. Yeah, whatever. Just before we leave Ashley hits the refresh button. See if there's anything new. Nothing, except this:


Huh. Ashley takes the number down.

We head to the apartment of a friend to watch the awards. As the ceremony begins, we engage in a discussion of the worth to Ashley of the Esquire tickets: one hundred dollars apiece? Two? Three? This feels high to me, but what the hell; I tell her to make the call. It's agreed that she'll offer a far, far far lower amount for the pair. I urge her to make me the Bad Cop, and she leaves a message claiming she's calling for me. Sure enough, sixty seconds later her phone rings: It's "Albert", saying yes, the tickets are still available. As Ashley runs into the other room to talk I urge her to stick to the script we'd rehearsed. "Albert" was offended at her offer, Ashley tells us when she returns.

The awards ceremony is long. But... just as The Departed is announced as the best picture of the year... the phone rings. It's "Albert."


The party's at The Abbey, Robertson at Santa Monica. There's a celebrity entrance to the event, Klieg lites and a red carpet. And I know how these things work, and Ashley looks like, well, Someone... so the shot is just to hit the carpet. Sure enough, as soon as we step onto the red carpet a photographer begins snapping away. As we head into the party, here's what I figure: Ash has walked a red carpet and an Academy Awards party, she's worn the gown, she even got a little paparazzi action. If nothing else, that alone makes the tickets worthwhile.

It's clear when we get in that we are on the late end of an early party. I scan the room: a few familiar faces.... there's some of the "Entourage" crew... I see a couple of "Former Students"... and then, behind Ashley, I see my client and friend, Rick Fox.


He screams this as he takes me into a bear hug. And at 6' 6", Rick can take even a grown man into a hell of a bear hug.

"Oh Man this is perfect!!! Hey, listen, I want you to meet..." and he introduces me to a Senior William Morris Agent, who's helping package some of Rick's projects and is the head of William Morris Independent, a division of the esteemed agency.

After an impromptu pitch of a script Rick and I had developed some time back ("OK, there's a serial killer in the NBA..."), I ask Rick: "So... what are you guys up to later?" Rick seems genuinely pleased at the prospect of hanging out. "Well, we're going to Prince's thing.... then we're going to Patrick Whitesell's party. You going?"

Patrick Whitesell is one of the power agents behind Endeavor and his party, with Rick Yorn, is THE after-party (post-Vanity Fair) on Oscar Night.

Rick again: "Yeah yeah-- let's all go up to Patrick's. This is great! See ya later PK. See ya later Ashley." And he's off.

Sure. Just go to Patrick Whitesell's party. As long as I know him, Rick will never understand that life functions differently for the rest of us.

Ashley is triumphant. "See? See???" I tell her that this scenario is unlikely but she is unfazed by this. There is a Master Plan, she is convinced, that is coming together.


Like all Hollywood Hills parties, it is not possible to drive to this event; you've got to park at an "undisclosed location" from where shuttle buses will take you up. After spending a little more time at Esquire, we decide that the thing to do is to drive by the Secret parking area, just to check it out. As we approach, I head into the right lane to get a look... and suddenly there's a Sheriff in front of me, impatiently "flashlinghting" me into the parking lot. OK. Change of plans.

Once we pull in the car is immediately surrounded by a scrum of valets and whisked away, to its own undisclosed location... and we're ushered along a gated line to check-in to claim our wristbands. No matter who you are, no matter how bright your star, this is a wristband event. You can't even get into the shuttle vans without one. This is bad. I approach the mellowest looking kid, and announce: "Dude, don't even look at your list. Trust me, we ain't on it. Rick Fox is my client, and we saw him and (William Morris Agent) at the Esquire party and they invited us and told me they'd call you guys."

The kid offers no hope. "Yeah.... Rick... we love him, but.. it's really bad this year. Celebrities are only like plus one or maybe plus two. So, you'll have to wait for him, but..." he glances around...I'd like to, but..."

The sixth-sensing boss immediately hustles over. "Are you on the list?" No, we're not. "Then you'll have to move on." Some metal gates are separated and we're back in the valet area. I offer up my valet ticket, and we wait.

And wait. And it's getting chilly, so I give Ashley my coat. As I look around, I observe to Ashley that this is kind of a Hollywood experience, too.

There is no crack in Ashley's armor. "Yep! Maybe there's a reason. We'll see!" She says this as if I am silly and maybe weak to doubt Fate. I miss that quality in myself, that religious certainty common to The Young.

Maybe there's a reason, I'm thinking, for the fact that we still don't have our car. A search party of valets is sent out after our initial guy, and while I'm watching all this unfold... my phone. It's a text message from Rick:


Huh. His AGENT pitched it. Huh.

I text Rick back that we're at the parking lot, and there's no way we're gettin' up the hill. A moment later, just as the familiar headlights of my rented Pontiac swing into the lot....

My phone again. Another text, from Rick: CALL THIS # 310 123 4567 THAT'S MY DRIVER HE WILL TAKE YOU UP.

I dial the number.
The Pontiac pulls up.
The valet gets out, holds open the door.
The phone's ringing. We're holding up the line. The valets are getting imapatient.
Suddenly, on the street just next to the lot... a chauffeur outside a black Escalade limo, looking right at us, waving his cell phone.

"Put the car back," I tell the valet. "We're goin' up."


At the house, more Sheriffs. More paparazzi. As soon as we step out of the car things move veryvery fast:

HUGE Dude #1: "where are your wristbands?"--
Me: "We were told just to come up--"
--Huge Dude #2: "You're gonna have to go back down and get them--"
--Ashley now: "call Rick, just call him--"
--Now a Sheriff: "Sir you're gonna have to MOVE THAT VEHICLE--"
--and now another voice: "Rick Fox Rick Fox!!" It's our driver, window down, shouting it at still another list-keeper as he madly points at me--
--now the List-Keeper looks at me-- "What's you're name?"
--I tell him. He looks at Ash. "And, you're... Ashley?"

He produces a pair of wristbands.

The walk up the driveway is quiet. Attendants on either side discreetly shine small, LCD flashlights down at the driveway, pointing out the cracks, illuminating our steps. A ballet of tiny blue fireflies, guiding us. As we finally enter the space, I think: now this is more like it.

There's a DJ, kicking a very dance-able seventies mix with a cool techno thing underneath. Among the ladies, an awful lot of gowns. And, of course, the walls: floor-to-ceiling glass with the obligatory jaw-dropping views of LA at night, twinkling out to infinity. It's almost 1 AM, and one gets the feeling that this thing is just getting started.

First order of business: find Rick and The Producer, and let's seal this deal. The first bar we come to is relatively quiet, but I do recognize the man leaning there as Peter Farrelly, one of the Farrelly brothers of comedy-film fame. I've got a nodding acquaintance with Peter, and when he glances at me with that look of vague recognition I decide I should say Hi. The night had finally clicked into place. The next few hours are a blur of...

...Ashley repeatedly getting bar-jostled by Paris Hilton.... Jon Bon Jovi, looking great but, a little lost, until Sean Penn grabs him from behind in a bear hug. (Lost no more... some kid in a t-shirt and baseball cap reaching in front of me-- "excuse me-- Djimon! Djimon, come here! There's someone I want you to meet!" Ends up the baseball-capped kid is Leonardo DiCaprio, reaching for his Blood Diamond costar....

... and finally, Rick. In truth, not hard to spot. He's in Party mode and The Producer's not to be found, but we discuss the meeting, the pitch, and it's agreed that I need to buff up the script within a week, since Big Producer won't stay hot for the project for long.

The night continues like this. Ashley, being helpful, suggests that maybe I should meet "some director types." I suggest that there are few director types I'd really need to meet.

"What about that Scorcese fellow? I bumped into him on the way to the bathroom."

Wait. Waitwaitwait. You. Ashley, you... "bumped into" one of my few living heroes?

I launch into a rap about how this house, this beautiful place that holds all these beautiful people on this beautiful night, is not really built on a concrete slab, not really... it's built on the work of people like him. This is Oscar night, after all, and no one gathers to celebrate the commercial success of Kangaroo Jack. We are all here to celebrate the making of films of meaning. He, and those like him, have done that, and are the reason for all of this. Him, I want to meet. But he's moved on from where Ashley saw him last, and when we finally do see him he's surrounded by a crowd of admirers. I decide that, for tonight, this is enough; our work here is done.

But as we prepare to head out.... a scent, faint yet unmistakable. Breakfast. They're cooking breakfast. And it's 4:30 AM, and Ashley's hungry.

The kitchen area is crowded indeed, but more than that... there's something odd about the crowd, which takes me a second to figure: Ashley, who stands 6' 2" in her heels... is the shortest woman in the room. I point this out to Ashley, who instantly snaps back: "I know that. I don't. LIKE IT."

I don't know why, but this cracks me up and may be my favorite memory of the night. Except for this:

As I'm jockeying for counter position near the food, I catch a glimpse of something set on the counter in front of the short, tuxedoed man in front of me. Something gold. It's a statue.

I tap the gentleman on the shoulder, who is with a woman so short I'd not even seen her amongst the Amazonian Throng.

"Excuse me..." I point to the statue. "What did you win for?"

The man, in a heavy Spanish accent: "Art direction. Pan's Labyrinth." The woman smiles, and nods.

"Oh, my god! Congratulations!!! What you did was so... just wonderful, wonderful, really." I launch into a little congratulatory small talk; they're happy for the praise. Inspiration strikes. "Listen... my assistant's never held one of those... would you mind?"

They both smile. Of course. Please. They offer me the statue. I turn to Ashley.

Ashley takes it and begins to hyperventilate. She clutches Oscar with one hand by the waist, and instinctively puts her other hand underneath the base... and the Spaniards are laughing, and I'm smiling, and Ash is standing there in her gown, clutching an Academy award, finally speechless. Behind her, the sky above Hollywood is just beginning to glow with the dawn.

Woody Allen is right: so much of life is simply showing up. I think of sitting at Shutters with Ashley that same morning, trying to talk some sense into her and let her down easy. I think of the impossible chain of events that led in a remarkably straight line from that moment to this one. Standing here, laughing with two wonderful Spaniards, as my assistant clutches an Oscar surrounded by waffle-eating supermodels. In the adjoining room, screams of joy erupt from the dance floor as "Love Rollercoaster" kicks in.

Rollercoaster, indeed. I prefer to think of it as the mystery of faith. All that is left is to go back down the hill, and sleep.

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