About an hour before the Oscars broadcast finally ended on that Seth McFarlane/Kristin Chenoweth death rattle, a friend texted to ask, “is it surreal/fun/boring in person?”

My reply: “yes.”

I attended my first Academy Awards last night, the +1 of someone who gets tickets perennially.1 Given the exclusivity of the event, I figured that in itself would be interesting enough to want to attend though I never harbored any illusions that it’d live up to the fantasy that the Oscars sells about itself to anyone watching on television. Someone at the event told me she compared it to, “going to the prom” which is to say, everyone gets dressed up, everything is made to look really nice, but only a handful actually have that good of a time; the rest of us just go through the motions of it.

(Those interested in more of the “behind the scenes” aspects to this essay are recommended to skip ahead a few paragraphs since I’m about to get a little critical theory up in here for while).

While I was very grateful for the opportunity to attend, I do have to say there’s something both figuratively and literally grotesque about the Oscars. As countless critics before me have noted, whatever the “who will win?” drama beforehand suggests, the Oscars are mostly there to be a self-congratulating corporate party draped in chiffon layers of ostentatious opulence. (Or was that layers of fillo dough? There was a lot of that too.)

However, what was less interesting than Hollywood A-listers decked out in five figure gowns and six figure (rented) jewelry was the behavior of the rest of us: industry employees, Academy members, nominee guests, and all the +1s like myself. Before my feet ever touched the red carpet, I realized I had already committed a major faux pas by showing up in a gray suit. Keep in mind: this is the only suit I own because I work in a profession in which the daily dress code, at its “dressiest” might be a tweed sports coat with leather patches, and where “formal wear” means rocking a gown, doctoral hood, and a tam, aka a pin cushion hat. But yeah, I was that dude who showed up to the Oscars not wearing black which wouldn’t have bothered me so much if not for the fact that I was pretty much the only dude who showed up to the Oscars not wearing black. Oops.

Ironically though, the very monolithic-ness of the male dress code was my saving grace. I may have stood out, but mostly in “tsp tsp, you didn’t know better?” way. The more spectacular “unfortunate wardrobe choices” fell (as they usually do) onto the women, for whom dressing up for the Oscars is one of those impossible “dress properly but not identically” situations. I don’t study fashion in my academic work so what I’m about to say is real 101 but the pressures to dress up for women must be an insane pain in the ass. All I had to do (if I had done it right) was show up in black, preferably a tux, which I could have rented, and I would have looked exactly the same as every other man there. For women, the last thing you want to do is show up looking exactly the same as anyone else.

And given the nature of the event, it seemed apparent to me that the pressures to “go big” lead to a lot of literally ill-fitting fashion choices. My companion, as a woman, understood the actual mechanics of this better because she could infer the various apparatuses necessary to squeeze women into gowns and dresses a few sizes too small for their bodies. (The Oscars, it appears, are a walking advertisement for Spanx.) To her, it was depressing because it was a reminder of the lengths of physical discomfort that women will go in order to live up to some arbitrary ideal on appearance. And even I, as a fashion naif, could easily see the spectrum that divided women with the means to dress up in some spectacular couture outfit vs. those wearing the adult equivalent of a bad prom dress. As I’m stressing, the pressure to conform to a standard that dictates you don’t look like you’re conforming to a standard is a ridiculous contradiction that an event like the Oscars inspires people to pursue. Having said that, if I go again next year, I might very well take myself to Friar Tux (where I think I actually rented my prom tux, back in 1990). I’m not above caving into conformity but my point here is that it’s infinitely easier – not to mention cheaper – for me to do it as a man.

But enough of this, most of you probably want to read all about the red carpet and the event and all that (lip-synched) jazz.

I have no idea how Oscar venues were set-up in the past but driving up to the Dolby Theater looked a great deal like the military checkposts depicted in Zero Dark 30 (I will be using movie versions of “actual things” for all my analogies today, natch). There’s a series of zig-zag concrete corridors set-up as you’re driving to the entrance, flanked by dozens of police personnel (including one of those SWAT vehicles that looks like what Hans Gruder had blown up in the first Die Hard). Before you even get within a block or two of valet parking, security personnel used mirrors-on-sticks to make sure I didn’t have a few kilos of C4 strapped to the bottom of my Prius.2

Everyone – plebes like myself and celebs – get dropped off in the same spot. There are two parallel red carpets and what I never noticed on television was how incredibly narrow the whole corridor is. I couldn’t tell where the street was but it felt like they crammed everything into the space of a sidewalk width. Our (the plebeian) red carpet looked slightly wider, enough to allow some guests to just walk into the theater but for other clumps of people to stall and gawk. There’s dozens of security personnel there to move people along but as I was later told: they don’t have actual authority to do much if you just want to stop and stare. Gawkers just learn to ignore them.

The main red carpet is a gauntlet of very bright lights, what seems like hundreds of photographers/videographers, and various network interviewers, all screaming the names of the stars. As I’m stressing, their red carpet seemed practically single-file and that was further exacerbated by the fact that A-listers had to stop off at every mini-station to get interviewed. To give you some context, Jessica Chastain arrived right after we did but 45 minutes later, well after we had already gone into the theater, I noticed on the monitors that she was still outside, giving interviews.

Red carpet aside, there’s not much ushering that happens. As we later learned, if our goal had been star-gawking, we should have just hung out around street level or the main theater lobby. No one seemed intent on forcing anyone towards their “appropriate” floor. However, once you move up to said floor, you can’t go back down to the lobby, a lesson we learned the hard way. I didn’t really care; star-watching wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as general people-watching, but my companion was disappointed she didn’t plot out our “route” and timing better. As someone told us later, event veterans often know exactly where/when to go in order to maximize the experience, whatever that means. Some just spend their entire time in the lobby, including during the ceremony, and have some interesting celebrity encounters that way.

Before the ceremony, we mostly hung out on the third floor, one up from the lobby. And while there’s a great deal of people-watching going on, there’s very little celebrity-watching. Above the lobby is seating for everyone besides the folks people come to see and like most events of this nature, the ratio of “really famous” to “more or less anonymous” is quite skewed to the latter. I can only speculate, but I imagine there was a lot of “is that somebody who is a ‘somebody’?” staring going on and pity on those who might bear a resemblance to an actual celebrity since everyone in the room starts rubber-necking and trying to compare their face to some IMDB head shot. That said, the third floor had an open bar and food so…

Yeah, so about that fillo dough, I only joke about this because half of the hor d’oeuvres were made from it. Fillo pastries crumble easily, which means, at some point, I looked down and noticed that my dress shoes were coated in a thin layer of fillo crumbs. I did have some smoked salmon macarons however which were decent if not overly sweet. Note: Event food is important in our case given that my companion is subject to bouts of hypoglycemia and the ceremony hours put it outside any kind of normal lunch or dinner hours for us: a bad combination. She had joked about bringing in some granola bars but her clutch was too small. (Another strike against women’s fashion). She should have had me bring them; the guy in the gray suit isn’t going to look any worse with lumpy, granola bar-filled pockets.

We headed to our seats about 30 minutes before the ceremony began. We were in M3 (mezzanine three) which is so far into the nosebleeds that the entire section isn’t even in the official seating charts. Who sits in M3 for the Oscars (besides us)? Well, from what we could tell, it included cast members from the short film, Curfew, and folks on the sound mixing crew of Les Miz.

I’m not trying to recap the entire ceremony since many have done that already. I’ll just highlight those things that would have been different watching in person vs. on television.

  • Shatner. First of all, from M3, you’re mostly watching the ceremony on flat screens that are more or less at eye level since the stage is far enough away where you can’t make out individual features on anyone. In that sense, “watching the Oscars live” is much like watching at home except worse since they, for whatever reason, install annoyingly small flat screens. If I had been live-streaming the ceremony on my iPhone, it would have looked bigger.
  • But when the giant screen came down and Shatner popped up, it was really weird. I imagine it would have been so at home as well but it was a very big screen that towered over Seth McFarlane and thus made for an awkward looking convo between Giant Shatner and Small McFarlane. And I’m not even talking about how corny the gags were here, with “We Saw Your Boobs” and “sock puppet Flight. (For the record, I thought the latter was actually kind of funny. The first: not so much).

  • Seth: At the time, I thought Seth did ok as host (according to the reviews I’ve seen so far…he didn’t) but perhaps that was the theater being polite to the host by gamely laughing along. However, what truly withered and died out there were the bits he scripted for the presenters. The vast majority completely fell flat and if you think a bad joke goes over poorly in a small stand-up bar, imagine how that feels in a cavernous theater. The “banter” between the Avengers’ stars was especially bad. I don’t know if Scar Jo wasn’t invited or couldn’t make it but either way, she dodged a bullet on that one.
  • Sound mixing: It was terrible. Provided, for those of us in the nosebleeds, we were always going to get shorted on sound; you really had to concentrate on what people were saying to make up for the lack in overall volume up there. But the sound mixing for a night supposedly devoted to movies and music was inexcusably bad. The music, in almost all instances, overpowered the singers, with the sole exception of Jennifer Hudson (one of the few genuine highlights of the evening for us). But Shirley Bassey – not exactly meek in voice – was drowned out by the orchestra and the less said about Catherine Zeta-Jones’ poorly lip-synched performance of “All That Jazz,” the better. The thing is, at the time, I just assumed it was a problem for the in-house audience but that, surely, they would have mixed it better for television. Apparently not. I have no idea what happened there but if I were the show’s producers, I’d be embarrassed at how poor the music sounded.
  • Playing people off: Speaking of which, using the theme from Jaws as the playoff music was cute for about 3 seconds, the first time you heard it. At the point at which it was cutting people off, it felt unnecessarily cruel. I would have gladly traded in all kinds of gimmicks during the night (Norah Jones singing the song from Ted for example) to have allowed people 30 seconds more time without sending the shark out. The theatre didn’t approve; I think had it happened one more time, people might have started booing.
  • Timing/pacing: The commercial breaks, in person, feel very short but the entire ceremony feels much longer. Now I get why the hosts always joke about how long it goes on for. It didn’t help that the pacing felt very uneven but I couldn’t tell if that was this particular production or because I was there vs. watching from home. Either way though, I thought the ceremony was paced poorly. This is a perennial complaint but it really wouldn’t be that hard to shave off 30 minutes by cutting unnecessary side bits that, every year, they seem to insist on including.

    By the way, nothing happened during the commercial breaks except for a mass exodus for the bathrooms. The only exception was towards the later part of the evening where women, dressed up as 1920s cigarette girls, came out and handed out popcorn to the front rows on the main floor. Theater staff (not dressed up) came out a break or two later and broke some of us in M3 off with popcorn too.

  • Lighting: Whoever is responsible for handling lights in the Dolby was busy the entire evening. It’s an odd feature (to me) that so much of a “live event” is spent with the lights dimmed so people can watch video screens. One thing that continually threw me off is that the lights would always come back on a few seconds before you naturally anticipate them. That makes sense: ABC needs everything properly lit so they can focus on star reactions to as clip reels are finishing, but in most other settings, you turn the lights back up after the screening is done. Here, it always happens about five seconds before and I just never got used to that.

    I also realized that the clip reels exist to allow staging to happen off-broadcast. So, for example, that meant someone with a flashlight is literally walking Adele across the stage in the dark and scurrying off before the house lights come back on. 3

  • Tarantino: He might come off as an insufferable jerk but the peanut gallery loves him. I’m not sure if any other winner roused as much enthusiasm from the audience.
  • Michelle: This may have been even a little weirder to me than Shatner. Look, I love the First Lady, but I just didn’t get why she was participating in the Oscars in this way. If the goal here is to get young people interested in creative endeavors, I just think there’s better venues to make that point made. (Maybe start with refunding arts programs in schools). Besides breaking up the flow, it was another one of those “we’re sitting around watching a giant screen” moments. Awkward. Maybe if Obama had come out to hand over the envelope, that would have been better. I’m just thankful Seth didn’t try to make a joke out of her appearance.
  • Favorite moments:
      -Jennifer Hudson. ‘Nuff said.

      -During the milling around before the ceremony, I noticed a girl who looked about 13 (though was dressed up slightly older) and given that you don’t see a lot of kids around, she stood out. As it turns out, she was the 12 year old actor from Curfew, which won for Best Live-Action Short and when that was announced, she shrieked (I’ve never had cause to actually use the word before but it was exactly the right term). The applause on television is usually reserved and polite – at best, someone will get a standing ovation – but this was a genuine moment of uninhibited exultation. After my ear drums recovered, it was fun to witness.

      -Considering that most of the major categories were won by the predicted favorites, one of the few moments of surprise was when a tie was announced for Sound Editing. I believe “audible gasp” is the appropriate term here and that’s exactly what it was. Not as dramatic had this been for a different category – say, Best Actor – but in an evening as relatively dull as this was, I enlivened things up for a moment.

      -This is purely personal but it was great to see Ang Lee win again for Best Director. I stood up and clapped (he didn’t get a M3 ovation overall) though it was a little weird when a white guy, two seats down, turned and high-fived me. I wasn’t sure if that’s because we were both Ang Lee fans or because I was Chinese. I’m probably just being paranoid but…

    So that’s it. Glad I went just for the experience but I’m pretty sure the actual ceremony would have been more fun to watch from home. If we get to go next year, we may plot out more of a star-gawking routine. And I’ll be sure to wear black (with granola bars in my pockets).

    1. In case you’re wondering what this has to do with music…it doesn’t, not really. Feel free to skip the post if you wish.
    2. This could be another place for Zero Dark 30 joke but actually, if you’ve ever visited the Zimmer Children’s Museum in Los Angeles, they do the exact same routine. Which is depressing.
    3. On the one hand, it was cool that I got to see Adele, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, and Jennifer Hudson all perform live. On the other hand, the aforementioned crappy sound mixing marred that experience almost across the board.