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The big night

”American Beauty” sat pretty, Hilary Swank soared, and Hollywood entered a new era at Oscars 2000

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There were rose petals floating in the cosmopolitans. Fat scarlet bouquets at every table. Little bags of potpourri. And, hoisted to the ceiling, a king-size trapezoid pasted with thousands of stray petals — just like the bed from Kevin Spacey’s horny dream sequence in American Beauty. Beauty was the big winner on Oscar Night 2000 — the dysfunction-junction odyssey brought glory back to the burbs with trophies for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography — and so the DreamWorks victory hoedown at Spago felt more rose crazy than New Year’s Day in Pasadena.

But that fragrant tang in the breeze wasn’t just coming off the flowers. It was easy to catch the sweet scent of relief in the air — ”a stark contrast to last year’s party,” as DreamWorks exec Walter Parkes put it. He’s referring, of course, to one of the Academy’s most notorious upsets, when DreamWorks watched helplessly as the Best Picture statuette got snatched from the fingers of the studio’s own sainted figurehead, Steven Spielberg. Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan in 1999, and ”it felt like a kick in the gut,” admits one DreamWorker.

This year, like Lester Burnham in American Beauty, the folks at DreamWorks got back into fighting trim. They hired strategists. They flooded the trade papers with ads. And, with a new cinematic era blooming, they conveyed a clear choice to the geezery 20th-century ranks of the Academy: American Beauty represents the future (especially in a year overflowing with fresh, rule-breaking fare like Being John Malkovich, Election, The Matrix, and Magnolia). Miramax’s The Cider House Rules, a throwback with more sap than a grove of New England maples, looks an awful lot like the past. ”Hey,” the campaign seemed to wink, ”do you wanna look old or do you wanna look cool?”

Ironically, it’s Miramax that used to represent the Taj Mahal of cool. Twenty minutes before the telecast, Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein was freshening up in the third-floor men’s room; he detected a whiff of retribution in the air. ”If we win this again, we will be under siege,” he said. ”They’ll storm the Polo Lounge.” Weinstein was right. Rules managed to turn a couple of apples into cider — Best Adapted Screenplay for John Irving, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Caine — but Miramax’s typically robust blowout at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge felt as forlorn as that Maine orphanage.

The DreamWorks bash, on the other hand, gridlocked faster than the San Diego Freeway. (”Just push through,” counseled one guest who was pinned tightly in an aisle. ”I’m good at this. I used to work at Studio 54.”) In a back room at Spago, the American Beauty team huddled and beamed and raised toasts. Pom-pom-wielding bombshell Mena Suvari slinked into her seat for a moment of lip lock with her husband, Robert Brinkmann. Well-wishers mobbed star Kevin Spacey and ogled his statuette. Spielberg climbed over the back of a booth to hug a grinning Haley Joel Osment, the 11-year-old wunderkind from The Sixth Sense. Spago got so clogged that Best Director Sam Mendes found himself marooned at a distant table without a drink. ”That’s Sam Mendes over there, the director?” actor Ben Chaplin, a friend from England, politely pleaded to a waiter. ”And he would like a beer.”

Just four days earlier, as the frenzy of Oscar Week was grinding into high gear, Mendes sat under the gentle patio heaters at Orso and enjoyed a quiet alfresco dinner with his mother. ”As a director, I’m used to being the one in control,” he mused. ”But this week I feel like I’m not in control of anything.”

He wasn’t alone. Feted, toasted, interviewed, analyzed, photographed, gambled on, hollered at, hounded for autographs, and forced to subsist on an endless river of party nibbles, the denizens of Oscar City did what they could to maintain a shred of serenity. On the day of the awards, Osment and his family went to Catholic Mass. Tobey Maguire did yoga. Mike Myers watched hockey on television. Jude Law got a massage and listened to Bob Marley. Charlize Theron sipped a flute of champagne; Chloe Sevigny opted for an Egg McMuffin. ”I had seaweed smeared on me,” said Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball. ”They wrapped me up in a big plastic thing.”

Whatever provided a sense of calm — seaweed or slap shots — it came in handy on Sunday evening at the Shrine. If you ever wonder why those Hollywood folks seem so dazed at the podium, consider the shrill gauntlet that is the Red Carpet. To attend the Oscars is to pass through a maelstrom of noise (screeching ”bleacher creatures,” chopping helicopter blades), glare (spotlights, flashbulbs, a squint-inducing California sun), and weird smells. From the moment you leave the bumper-to-bumper limos and step through the metal detectors, you’re hit by a hot wind of perfume — a Rodeo Drive’s worth of luxury scents battling for supremacy in the carbon-monoxide-soaked air.

”I’m just praying I don’t get trampled to death,” fretted Ball on the rosy promenade. (Later, Ball discovered the prime source of his torment: He was walking in the wake of ‘N Sync, the teen-pop juggernaut. ”I’m so out of it,” Ball recalled. ”I was like, ‘Who are those guys with the bad hair?”’) The crush was so confusing that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman momentarily lost each other. ”Where’s Tom?” Kidman asked a stranger as she craned her ivory neck. ”This is just incredible.” When she found him, Kidman gave him an affectionate kick on the rear, leaving a dusty shoe print on the back of his tux. (Tom Terrific seemed to be having a bumpy night. ”I know I’m a big loser,” he joked at the Vanity Fair bash, holding an L to his forehead. ”I’m just going to walk around like this all night. Um, bartender. I’m a loser. Can I get a drink?”)

Leading up to the big night, of course, it was Oscar himself who kept getting booted in the keister. There were those lost ballots. The trophy heist. That pesky Wall Street Journal poll. The bad karma didn’t go away on Sunday: Funk legend Isaac Hayes vanished in a dry-ice cloud bank on stage as he launched into the ”Theme From Shaft.” ”There was supposed to be fog, but there was too much of it,” he explained later. ”I disappeared. I just got engulfed in the s—.” (”Isaac Hayes was a boo-boo,” confessed show producer Lili Fini Zanuck. ”In the control room, we were going ‘Oh, my God!’ It actually looked like his organ was on fire.”)

A TV-news copter crashed and burned at the Van Nuys Airport, seriously injuring the two passengers. A 73-year-old man in a tuxedo slipped and bonked his head in the Shrine rest room; he was rushed off to the hospital in an ambulance. And, oh yeah — some generic whitebread Phil Collins jingle beat ”Blame Canada” for Best Song. ”I was just so f—ing angry to lose to Phil Collins,” said South Park hellion Trey Parker, who never misses an opportunity to go on a colorful riff. ”F— him. It sucks. It sucks. It sucks. I could have lost to Aimee Mann and been like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, she’s cool.’ My grandkids are going to be, ‘F— you, Grandpa. You lost to Phil Collins.”’

Parker wasn’t the only guy willing to speak his mind. Scores of anti-abortion protesters ringed the perimeter of the auditorium (one placard read: ”Cider House Reeks!”), but that didn’t dissuade John Irving from thanking ”everyone at Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League” in his acceptance speech. ”Some people raised their eyebrows?” Irving said later at the Miramax party. ”F— them. That’s how I feel about them, and I mean it.” Magnolia auteur Paul Thomas Anderson — who lost to Ball in the Original Screenplay category — was amused to see an apocalyptic sign warning about Hollywood’s out-of-control movie budgets. ”Next to all the abortion signs, there was a sign that said ‘Stop Runaway Production!”’ Anderson laughed at the Governors Ball, with singer-songwriter Fiona Apple on his arm. ”I would vote for ‘Stop Rigging the Oscars!’ I’ll be outside with a picket sign next year. It’s fixed. It’s completely fixed.”

That’s right, not everyone leaves the Oscars wearing rose-colored glasses. Best Actress Hilary Swank was kicking herself for forgetting to thank husband Chad Lowe during her acceptance speech. ”I forgot to thank the most important person in my life,” she said, ”and to have forgotten him is almost bringing a dark cloud in on the night. Almost.”

But at DreamWorks the next morning, staffers ambled into the office to find a garden party in full swing. ”There was champagne and cake and many red roses,” said executive Laurie Mac Donald. ”I’m not sure there are any red roses left in all of Los Angeles.”

(With additional reporting by Jeff Jensen, Billy Johnson Jr., Tricia Johnson, Dave Karger, Lynette Rice, Jessica Shaw, and Josh Young)