An Oscar-Night Diary: The Kenergy Was Palpable

It’s an hour after “Oppenheimer” has won Best Picture, the all-but-preordained climax of the ninety-sixth Academy Awards, and I’m trying to find my way from the red carpet to the street. When people ask me what’s different about attending the Oscars in person, versus watching them on television, I tell them that the ceremony is held at a mall; the Dolby Theatre is part of a shopping complex called Ovation Hollywood. Look right, and there’s Charlize Theron. Look left, and there’s a Dave & Buster’s. The glamour is paper-thin, like the set of an old movie Western, where you poke a saloon with your finger and it falls over flat.

As a world of wafting champagne-colored curtains reverts to its natural mall state, I descend an escalator and ask an attendant how to get out. He has a man bun and a badge that says “Operations.” “I work here at Dolby Theatre, on the graveyard shift,” he says. He’s studying acting at the Stella Adler Academy, and his hero is Heath Ledger. “I don’t know what to do next. I have a demo reel,” he says. I wish him luck but apologize: I work at a magazine, not in the film industry.

“I’ve written poetry before,” he offers. “But my poetry sucks.”

It’s his first time at the Academy Awards, but not mine. I’ve been here six times, and two of them were absolutely wild: the Great Envelope Mix-up of 2017 and the Slap of 2022. This year was almost too normal, full of non-surprises, but it gave Hollywood something reassuringly old-fashioned: a sweeping historical drama from a major studio cleaning up at the box office and the Oscars. It’s a throwback to “Gandhi” and “The English Patient” and “Gladiator,” to a time before streaming and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We make movies for adults, and people see them in the theatre and they win awards, you could sense the crowd thinking, when they weren’t thinking about the grosses of “Kung Fu Panda 4.”

Eight hours earlier, I begin my day with Milo Machado-Graner, the French fifteen-year-old who plays the son in “Anatomy of a Fall.” We meet at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where he’s putting on a snappy suit from Zegna. He has a mop of dark hair, lives in Paris, and likes books and volleyball. He has never been to the Academy Awards. “Are you freaking out?” a publicist asks.

“ ‘Freaking’?” he repeats, uncomprehending. He was in Los Angeles once before, for the Golden Globes, and met Wim Wenders. (“It marked me a lot.”) On Friday, at an Oscar pre-party, he introduced himself to Cillian Murphy, his favorite actor. Tonight, he would like to meet Martin Scorsese. “I think we won’t win,” he says, “but it’s an experience you just have once in a life, especially when you’re French.” He has never watched the Oscars, because he doesn’t have a TV at home. “I don’t know how it looks like, but I think it will be a big show.” A solid prediction.

He grabs a pair of sunglasses he got at Cannes, and a disposable camera he’s brought to document his trip for a French publication. “I have some landscapes. Funny pictures with the team,” he says. Downstairs, he meets his castmates Swann Arlaud and Antoine Reinartz, who play a defense lawyer and a prosecutor, respectively. Reinartz, whose head was shaved in the film, is unrecognizable with his reddish hair and beard. People love to hate his character. “Emily Blunt wanted to hit me—she said that in an interview,” he tells me. “So I went to see her and say, ‘That’s fine. You can go.’ And she didn’t want to! I was disappointed.” He holds up some pastries for Machado-Graner, who takes a photo. Arlaud asks, “Do we have five minutes to smoke?”

We assemble outside, where Machado-Graner’s mother, an art teacher named Susana, fixes a silver handkerchief around his neck. Sandra Hüller, who is nominated for Best Actress, comes down, looking exquisite. Everyone applauds. “So God exists,” Arlaud says. Hüller gets in one van, the rest of us get in another. “Xxplosive” by Dr. Dre blasts on the radio, and Machado-Graner taps his foot and gazes out the window, at gas stations and 7-Elevens. As we near the red carpet, security guys check under the van for explosives, and Bible thumpers with signs appear on the corner. “ ‘HE WHO SINS IS OF THE DEVIL,’ ” Machado-Graner reads aloud, and takes a photo.

When we arrive, a woman in a red uniform opens the door and says, “Welcome to the Oscars.” Someone from Team “Anatomy” passes out pins of the Palestinian flag, and Machado-Graner puts one on. “There are a lot of people I don’t know,” he says, looking around. I bid him farewell as he struts onto the red carpet, looking like a movie star. I hope he finds Martin Scorsese.

Milo Machado-Graner, from “Anatomy of a Fall.”Photographs courtesy the author

Sandra Hüller and Swann Arlaud, from “Anatomy of a Fall.”

The red carpet is divided into two lanes: the Fancy People and Everybody Else. I usually wind up on the Everybody Else side, but Team “Anatomy” has left me amid photographers and celebrities. Simu Liu and Ramy Youssef glide by, and a woman in the bleachers—a retired kindergarten teacher with short white hair, who won her seat in a contest at her local news station—tells me that Jamie Lee Curtis kissed her hand, because they’re hair twins. A friend texts me that I was on TV behind Regina King, so I scram.

I pass through two jumbo Oscars and up a carpeted staircase, where I find Tony Angellotti, a veteran awards strategist, who worked on the “Oppenheimer” campaign. He’s feeling good, but you never know. “I was here four years ago with ‘1917,’ where, as I’m walking on the carpet, everybody’s going, ‘You got it! You got it!’ ” he says. (It lost to “Parasite.”) “The last time I was here and felt this way was ‘The English Patient,’ which won nine. Most of the season, it was me telling Harvey [Weinstein] to relax: ‘We’ve got it, don’t do anything stupid.’ ” With “Oppenheimer,” he says, his job was simply to “bolster the film and get out of the way.”

Inside, I stroll up to the mezzanine, where I’m seated next to two fun-loving ladies, Natasha Bakody and Lauren Bupp. Bakody is married to the ceremony’s staging supervisor, “the Lego master who puts everything together,” she says. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, so mama’s night out! That’s why I had a little bit of tequila already—’cause I got no kids to watch! Before that, I was an aesthetician, so I did facials and Brazilian waxes.” Bupp is a designer who made Bakody’s outfit: sheer black dress, green clutch, glow-in-the-dark combat boots. (The inspiration, Bupp says, is “Poison Ivy meets Edward Gorey.”) The show is about to start, and they’re psyched. “It’s the ultimate prom,” Bakody says. She peers down to the orchestra and squeals, “Oh, it’s Slash from Guns N’ Roses! I only recognize him from the top hat. ‘November Rain,’ bro!”

The lights dim, and we’re off! Jimmy Kimmel gets big laughs in his opening monologue, then brings on the backstage crew for an ovation; Bakody spots her husband. Da’Vine Joy Randolph wins the first award, for Best Supporting Actress, and we go to commercial break. “Real talk,” Bakody says. “It’s almost better to watch at home, because you can, like, see the people.” She’s right: the other big difference watching in person, besides being at a mall, is that the starry crowd below is a mass of undifferentiated hairdos and dresses and tuxedos. But you do feel the rush of energy when someone wins, or when, say, Billie Eilish comes on to sing “What Was I Made For?” It’s one of two times that the audience in the Dolby comes to an absolute hush. The other is when Mstyslav Chernov, the Ukrainian director of “20 Days in Mariupol,” uses his speech to say that he wishes he could trade in his statuette for “Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities.”

Otherwise, the mezzanine crowd starts getting distracted. A guy in front of me is doing a crossword puzzle on his phone, and an older couple two rows down is using the bright light behind us to make shadow puppets. During another commercial break, Bakody and Bupp go out to the lobby and return with more tequilas. Under each seat is a box of snacks, courtesy of Kimmel: a pretzel, mustard packs, water, and candy. “This Oscars feels maternal,” Bupp says, chewing her pretzel. “I feel taken care of.”

The Zone of Interest” wins Best International Feature, and when the director, Jonathan Glazer, talks about Israel and Gaza, there’s polite (but seated) applause. The reaction is bigger when Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt introduce a salute to stunt people and playfully spar over “Barbie” vs. “Oppenheimer.” Robert Downey, Jr., wins Best Supporting Actor, and gives a predictably charming speech. (“I’d like to thank my terrible childhood and the Academy, in that order.”) Bakody goes ballistic when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito reunite to present Best Visual Effects. “It’s ‘Twins’! It’s ‘Twins’!” she screams. “This is my Everest. This is my Roman Empire.” When “Godzilla Minus One” wins, she’s so overcome that she drops her phone into the row in front of her.

There are only seven categories left, I tell her during a break. “Only?” she says. “I’m, like, meltin’, bro.” But her enthusiasm—like everyone’s—goes through the roof when Gosling starts singing “I’m Just Ken.” The stage flashes pink, and there are more Kens than you can count. Everyone is hooting and head-banging like crazy, including my seatmates, and there’s an explosion of pink fireworks. The Kenergy is palpable. “That was literally one of the highlights of my life, and I had two kids and got married,” Bakody says. “Who gives a shit what happens from here on out?”

But the big categories are upon us. We make our final predictions for Best Actress: I say Lily Gladstone, Bakody says Emma Stone. We clutch hands. It’s Emma. Al Pacino comes out to present Best Picture, but, instead of reading the nominations, he opens the envelope and says, “My eyes see ‘Oppenheimer.’ ” There are confused murmurs. Is this another “La La Land” situation? The orchestra jumps into action, so apparently it really did win, and the applause builds. The lights come up, and we’re filing out. “In person, it goes a little bit faster,” Bakody says. Party time!

The crowd takes the escalators up to the Governors Ball, the Academy’s on-site after-party. I see Celine Song, the writer-director of “Past Lives,” who says that she’s hungry. A waiter offers smoked salmon cut into the shape of an Oscar. Then I run into the comedians John Early and Kate Berlant, who are supporting their friend Samy Burch, the screenwriter of “May December.” “We’re visible in the broadcast when Cillian Murphy wins,” Early says, excitedly. “You literally see me telling Kate that we’re on camera.” Fran Drescher passes by, with giant hair. “She played my mother in a movie,” Berlant says. “We just locked eyes, and she kept walking. And that’s Hollywood.”

Near the engraving station, where Christopher Nolan and Da’Vine Joy Randolph and the “Godzilla Minus One” team are getting their statuettes personalized, I meet the songwriter Diane Warren. She has just lost her fifteenth Oscar for Best Original Song, for “The Fire Inside,” the anthem from “Flamin’ Hot,” about the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. She wears a suit bedazzled with hot flames on the lapels. “I have gone to a new height. Am I now the biggest Oscar loser?” she asks. Her first nomination was in 1988, when she lost to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” from “Dirty Dancing.” But she isn’t bitter. “Every nominee here was chosen by their peers, and there are only five slots,” she says. She holds up a pair of chocolate Oscars from a nearby table. “I won two!”

I race to the Universal after-party at Soho House, which I expect to be a raucous celebration for “Oppenheimer.” But when I get there the dance floor is empty, and there’s a table piled high with uneaten seafood. A journalist friend tells me that it was crowded ten minutes ago. My timing seems to be off, so I leave. As I wait for my Uber, Steven Spielberg appears on the street and greets a line of autograph seekers, one of whom yells, “Steven, you’re the best that ever lived!” I guess my timing is way off, but my car is here, so I go to the Vanity Fair party, hosted by Radhika Jones. I speed-walk past Sandra Hüller and John Mulaney on yet another red carpet, as a battalion of cameras snap in front of me.

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