Clowns to the left, jokers to the right

The Oscars
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The Independent Culture
It may look like an orderly and glamorous parade of Hollywood's finest talents, but that's largely an illusion laid on for the outside world. Behind the scenes at the 67th Academy Awards in The Shrine Auditorium, on the edge of LA's gangland, a different picture emerged.

4.30pm: An hour and a half before kick-off. A frisson of excitement sweeps through the large crowd of photographers gathered in the afternoon sun outside The Shrine. Down the red carpet, past the flowers, comes the red-headed actress Edy Williams, co-star in The Mankillers. Her Oscar outfits are a legend among the paparazzi; today she has chosen a blue sequinned outfit that is, apart from a black gauze, topless. A grey-haired man pitches up, opens his dress shirt, and reveals a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of himself and OJ Simpson.

4.40pm: Army Archerd, the veteran Hollywood columnist whose snatched interviews with arriving stars are broadcast over the tannoy system to waiting fans in the stands, is questioning Sir Anthony Hopkins, the first big name to pitch up. Archerd: "Of course, you are not giving up your acting career... you even know what role you are going to do next!" Hopkins (mumbling): "President Nixon." Archerd (sounding thrilled): "You are going to be playing President NIXON!" The crowd gives an uncertain cheer.

5.10pm: Lizzy Gardiner appears in a dress made of 254 gold-coloured American Express cards, held together by chains. No one seems to know who she is. Later, the mystery is solved when she and Tim Chappel win the costume design Oscar for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Her fellow Australians are pleased. When she goes to the press tent back-stage, clutching her Oscar, an Australian TV journalist stands up and bellows: "Good On Yer! Good On Yer!"

5.20pm: The stars are beginning to pour in, cheered by hundreds of fans and watched overhead by circling media helicopters. But my attention is on HC "Pinky" Meredith, an elderly gentleman wearing a mauve fez embroidered with the words "Imperial Photographer". The place is swarming with celebrities - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Travolta, Sigourney Weaver - but he's waiting to photograph "Burt", the Imperial Potentate. And he doesn't mean Reynolds. He's talking about the national head of the Shriners, the Masonic-style fraternal order that owns The Shrine.

5.45pm: I take my seat in the press tent, a crammed space full of several hundred journalists ludicrously clad in tuxedos and ball gowns, set up my computer, and log on to Compuserve, the on-line information and chat service, which is holding a global cyber-conference on the Oscars. The participants are from as far afield as Britain, Portugal, and Australia. "Go Gump!", writes one contributor; "Pulp! Pulp! Pulp!", says another.

7.14pm: Martin Landau, winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ed Wood, reveals his success was pre-ordained. He says that he went to a Chinese restaurant in LA and the message in his fortune cookie read: "You will receive some high prize or award." Earlier Dianne Wiest, winner of the Best Supporting Actress's trophy for Bullets Over Broadway, discloses that Woody Allen, her director, couldn't attend because "he's playing the clarinet".

7.38pm: Any serious European movie fan knows that America's infatuation with the saccharine and over-long Forrest Gump has temporarily obliterated their judgement, but there's consolation for the British with the success of Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life, which wins the Live Action Short Film category. The £30,000 movie, funded by the Scottish Film Production Fund and BBC Scotland, is a feather in the cap for Peter Capaldi (he of Local Hero fame) and Ruth Kenley-Letts. There follow several other British successes: Ken Adam wins an Oscar for Art Direction in The Madness of King George, and Bob's Birthday, a Canadian-Channel 4 production wins as Best Animated Short Film (see below).

8.50pm: The songwriters Tim Rice and Elton John are ushered in to meet the press, carrying Oscars for the Best Original Song, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", from The Lion King. Mr Rice explains, to the bewilderment of the Hollywood audience, why he decided to honour Denis Compton, the former English cricketer, in his acceptance speech: Compton is "someone who hasn't been mentioned before in Oscar ceremonies".

Elton dedicates his Oscar to his 95-year-old grandmother, Ivy Sewell, who died last week. She was the one who made him sit down at a piano at the age of three, he says. He hadn't been able to go to her funeral because he was doing a gig with Billy Joel. I ask the librarian from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who has a desk in the press tent, if English cricketers have ever been so honoured before? She doesn't think so.

9.10pm: The evening's high point. A radio reporter from Pakistan asks Clint Eastwood, recipient of the honorary Irving Thalberg Oscar, the following question: "You spend a lot of time in the saddle, do you ever chafe your bottom?" Eastwood replies, unruffled: "No, I have never chafed my bottom. As soon as they yell `cut', I just get off the saddle and walk it off." While Jessica Lange is talking about her Best Actress Oscar for Blue Sky, a group of Los Angeles police officers outside is admiring David Letterman's white Porsche.

9.25pm: Tom Hanks appears in the press tent after his weepy speech accepting the Best Actor's Oscar for the second year running. The slow-witted Forrest Gump seems to make more sense than he does. But, after rambling on about "three billion" TV viewers (thrice the actual amount) he does admit, rather winningly, if he were nominated again next year there would "be a collective wave of suicide jumpers outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion" (the LA venue for many Oscars ceremonies). I go outside to watch departing celebrities getting increasingly irritated by the late arrival of their enormous limos, which are jammed nose to tail along the street, and find myself wondering if King George was really all that mad after all.

Phil Reeves