Oscar-night parties, for 30 years, were the purview of one diminutive, unforgettable gent - Irving "Swifty" Lazar. He began the tradition at the Bistro restaurant in 1964, the night Tom Jones won the best-picture award, and eventually moved the whole shebang in 1985 to Spago, which was then perched above Sunset Boulevard. They were glamorous affairs, but they certainly weren't the most relaxing. Swifty patrolled the perimeter of his domain like a prison guard. The dinner was divided into two rooms, more or less - an A-room for the swells of Old Hollywood and big-league stars, and a B-room for up-and-comers and below-the-line talent. The point was to sit in your garden chair for four hours and watch the Oscars show on an array of television sets. Interplay between the two rooms - between two people for that matter - was discouraged. If you had to get up to go to the toilet, Swifty would kindly pat you on the shoulder and make sure you sat back down and held it in. I was fortunate enough to attend his last such dinner, in 1993, and I can tell you that Swifty's gatherings were militaristic affairs, but in a warm, cozy kind of way.
Swifty died later that year, and a lot of people sprang up to fill the void - most significantly Elton John, who every year since 1993 has hosted a sparkling party that raises international awareness and resources for those affected by HIV/Aids. For some misguided reason - and having not a clue about party hosting, or even much in the way of party going - I decided to throw Vanity Fair's hat into the ring. At the time, I had in mind a modest affair. At Spy magazine, in the 1980s, we had a Hollywood columnist named Celia Brady, who'd sign off her copy with a breezy "See you Monday night at Mortons" - Mortons then being the Hollywood power restaurant, and Monday being the evening when the powerful most often assembled there. Oscar night in those days was held on Mondays, so Mortons seemed a serendipitous choice.
I called Peter Morton to see if his place was available. I'd gotten to him too late; Peter told me he had already promised the restaurant to his friend, the producer Steve Tisch. I called Steve, in turn, to enquire if he might be interested in co-hosting the party, and Steve, being the fellow he is, was agreeable to the idea. It was a relatively small group back then: 100 to 125 for dinner, and 300 to 400 invited to attend after the awards. The next year, Steve won the Best Picture Oscar for Forrest Gump and couldn't even make the dinner. By year three, he had decided that it was perhaps best for Vanity Fair to go it alone; I would host the evening myself, and Steve would have his own table every Oscar night thereafter.
So began the Vanity Fair Oscar party. From the beginning, I laid out a couple of ground rules. For one, I've always hated the idea of roped-off VIP areas at events. This party was going to be more democratic: once you got in - not the easiest thing to do - you would be treated the same as everybody else. Second, SI Newhouse Jnr, the magazine's proprietor, and I decided that we would stand outside Mortons and greet people arriving for the dinner portion of the evening. I'm always nervous upon entering a party, and anytime a host or hostess comes over to welcome me, I'm hugely relieved. I don't think I'm alone in this. Only morons charge into a room full of people feeling superconfident. I'll admit that for the first couple of years my duties at the door were nerve-racking, sometimes excruciatingly so. I'm the sort of person who gets anxious when I'm having two people over for dinner. And, truth be told, by the time the evening arrives I'd just as soon be home in bed watching the ceremony on television. So I'd have a stiff drink, make sure a staff member with a clipboard was standing nearby (should I forget the name of someone heading toward me), and do my best to look like I was having a great time. My feeling was that if the host appeared to be enjoying himself, others would, too.
I imagine I wasn't the only one secretly panicking. The fact is that movie stars are as insecure as the rest of us - if not more so. Many live in a luxurious bubble in which their best friends are their trainer, their hairdresser, their publicist, and their Kabbalah instructor. Because of this, they may not understand when normal people, too intimidated to talk to them, pretend they don't see them. And because the actors who are actually working often have to be on movie sets before dawn, they generally tuck in around 7.30.
Now, suddenly, we couldn't get rid of them. They were lingering until 3am - well after even I had left. For a couple of years we had this phenomenal dance band from Havana, and pretty much the only fool cutting the rug was me. So it wasn't the dancing they stayed late for. Hollywood people being Hollywood people, all they wanted to do was meet one another. They couldn't stop hatching deals, exchanging business cards, flirting, lying about how they loved the other person's last movie, and just ... talking.
The guest list, the product of two months of deliberation among Sara Marks, Vanity Fair's director of special projects, Jane Sarkin, the magazine's features editor, and me, yields on some nights the most extraordinary collection of people since the JFK inaugural. From the very beginning, we made sure to include a big contingent of Old Hollywood. Over the years, we've had everyone from Artie Shaw and Nancy Reagan to Connie Wald, Kirk Douglas, Ernest Lehman, and just about every key figure from that era who's still alive. Tony Curtis and his wife, Jill Vanden Berg, are wonderful company and have almost become mascots, in the best sense of the word. The Old Hollywood people make perfect guests. They come on time, dress up nicely, and have great manners. The same doesn't necessarily hold true for Young Hollywood. Some of them read an invitation - dinner at 6pm, black tie - and translate it as: 9pm, jeans and a T-shirt. Nevertheless, the Vanity Fair party makes for one of the few evenings of the year when Hollywood, young and old, can meet - and try to figure out what their respective audiences see, or saw, in the other. Throw into that mix several helpings of rock stars, literary legends, politicians, athletes, artists, soldiers, moguls and the newsmaker or two of the year, and you end up with some odd but wonderful pairings. Where else would Monica Lewinsky and Sir Ian McKellen meet and become chums?
Not everyone gets along so rosily. We've had fights - usually involving agents - and, on at least one night, the tossing of a drink in a guest's face. We've seen our share of spectacles we'd like to forget, such as the time Pamela Anderson, looking like she had just come from a job at the car wash, spent the evening glued at the hip to Elizabeth Hurley. There's been some truly bad behaviour. Consider Courtney Love in 2001. She came up to me and complained that her manager was stuck at the door. "Graydon, Graydon, you've got to let him in," she said. "He's got my money, my car keys, my cell phone, and my drugs." I told her to take it up with Sara. When she learned that Sara was not about to accommodate her, Ms Love went outside, stood before a wall of video cameras, and said, "I've got an important announcement to make. Sara Marks is a c***!" Certainly a creative use of the medium, I thought.
Courtney Love made Sara something of a legend. I remember going to see Minority Report and being amused that the woman the "pre-cogs" were trying to tag as a would-be murder victim was named "Sarah Marks". I couldn't help but feel that there was some screenwriter or associate producer who, years before, had been turned away at 11.30pm. (Sara, for the record, has a heaven-sent sense of taste and knack for detail; when it comes to creating perfect social gatherings, she is beyond compare.) Suffice it to say that by now most people understand that Sara is the gatekeeper. People have actually asked me whether I have any pull with her. (In 1994, Martin Landau showed up at the door uninvited. Somebody came over to me and asked what to do. At that point, Landau had probably been forgotten by much of Hollywood, and so I told them to let him in. They did, and the next year he arrived with his best-supporting-actor Oscar for his part in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.)
The lengths to which people go to get in are so absurd sometimes that they can be quite touching. One year, a mystery woman was discovered seated between John Cleese and Faye Dunaway. Lou Palumbo, the head of security at the time, approached the problem like the cool operator he is. He went over and quietly explained the situation to Faye Dunaway. She got up, and Lou took her seat beside the unidentified woman. "My name's Lou Palumbo, and I'm head of security," he said softly. "What we're going to do is this: we're going to sit here and talk for a few minutes and then we're going to quietly get up and leave." I discovered that, in the gap between the preparations for the party and the party itself, she had pretended to be a staff person and had gone into the bathroom, stood up on a toilet, and cooled her heels for three or four hours. She then put on a fancy dress and started mingling.
Alas, not all attendees invite themselves with such panache. A reality-show star recently called to say that he'd bought his wife a dress and jewellery and was ready to come to the party. I had to tell him, sorry, but no reality television. The rule of thumb for something like this is simple: it's not just about those you invite, it's about those you don't invite. (There's a list of about a dozen or so people who will never be asked back. And at the top of that list are a number of prominent Hollywood names who have been genuinely rude to our staff.)
In the same way that the wrong element can throw a party off, seating the wrong two people next to each other for the dinner can be unbearably uncomfortable. (We've learned the hard way.) So in the week before the party, a few contributors and members of the staff sit around, quite often by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, trying to anticipate disasters. Didn't so-and-so screw so-and-so's wife? Didn't this one just fire this other one's husband? It takes a considerable amount of diplomacy and care to get it right. My kids have witnessed a couple of these meetings, and I'm convinced that they learn more about the human condition from these sessions than they would from sitting in a classroom that week.
It's all about the details, and the team usually gets them right. Over the years we've had old-fashioned cigarette girls, engraved Zippo lighters, lollipops with movie stars' faces on them, cookies glazed with Vanity Fair covers, and In-N-Out burgers for folks arriving late and famished. The guests seem to love these little novelties. They also seem to love the various room accessories. The pewter ashtrays, which were inspired by one I saw in a Terence Conran restaurant, and which weigh as much as bowling balls, disappear by the dozens each year. Once we had lamps with shades featuring stills from Oscar-nominated movies. They vanished, too.
Reporters get swept up in the frenzy of the night as well. In addition to almost 50 camera crews and dozens of photographers outside, there are a number of newspaper columnists invited inside. If I stick a cigarette in my mouth, filter facing out, chances are columnist Liz Smith, or Frank DiGiacomo of The New York Observer, will be there to catch it and write about it later. And you'd better look out for the paparazzi circling the door. I remember Stephen Rivers, a former consultant for the magazine, sidling over and saying, "Graydon, Monica Lewinsky's about to come in. I think this is a photo op you don't want to be a part of." The rush to get in can be so frenetic that the fire warden stands near the entrance with a clicker, allowing only a certain number of people in the room at any one time. One night, when he hit his limit, we had about six Oscar winners waiting outside, The Day of the Locust-style, statuettes in hand. We learned to be careful, after having been shut down once, early on. But in a curious way the disasters only make the evening more memorable. The night that we had three blackouts was interesting. Our generator and back-up blew, one after the other. It made it seem like more of a happening, as we used to say in the 1970s.
One thing that makes the party especially enjoyable for me is bringing my children along. I know that decades from now, they will have some indelible memories. They're not particularly wowed by movie stars, but, let's face it, in a cinema the stars are 40ft high, and, well, kids aren't. I've been stuck carrying around my daughter's fluffy mauve-and-pink purse for two hours when she decided she didn't want to hold it anymore. I've also been able to see the expression on their faces when I introduce them to people they admire, such as Cleese, John Cusack, Brad Pitt, and Ali G. The look is one of nervous excitement, the kind we learn to hide when we become old and more controlled. Still, it's nice to realise you can see that look on so many faces on Oscar night. When the stars come out.
Reprinted from 'Oscar Night', from the editors of 'Vanity Fair' by arrangement with Alfred A Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. © The Condé Nast PublicationsReuse content