Hollywood's great festival of pretence

So you think Oscars night is shallow and contrived? It's far, far worse than that, writes Paul McCann
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THE best-known bit of fakery that happens on Oscar night is putting unemployed actors in evening dress into empty seats when a star nips to the loo: the unknowing TV audience believes the auditorium is full. But according to an investigation aired tonight this is just the tip of an iceberg in a sea of unreality that will swirl next month beneath Hollywood's big night.

In the first place, there is the Shrine Auditorium itself. Seemingly in the heart of the movie industry, in fact the Shrine squats in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. The same South Central where mobs chanted "Burn Hollywood" during the riots in 1991. Unless they are buying drugs, movie stars are never found there.

Perhaps the greatest emblem of Oscar artifice is the statuette itself. Tin alloy plated in cheap gold, it is not really the property of those who win. It is a copyrighted image that belongs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

According to BBC2's new series, The Entertainment Biz, which went behind the scenes at last year's Oscars, the most deserving of the tin-plate awards are the public relations people who support the on-screen winners. Films with Oscar potential are dispatched by armies of publicists who send out 2,500 videotapes of each film to members of the academy. This is backed up with LA billboard and trade press campaigns. Films without money for PR just don't win.

But it is on the night itself that the event becomes surreal. Before the stars walk past the media pen that leads to the awards, TV crews with poor vantage points pre-record pieces from the front of the pen. These are mixed with other footage to make it look like their man (or woman) is at the heart of the action. Then the stars pre-rehearse the one soundbite they'll give to every crew that grabs them. Last year Lethal Weapon star Mel Gibson passed along the line and stuck mantra-like to: "It's like a zoo, but it's very nice to be one of the animals."

Dustin Hoffman, currently starring in the Hollywood political satire Wag the Dog, says: "On television it has such a legitimacy, such dignity. And then you get there and it is like a war."

There is little for the stars to say to some of the most inane interrogation in journalism. Fortunately no one wants to listen, they just want to eye the clothes. Stars are signed months in advance by designers angling to get their clothes a free plug on the night. Georgio Armani has the ceremony literally stitched up and his stars are tied into long-term contracts that mean they have to wear his creations to the awards.

"Bribery is not uncommon," Geena Davis, star of Thelma and Louise, tells the programme. "Jewellery stores and designers call up as soon as you are nominated and it is like a scene from an old movie when bell boys keep coming in with gowns."

On top of the frocks, $21m (pounds 13m) worth of jewellery from designer Harry Winston is loaned out for the night. When Madonna wore one of his necklaces to the awards, it had been sold to a Far East buyer by the following day. But even this revealing documentary is not immune to Tinsel Town deal-making. Its candid interviews with every star from Kevin Spacey to Quentin Tarantino are distinguished by backdrops of subtly lit posters promoting their latest flicks.