But Big Tents are never as spacious as they seem from the outside, are they? Just getting into the Kodak Theatre on Sunday night was a tutorial in the price of inclusiveness as it is practiced in the world of stardom: Stop at checkpoint, present ticket and I.D. to uniformed police officers. Stop at second checkpoint, roll down all vehicle windows, pop trunk, let more uniformed police officers search car.
Cross the threshold toward a big, open stairway down which the tiny and beautiful Kirsten Dunst and her look-alike brother are gliding. Watch yet another ticket-taker tell the schlemiel behind them that, sorry, he can't go down these stairs to the cocktail party where all the stars are. He has to go to a different floor if he wants a cocktail. The guy gazes over the banister — here's Laura Linney, there's Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas — as the tiny and beautiful Emmy Rossum of "The Phantom of the Opera" descends.
So it went under Sunday's Big Tent. As the evening wore on, it was clear that, really, a tent could only be so big. Nervous at the possibility of low ratings when fewer and fewer people care about more and more award shows, the Oscars took a chance and rejiggered the show's formula to emphasize mass over class, at least in front of the cameras.
But in the house, as host Chris Rock might say, the scene was more nuanced. Mass is democratic and inclusive, but Hollywood is all about social stratification. The stars have to be distant or they'll lose their magic and people won't buy tickets.
So the faces were a little different, but most of the rules remained unchanged. There were stars and then there were big stars and then there was everyone else. The pre-awards parties at the Kodak Theatre were divided into levels — the higher the status, the lower the floor. Same with the seats. Same with the humor.
"Who is Jude Law?" Rock demanded a few minutes into an opening bit that drew roars from the cheap seats high in the back of the theater and raised more than a few hackles in the front rows. "Why is he in every movie I've seen for the past four years? He's in everything! Even movies he's not in, you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something!" Hollywood likes to be kidded (Robin Williams is beloved, and where was Jack with his famous shades) but only in a kinder, gentler way.
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Later, Sean Penn took the stage to tartly remind that Law is "one of our finest actors." Penn spoke for a different constituency, the insiders for whom the Oscars aren't a mere TV show (the way they are, say, for the folks at the Magic Johnson Theatres, whose raves about the movie "White Chicks" were beamed in to varied amusement) but a celebration of a serious art form.
Still later, at the after-parties, the buzz was all about whether Rock, the "outsider" host who had been hired on the promise that he might do something worth watching, such as being offensive, had merely managed to offend the wrong people.
"I thought what he said about Jude Law was unacceptable," muttered one producer after the ceremony, as he awaited his Governors Ball plate of slow-braised Kobe beef short ribs.
"You know what? Lighten the ... up! That little speech Sean Penn came up with, that's the reason people hate liberals," opined another producer, Nelson George, sitting across the room with Sean Combs (né "P. Diddy").
"You were great," former "Saturday Night Live" costar Adam Sandler assured Rock as a crowd of well-wishers thumped his small back and yelled (to his face, at least), "You killed — killed!"
Chris Rock: the reviews
But early reviews of the show called his monologue "mean-spirited," and at the Vanity Fair party, Jermaine Dupri, the boyfriend of Janet Jackson, whom Rock also dissed gently, sailed past him without acknowledgment. Apparently interpreting it as a snub, Rock quipped to Def Jam's Russell Simmons, "I didn't touch the brother!" Simmons, acting fast, pressed his Buddhist prayer beads onto Rock's hand. "Here," he said. "Touch these."
The parties, like the show, were less revolution than evolution. The ordinarily staid Governors Ball had a more diverse feel. Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz worked the room as a pair. Friends of Rock set up a sort of hip-hop table at the center of the celebration.
Warren Beatty and Annette Bening held court at a table with Jeremy Irons; "The Incredibles" creator Brad Bird came by to pay his respects, sporting a little "Incredibles" pin on his lapel. Oprah Winfrey left even before Warren and Annette, so great was her status. The "Sideways" cast hoisted — what else? — glasses of wine at their table, celebrating their Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
At the "Million Dollar Baby" tables, the center of the movie universe this night, Clint Eastwood planted his Oscars on a table full of half-full wine glasses and dirty dishes. A joyful Hilary Swank fielded congratulations with cries of "Welcome to my trailer park!" while her husband, Chad Lowe, sat three seats down, his patient, cherubic face — thanked and re-thanked, in these recent weeks of awards ceremonies — bent over what appeared to be a bowl of mashed potatoes. Every now and then, some acolyte would pull the skirt of her low-backed gown away from the feet of the crowd.
The Vanity Fair party was held, as ever, at Morton's restaurant at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Robertson Boulevard. Here too the tent was Hollywood's idea of big. Adam Sandler stood in a cloud of smoke, nodding and smiling. Christina Aguilera blew kisses to the photographers. Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica, spotted the aging film critic Roger Ebert and earnestly introduced himself while Ulrich's statuesque date stood by, staring into the middle distance.