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Another Day In Paradise: Oscar Weekend In Los Angeles
Hannah Smith , March 9th, 2018 09:46

Down and out in Hollywood and Beverly Hills on Oscars weekend, Hannah Smith finds all the wrong kinds of buzz

Inside the Dolby Theatre. credit: Todd Wawrychuk / Bill Barnes / A.M.P.A.S.

Clouds have descended over Los Angeles. The city is ugly in the rain. It turns out that blue sky and sunshine is an important filter. I’m in an Uber on my way to my first and only Academy event. Inside, Phil Collins is singing, “probably been moved on from every place, ‘cos she didn’t fit in there”. Outside, a man with the dirty, deep tan sported uniquely by LA’s homeless population stops in his tracks to attack an imaginary foe near his head.

This is Los Angeles over Oscar weekend and I’ll admit it doesn’t look at all how my years of watching the Academy Awards had led me to believe it would.

On my first full day here I had ventured along Sunset and Hollywood by foot in the general direction of Hollywood and the Dolby Theatre that hosts the event itself. The closer I got, the less comfortable I felt – and that wasn’t just the blisters gathering on my feet. From a morning spent drinking coffee in the sun in one of Silverlake’s many cool eateries, my LA had gone from La La Land to Drive, only without the cool jacket. Or Ryan Gosling. And everything in life is better if Ryan Gosling is there, I imagine.

Of the many emotions I feel in the presence of homeless people, intimidation is usually very low on the list. But here there is an unhinged presence about the individuals and groups of homeless people. It’s the product of a drug I recognise from a viral video of a man losing his mind as he walks along a busy freeway. People shout, swerve across pavements, attack imaginary beings, their eyes far back inside their heads, their limbs viciously ready to lash at anything.

When it comes to being so down on your luck that your community can’t even provide the safety of a roof over your head, I offer no judgement. You do what you need to do to get by. But this drug, this is not about removing yourself from reality. If anything, it forces the ‘real’ world around you to pay attention, sit up, look, in the same way that heroin and crack makes you invisible.

And yet if I think about any of the films made in LA in the past few years, I don’t get the impression that Hollywood is looking.

When I reach the Dolby Theatre that will once again house the Academy Awards this year, my nerves are as frayed as a first time nominee. I wanted to be here so badly and I’ve never wanted to leave anywhere quicker. A man is swerving in front of me, screaming loudly as he does so. The tourists carry on taking pictures, pretending he isn’t there.

Two street entertainers dressed as Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow try to grab my attention. The rubber masks look expensive, but probably not as expensive as the real Hollywood faces that, come Sunday, will walk the red carpet being built atop the dirty broken stars on the Walk of Fame.

The cracks in the stars honouring names long since forgotten give you the sense that Hollywood doesn’t belong here anymore. Hollywood is such an all-consuming part of LA, such a massive draw to the hordes of tourists that it seems odd that Hollywood is out of place in the very part of town it was born. By the time I’ve taken my pictures of the Oscar set-up, my nerves are so jangled I don’t even want to find a place to eat nearby. I need to get out of here.

“Oh, Barbara Streisand is the worst person in Hollywood. She’s as cheap as… well… me!” laughs a valet working nearby the Dolby as I rush past, avoiding the two Johnny Depps and a swerving homeless man as I do.

“Will you be watching the Oscars on Sunday?” I ask the Uber driver who has arrived to take me away, “I’ll watch for the dresses, but when it gets political I will stop. It’s hypocritical. I can’t watch them get political.”

Outside the Dolby Theatre. Photo: Hannah Smith

By the time I knew I was going to be in LA for Oscar weekend, the press lists to the many events around the big day were already full. Nowhere on earth can do rejection with a smile as forcefully as America. From the moment I stepped off the plane and stood in front of the customs official to the moment I stand at the wrong door trying to access the one event I have a pass to, I have never felt so unable to speak my own language, nor so sure of my misfit status. So it seems oddly comforting to me that I am at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for an event celebrating the nominees for films in a foreign language, which is exactly what I feel I’ve been speaking since I arrived.

The land of opportunity, as long as you are prepared to grab it – preferably by the pussy – is not suited to British politeness or European floweriness. As Ziad Doueiri, Director of the nominated foreign language film The Insult observes, whilst talking about how he writes his script in American before translating it back to his native language, “I say American because to me it is different to English. It is so practical. It is not an analytical language.” And in a few short sentences he sums up the Hollywood industry.

Inside the auditorium, the Foreign Language event looks distinctly white. I even take to counting ethnicities to pass the time as I wait for the event to begin. I get to one black man, two black women, one Asian man, and three Asian women before the Academy’s advert about the Gold Program starts. The Gold Program is a scheme they are running to improve diversity by helping to find internships for “people of diversity” (as they refer to them) with twenty-two companies within the industry. I’m no clearer about the Academy’s commitment to “people of diversity” – or who “people of diversity” are – by the time the advert finishes than I was by looking around the audience. Judging by the female angle of the advert I think “people of diversity” could mean women as much as it could mean different ethnicities or sexual orientations.

The event begins with clips of each of the films, and the applause at the start of the clip, at the end of the clip, at the mention of a name, then another name, is already beginning to tire me out. Nothing about it feels sincere. Thankfully the filmmakers on the panel do. They speak my language. No-one gives a straight answer. They wander down paths and meander around corners that the question didn’t lead to. The host, to his credit, does a great job of listening and being led. But it’s when Ruben Östlund, writer and director of The Square, talks about trust and how the birth of gated communities in Sweden was the starting point for his film, that I begin to understand why Los Angeles has felt so disconcertingly different to a normal, cosmopolitan city. “What the gated community says is, ‘we don’t trust what is outside of this gate.’”

In Los Angeles the gated community is not just confined to the houses people live in, but is extended to the cars they travel everywhere in. It’s easy to ignore a man in the middle of a delusion when you’re locked inside your car. Perhaps this is why Hollywood seems so shut away, so disconnected. When you take out the forced interactions of public transport, you take away the need to look further than yourself, your own bubble.

He tells us about a study that showed where the individuals of a nation place their trust. In Germany, it is between the state and the family. In Sweden, it is between the state and the individual. In the US, it is between the individual and the family, a fact that seems starkly obvious in hindsight. This is a country that elected a reality TV star as President over an experienced politician, a town where people keep fortresses around their families all day long. It was this question of trust that made Östlund want to challenge his own humanity, to question what happens when his liberal idea of himself is challenged. “When we fail,” his film asks, “why do we fail?” This is the question ‘liberal’ Hollywood should be asking itself right now in the light of #metoo and #oscarssowhite.

The conversation moves onto casting. Two of the five films on the slate have amateurs in leading or significant roles. One has an actor who had never made a film before, something it’s difficult to imagine the big Hollywood studios ever risking. The gentle humanity of the casting process each filmmaker seems to have gone through to find the actor at the heart of their story is a stark contrast to the morning I spent two days previously, recording a self-tape audition for an actress friend. “All that matters is that I look good,” she told me as we re-watched the tapes and adjusted the lighting. Another actress friend confirms a few days later, “that is the most important thing here.”

It’s odd in a way that a city that relies so heavily on blue sky and bright sunshine to look good is so obsessed with beauty. It also doesn’t feel like a true reflection of the people that live here. They are beautiful – not in the polished, plastic Hollywood way; but in a normal, eclectic, human way.

Ildikó Enyedi, director of the Oscar® nominated foreign film “On Body and Soul”, Ziad Doueiri, director of the Oscar® nominated foreign film “The Insult”, and Andrey Zvyagintsev, director of the Oscar® nominated foreign film “Loveless”, during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Oscar Week: Foreign Language Films event on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. credit: Phil McCarten / ©AMPAS

The nerves that settled in around Hollywood days earlier have proved hard to shift as I spend my days searching the city for any hint of an Oscars buzz. I feel out of place here but not in the way I imagined I would. It’s a language barrier, a way of seeing things that is different.

We’ve always been sold the idea that America is our natural ally, but I’ve never felt more proud of my European status and oddness than I do leaving the foreign film event. The stories these filmmakers are telling are the ones I relate to, the ones I want to tell.

Emerging from the screening room, I am embraced once again by the sun, which has come out from behind the grey clouds, a symbol of hope for brighter times perhaps. After the rain comes the rainbow, and all that.

I wander the streets of Beverly Hills looking for lunch and movie stars. I last fifteen minutes before I feel as uncomfortable walking these streets as I did walking around Hollywood.

In many ways, the people of Beverly Hills are more menacing than the bath-salt-taking homeless, who in their humanity are relatable. Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles what Hollywood is to movies. It’s all about money. And money, wherever it goes, corrupts.

About as close as you can get to the Hollywood sign. Photo: Hannah Smith

Once outside of the Hollywood bubble, I begin to relax. I can find no-one who cares about the Oscars on Sunday that isn’t in the industry, which is a huge relief and also no surprise. The gates to the castle are firmly shut to the people on the outside. Hollywood might be the attraction that brings people to the city but it certainly isn’t the heart of it.

Leaving Beverly Hills I find myself at the Santa Monica pier. In a tent in a car park, The Independent Film Spirit awards are happening. A smattering of people look on. Teenage girls are shouting “Timothée!” in that high-pitched desperate way of teenage hope. A man stands on a lamppost with a banner about the President. All around Santa Monica is busy with people getting on with their lives. Inside, Timothée Chalamet talks about the faith he has in the industry because of the people coming up through the ranks.

And it’s true that there are new voices breaking through. But as I sit down to watch the Oscars on Sunday night it’s clear that change is happening in spite of the Academy and the Hollywood studios, not because of it. The Academy still votes exactly the way we all expected it to. Get Out wins Best Original Screenplay, which is incredible, but it feels like a consolation because the Academy was never going to give it Director or Picture.

All the Best Picture nominees, except Ladybird, walk away with some small consolation prize. And whilst Guilermo Del Toro as best Director and Shape of Water as Best Picture is a big first, and I don’t wish to take away from what that means for a whole community of marginalized filmmakers, his fantasy world still feels like a safe Hollywood choice more than a trailblazing upset. Could he have won without the Hollywood fantasy element?

Perhaps the bravest thing the Academy did on the night was allowing Frances McDormand a chance to speak by giving her the award we all knew she would get. I wish she had asked not just the female nominees to stand, but also all the non-white, non-straight men to stand. Watching her rousing the audience to take action, to fund the projects they ignore, to widen the circle, it feels as though all the straight white men of Hollywood can do is play catch up and hope that the audience is still there by the time they arrive.

To be fair to the Academy voters, you get the sense that numbers might still tip in favour of the old guard. We can see movements changing in every area of life. The teenagers of Parkland will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – if not now, then when a generation of voters are no longer with us. Perhaps it will be the same with the Academy.

But until Hollywood finds a way to reconnect with the people that live directly outside its gates – let alone those from further afield – and learns to embrace the ugliness of a grey sky, or a wrinkle, its decline will be as stark as the area it was born in. Because that’s the problem with bubbles – eventually they burst.