In Hollywood, the only genuine element of suspense hanging over this year's Oscars is what kind of rating the ceremony gets when it's shown on American television. Forget about who wins a gold statuette. The really important question is whether the audience for this year's telecast will hold up. So far, award shows have not been faring well in 2005. The Golden Globes attracted 40% fewer viewers than it did last year and the audience for the Grammies was down 25%. Will the Oscars take a similar hit?
It's precisely this concern that prompted the producer of the 77th Annual Academy Awards, Gil Cates, to hire Chris Rock to host the ceremony. At first sight, the foul-mouthed black comic may seem a strange choice, particularly when you set him alongside such tried-and-tested performers as Steve Martin and Billy Crystal. But once you factor in the ratings anxiety it makes more sense. What better way to make sure people watch the show than to hire a loose cannon like Chris Rock? People will tune in just to see if he uses the f-word.
So far, Rock has played his part to a tee. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, the three-time host of the MTV Music Video Awards said he'd never watched the Oscars himself and the only black men he knew who had were screaming queens. "What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars?" he said. "Show me one!" He went on to condemn the very notion of handing out prizes for artistic achievement, branding all award shows "f---ing idiotic". Asked what he was going to be wearing, he replied: "Nothing against people who aren't straight, but what straight guy that you know cares? Who gives a f---?"
The chances of Rock reigning himself in on the night are pretty remote. The last thing he wants is for the ceremony to go off without a hitch. If he ends up being branded a safe pair of hands he can kiss goodbye to his career as an edgy, urban comic. He only has to look at what happened to Whoopi Goldberg to see how damaging a successful stint as an Oscar host can be. Whoopi's career took a nosedive after she was added to the roster of rotating hosts in 1994. Since then, her main claim to fame has been as a regular contestant on a game show called Hollywood Squares alongside Barbara Eden, Erik Estrada and Stefanie Powers.
Even if Rock does succeed in gingering up the ratings, I'm not sure that hiring him is such a great idea in the long term. Who will the producer of next year's Academy Awards get to follow him? Quentin Tarantino? Once you've decided to take the show in this direction, each year's host has to be more controversial than the last. The fact that the format of the Oscars hasn't changed in 50 years is part of the ceremony's charm, in my view. It's now so out-of-date it has a quaint, old-fashioned quality. It's like a throwback to a bygone era. I enjoy the lack of irony, the sheer excess of it all--and I speak as a red-blooded heterosexual.
Still, I'll be tuning in to watch Chris Rock step up to the podium in the small hours of tomorrow morning. The prospect of him being outrageously rude to all those Hollywood stuffed shirts is just too good to miss.
One thing to watch for during the Oscars is how the director of the telecast reacts if one of the winners goes on speaking beyond their allotted time. The general rule is that each acceptance speech must be no longer than 45 seconds--and the winners are left in no doubt as to when their time is up. After they've been speaking for 30 seconds, a clock will appear on a monitor in front of them to count down the last 15 seconds. After that, the words "WRAP IT UP" appear in bright red letters. If that doesn't work, the director instructs the orchestra to begin playing "noodling" music over the top of the speaker and, if that doesn't do the trick, the director will wait for a pause in the speech, go to a wide shot, cue the "play off" music and retract the pop-up microphone.
Of course, none of this applies if the speaker happens to be the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. No Oscar telecast is complete without a long, tearful speech by an over-emotional Hollywood starlet and this year will be no exception. Hilary Swank, the hot favourite, is bound to overrun by at least ten minutes, thanking everyone from her agent to her Yorkshire Terrier's psychiatrist. I can't wait.
IN AND OUT BURGER
The official after-party at each year's Oscar ceremony is the Governor's Ball, catered by Wolfgang Puck, but few of the guests have time to attend this lavish, sit-down dinner. Most of them can't wait to hit the road as soon as the Best Picture Award is handed out, eager to do as many "drive-bys" at unofficial parties as possible.
But this presents a problem: Where to eat? After sitting through the four-hour ceremony, most of the audience members are absolutely ravenous, and the thought of staying up the rest of the night on an empty stomach is daunting. The solution is to pop into one of the fast food restaurants dotted around West Hollywood and one of the more bizarre sights on Oscar nights is the long line of limousines, many of them carrying A-list movie stars, queuing up to place their orders at the Drive-Thru In and Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard.
By common consent, the hottest ticket of Oscar night is the Vanity Fair party. People go to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a place on the guest-list. Someone once called up a member of the magazine's staff and offered them a bribe of $300,000 (£215,000) for an invitation. "Give them my cellphone number," the editor joked when he heard about this. "I have four children to educate."
I actually worked for Vanity Fair for the best part of three years, yet I was only allowed to go once. To date, the only non-celebrity successfully to gatecrash the party was a hack from the Star supermarket tabloid who turned up in 1996 with a pig on a leash. Claiming it was the pig from Babe, which was a Best Picture nominee that year, the reporter sailed past the clipboard Nazis who were apparently unaware that over a dozen pigs took turns to play the title role.
Since then the party has been made gatecrasher-proof. These days, in order to get anywhere near the entrance you have to get past a series of checkpoints manned by Los Angeles County Sheriffs. Even if you're on the list, that's no guarantee you'll get in. Invitations are staggered according to whether you're A-list, B-list, C-list or D-list, with those at the bottom of the food chain only being allowed to come at the end of the evening. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, for instance, was turned back in 1998 when she arrived at 9.30pm. She'd been told not to get there any earlier than 11.30pm.