It happened, at long last, making this The End of my little fairy tale.
After months of build-up, weeks of coordination, days of writing about it and hours of preparation, I, Catherine (nom de plume: Cinderella), finally went to the Oscars (nom de plume: the ball).
As balls often are, this one was magical, surreal, exhilarating, exhausting, overwhelming and an experience of a lifetime.
There were mishaps, sure (getting tangled in my dress just as I stepped onto the red carpet was one), but overall it went off without a major hitch — or at least, without a hitch that couldn’t be unhitched; later, I will tell you about the most alarming such hitch: my hair.
I also learned something: Cinderella has it rough, and I don’t just mean because she has to wear rags, wash floors and live under the tyranny of her wicked stepsisters and stepmother.
So much of the hard work in being Cinderella is that part about getting ready for that Very Important Ball. Who knew there could be so much pain in being a princess?
Rags to Riches: The Making of a Princess
Oscar Day dawned crisp and sunny. Despite the auspicious weather and tasty breakfast eaten with Prince Charming (dear old Dad), the morning had a rather inauspicious beginning.
The hairstylist arrived at my hotel room at 10:30 a.m. as scheduled and informed me he wouldn’t, as I’d been told by the concierge, be washing my hair.
Let me be clear: My hair was crying out in desperation for shampoo, which it had been deprived of for two days to the point where it had practically mutated into another life form.
And let me be frank: I’d left plenty of cushion in terms of timing, but I was still unnerved by any blip in the plan.
Never you mind. I brushed off the initial jolt of panic and off I hopped into the shower to wash my blond locks myself, while the stylist and makeup artist he’d brought along (even though I’d told the hotel I’d only be having my hair done there) twiddled their thumbs and made small talk with my father.
Don’t get me wrong. The stylist, whose name was Damian (in retrospect, another ominous sign), was sweet and charming, his assistant lovely, the hotel classy and comfortable. But on details, there stood to be some improvement. Oh, and on hairstyling.
Yes, my worst nightmare came true. OK, that’s an exaggeration. It wasn’t my worst nightmare (that would be pathetic), and there are far more horrible things that could have happened but didn’t. Still, there are certain expectations one has of Cinderella and she of herself, among them that her hair will be glamorous and beautiful.
After more than an hour of blow-drying, curling, teasing, pulling, combing, clipping and spraying — away from a mirror so I couldn’t see what in God’s name was being done to me, though I had a sinking sensation it wasn’t good — Damian asked me, in perfect seriousness, who played Nanny McPhee in the movie.
My heart dropped. I’d told him I wanted hair similar to Reese Witherspoon’s in “Walk the Line.” Why was he asking me about …
“Emma Thompson?” I squeaked.
“Emma Thompson!” my cheery stylist replied. “That’s who you look like!”
Dear God. So I did.
No matter that it was the furthest thing imaginable from the look I was going for. Though I find Thompson regal and supremely talented, she is about 20 years my senior, and her short hairstyles are definitely not me. But there one of them was, on me. Tight, too-bouncy, too-high, too-late-‘80s/early ‘90s curls. Joy.
It was all I could do to keep from shrieking in horror and anger, shaking Damian by the shoulders and shouting, “What were you thinking?!” I didn’t, of course. I kept my composure, forced a smile and lied through my clenched teeth.
“Oh, wow, it’s great!” I said, putting those acting classes and community theater experience to work. After I paid him the $125 with tip and sent him on his way, I set to work trying to fix the hair fright.
It wasn’t easy, considering I was shaking and sweating and all around not a happy princess. Also the hair was so springy and excitable that it didn’t respond well to my attempts to calm it down and smooth it out. It had a mind of its own.
I eventually had to make the best of it, because we were starting to run into overtime. All the while, my poor father — who at this point was undoubtedly wondering what he’d gotten himself into by agreeing to escort me — was reassuring me that my hair looked good and he liked it while trying to get himself ready and dressed in his spiffy tux.
In between my fussing with my hair and Dad fussing with his tux, he ironed the bottom of my sunset-pink, gem-encrusted Reem Acra gown and we packed up all our essentials.
In my case, they included the dress, my curling iron and a host of other completely frivolous items, along with crucial accessories such as our tickets and parking permit; in my father’s, they included maps to the theater, binoculars and the digital camera (to use only before the show — the Academy strictly forbids cameras at the Oscars).
We then embarked on the drive to the apartment of the actual makeup artist I’d booked. Her name was Colleen, and I’d met her over the phone when I called a Hollywood Sephora store weeks ago about getting my face done at the counter.
She’d kindly volunteered to do it at her place — conveniently located behind Kodak Theatre — on her day off for a reasonable sum.
She lived so near the festivities that her road was closed, so she advised me to say we lived in her apartment building. That will never work, we thought, surely. But it did.
In the thick of things in Hollywood, where security and police stood sentry at nearly every turn, we were amazed to see how readily — how affably, really — they moved the roadblocks for us and let us through once we recited our lines.
Though it made me fear L.A. is not quite prepared for a major terrorist attack, I was happy for our sake that our commute was so problem-free.
Once there, Colleen came down to let us into her parking garage for the two hours we were at her apartment. I sat on a high stool as Colleen transformed my face into the face of the belle of a ball, as we chatted with her mom (visiting for her 21st birthday). Her cat, Marley (named after Bob), inspected the scene.
Colleen was a pro, a true artist, and a perfectionist at that. That soothed me. Though I again had to endure the whole process sans mirror, this time I was fairly sure I’d be pleased with the end result. And I was.
When she finally put down her last brush and gave me a looking glass, I was entranced by the natural, rosy, sparkly color that brought out the green in my eyes, which were lined in black — a little too thickly for my taste, so it was instantly softened.
My long, blond lashes were tinted with black mascara and gently curled. My cheeks had a neutral blush on them and my glossy lips matched. The effect was stunning.
“I almost don’t look like myself, in a good way,” I said, making them laugh.
I then tugged on my oh-so-comfortable (not) and oh-so-life-saving (seriously) shapewear and stepped into the beautiful $25,000 gown that had been generously loaned to me by designer Reem Acra.
I was zipped up, my black satin-not-glass slippers were strapped on and I was almost ready to walk the red carpet. All that was needed was an extreme hairstyle overhaul.
Somehow, together, Colleen and I pulled it off. We swept part of my locks into a little ponytail, leaving the rest down. She wrapped my own hair around the rubber band, and I clipped the front wisps back in the glittery new barrettes I’d bought for the occasion. Some bobby pins were thrown in for good measure.
We stepped back to survey our work. Thankfully, the gods finally smiled down on me, or rather, on my hair. The princess makeover was complete. I’d like to think the original Cinderella would approve.
Cinderella on the Red Carpet
Now, onto the red — or as I told you Saturday, maroon — carpet. En route: a quick stop to snap photographs, since (in case you need a refresher) CAMERAS AND CAMERA PHONES ARE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN AT THE OSCARS AND WILL BE CONFISCATED BY THE ACADEMY.
We pulled down a side street and Prince Charming took a few pictures of the princess on a very un-fairy-tale-like Hollywood side street. Beggars can’t be choosers, as my mother always says. A few passing drivers stared. And then someone yelled out to us.
“Are you going to the show?!” the woman shouted. I looked up to see a handful of people peering at us from an apartment window.
“Yes!” I shouted back. I hate to admit it, but I think I giggled like a schoolgirl.
“You look great!” she called encouragingly. “We’re having an Oscar party up here. You can come afterwards … if you win!” Damn. We non-celebrities have even harsher fans than the stars do.
There was a brief scare where we couldn’t find the tickets (they’d fallen under my seat). Back in the car, we proceeded through the maze of closed streets to the Kodak. With the bright green Oscars Auto Pass in the window, one barrier after another was removed from one blockaded street after another so we could slowly roll through.
At a security checkpoint, the trunk and car were searched and Oscar tickets scrutinized. At long last, we reached the valet parking area. Crowds lined either side of the road behind blue barricades, screaming, waving and snapping pictures as people emerged from their cars in gowns and tuxedos. When it was our turn, the screams and waves were directed at us.
“Over here! Over here!” someone screeched. I turned and a woman was waving to me. I waved back.
“You look beautiful! Have a good time!” another woman called.
“That’s a great dress!” a man said, smiling. He then talked into a microphone or a tape recorder: “A gorgeous dress just walked by …”
Unless I have a movie career in my future that I’m not aware of, it could well have been the first and last time I was treated as though I’m famous. Dad, too, though professors have a star quality all their own. I’ll admit it. I savored my 15 — make that three — minutes, just a little.
Even more surreal, however, was when we finally reached — on foot — the luminous red carpet. A crush of people waited outside huge maroon curtains with an Oscar statue standing guard.
I got my foot caught in a web of dress lining but managed to untangle myself quickly, with minimal humiliation.
We showed our tickets, I produced my driver’s license and we were ushered into a tent. More security there, and a metal detector. I was starting to feel safer here in Los Angeles.
It was then I noticed that Academy Award Best Actress nominee Keira Knightley was right behind us. Lucky for my father, because he’s a fan.
“That’s Keira Knightley!” I said in a hoarse whisper, trying to be discreet. “Right behind us!” He finally figured out what I was trying to say, saw her and grinned like a little kid. We smiled at her and considered asking for her autograph but decided it would look gauche.
And so we continued on, with Keira trailing closely behind in a poofy wine-colored dress, her hair in a ponytail. Someone congratulated and complimented her. I heard her, in her youthful British drawl, thank him.
Just after we emerged onto the actual red carpet, the one you see on TV lined with fans and media, Keira also emerged onto the actual red carpet. And then came the screams of “KEIRA!!! OVER HERE, KEIRA!!!” Accompanied by frantic waves and flashing cameras, of course. But this was no valet parking group. This was the big time.
Walking on the red carpet felt like a dream. It didn’t seem real. It still doesn’t. The whole time, you are dazed to the brink of hypnosis by all the activity and the celebrities and the media and the fans. It seems to be happening in slow motion.
If you’re like Dad and me — not famous — none of those fans and media are noticing you in the least. But that’s OK, because you are walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards, and that’s reward enough.
Another thing. Even at an exclusive event like the Oscars, the stars are kept separate from “ordinary” attendees. They float down their own lane right in front of the paparazzi and the reporters to make for easier interviewing and photographing access, and that special lane is velvet-roped off from the main part of the carpet, where we commonfolk must walk.
In the theater itself, they have their entrance on the ground floor, through a room with an important sounding name, while the rest of us must climb stairs (in our case, many stairs) to find our seats. The moral: Celebrities and regular citizens really do live in two different worlds, even when those worlds are both in the Kodak Theatre.
As far as who else we saw on the red carpet, well … Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams. Lorenzo Lamas. “Brokeback Mountain” screenwriters (and Oscar winners) Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. Some other people who looked familiar but may or may not have been celebrities. And FOX News’ Mike Straka, Bill McCuddy and producer Gina Cirrito.
Though I tried to get to the other side of the velvet rope so that Straka could interview us, as he suggested before we all left for L.A., security wouldn’t hear of it. We even walked all the way back to the beginning to try to get through, but we weren’t allowed.
Ironic as it may sound, we didn’t have press credentials. Ah well. We walked on — at times, we were pushed by security guards barking for people to keep moving — and then ascended the grand maroon staircase into the theater.
Cinderella at the Academy Awards
Once greeted and shown inside, we saw that there was a bar on every floor (open before the ceremony, cash during) and butlered hors d’oeuvres, most of which I missed for some reason (actually one reason was that I was in the bathroom, which turned out to be an adventure with shapewear, but I’ll spare you further details).
We lingered and milled about on one floor, then went up the stairs to the fifth floor, where our seats were. We lingered and milled about some more up there, which was much emptier. At various intervals, a male voice said over the loudspeaker: “Please take your seats. The show will start in X minutes.” Eventually, we did take our seats.
Ah, yes. Our seats. I warned you they’d be the nosebleed variety, and I wasn’t disappointed. We were only about 10 rows from the very back of the theater. Thank heaven for binoculars.
Oddly, even after the stragglers came in and the doors to the bar area were closed, there were still many empty spots. For all the talk of how rare a find an Oscar ticket is, there seemed to be an awful lot of available ones on the big night itself.
A countdown began to show time that sounded like the space shuttle was lifting off or the ball was dropping on New Year’s Eve.
“Ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven … Applause, for the 78th Annual Academy Awards!” the voice instructed. We complied. But we wouldn’t have needed to be told. The show was great — better than usual, even, I imagine, if I’d just been watching on TV. But it was obviously also great because I wasn’t watching it on TV.
Yes, it’s long — and, yes, it felt almost as long and boring in that lagging middle part with all the sound awards as it does when you’re seeing it at home.
But I’m here to tell you that, at least for first-time Oscar-goers such as my father and me, the Oscars are much more exciting and interesting live than they are on television.
They always get criticized for being long and sleepy, but they seem far less long and sleepy (OK, maybe almost as long but far less sleepy) when you’re there in person. Even if you’re watching from the rafters and can’t see any of the nominees and other famous people unless they’re presenting, accepting or performing onstage, or if the camera zooms in on them in their seat.
Even then, it’s still exciting to be there, to look through your father’s binoculars and see right there in front of you Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts (Dad did get his wish and caught a glimpse of her, but only onstage) and Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hanks and Ben Stiller and Heath Ledger and Jamie Foxx and Jack Nicholson … I could go on. But I won’t. Well, maybe one more: Jon Stewart.
He’s dreamy, and I’ve thought so for long before he became this beloved and this huge. I saw him at some "Daily Show" tapings years ago, in the old, small studio where the show used to be filmed. And seeing him host the Oscars made me feel proud.
Speaking of Stewart — and you’ve already seen that I’m biased about him — he was a brilliant, perfect host and gave one of the best opening monologues I’ve ever seen, as well as some of the funniest commentary all throughout the show. I don’t think I’m the only one who felt this way, as people all around me laughed hard whenever he was at the podium.
Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep did a hilariously zany introduction for honorary Oscar winner, director Robert Altman — who got a standing ovation and delivered a very poetic, profound and moving speech.
There were other highlights: the Oscar wins and acceptances of George Clooney, Witherspoon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Brokeback Mountain” director Ang Lee and Ossana and McMurtry. The moment when Dustin Hoffman admitted he almost opened the envelope prematurely, before he read the nominees.
There were surprises: the outrageous and risqué performance of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” right before it won Best Original Song. Lauren Bacall’s tribute to film noir, during which she kept losing her place and forgetting or fumbling her lines. And, of course, the “Crash” upset at the end, beating out Best Picture favorite, “Brokeback Mountain.” Even Nicholson sounded caught off-guard when he announced it.
It was also an interesting study in the way the show itself is put together. When you’re there live, you get to see the changing of the sets, the warming-up of the host on commercial breaks, the flocks of guests who leave every 25 minutes or so during said commercial breaks and aren’t allowed back in until the next one.
You feel the energy of the crowd, hear the inappropriate catcalls (in our case from the same two — drunk and high? — guys right in front of us). You see Tom Hanks drop the Best Director envelope at least twice and various actresses get their dresses stepped on. You hear the periodic countdowns after breaks to when the show is back on and you are supposed to clap.
You take in the entire stage and theater and realize how mammoth it really is. You realize, with mild surprise, that you don’t see a star at every turn, though at the end if you’re Cinderella and Prince Charming, you’re lucky enough to catch celebrities including Clooney, Keanu Reeves, Queen Latifah and Uma Thurman leaving the Oscars so close that you could reach out and touch them.
Clooney, Latifah and Thurman are stunning in person. Uma is also extremely tall. We were right behind her on the way out, and she yawned, then smiled sheepishly at my dad. Needless to say, that made his night.
You see all this because you’re there. And it’s fascinating. Not all the time, and I’m sure not for those who go year after year. But for a novice like Cinderella, well … it’s a ball.
Cinderella at the After Party
OK, you obviously need to reread the original fairy tale. Don’t you remember the part about the carriage turning into a pumpkin if Cinderella is out past midnight? And the part about her being punished if it’s discovered that she’s been out on the town by aforementioned wicked relatives?
Translation: Cinderella doesn’t go to after parties, Oscar or otherwise. She works long, hard days, she was exhausted after her big night out and she had her daddy with her.
She also had this story to write after more than an hour spent in post-Academy Awards traffic. And besides, she is seriously just not that connected. She really knows no one who is anyone in Hollywood.
OK, she’s an entertainment writer for a major media company in New York when she isn’t on her hands and knees cleaning house and being yelled at by the nasty, power-tripping women she lives with, but really, when it comes right down to it, she’s an outsider. Small-time. If there were a D-list, she’d be on it, which is why this has all been so much fun.
You see, if I could be Cinderella, so could you. Dare to dream. It just might come true.