Reading about the Oscars last week, I couldn’t help thinking back to a time when they actually meant something. When I lived in America in the mid-1990s, the Academy Awards were described as ‘the gay Super Bowl’ which, although it sounded flippant, acknowledged their cultural significance. And judging from the number of people who watched them, the Oscars were a big deal. In 1998, the year Titanic won Best Picture, 55 million Americans tuned in. This year, the Oscars attracted an average of 23.6 million viewers, an all-time low. Not so much the Super Bowl as a lower league soccer match on a rainy Tuesday night.
The parabolic decline of the Vanity Fair Oscars party makes for a good case study in what has gone wrong. I gatecrashed the party in 1994, the first year it was held, by pretending to be William Cash, then the Times’s Los Angeles correspondent. This was before Graydon Carter, then the editor-in-chief, had managed to enlist the Los Angeles Country Sheriff’s Department to check everyone’s credentials. He needed to do that, too, because the party was mobbed by thousands of wannabes, all claiming to be on the guest list. In 1996, by which time I was working at Vanity Fair, an enterprising journalist from the Star supermarket tabloid turned up with a pig on a lead, claiming it had played the title role in Babe, one of that year’s Best Picture nominees. The clipboard-wielding door staff looked a bit skeptical, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
If you managed to get in, it really was something. Within minutes of arriving in 1994, I introduced myself to Sharon Stone — then the biggest sex symbol in Hollywood — who promptly palmed me off on Leonardo DiCaprio, then aged 19. He’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. A year later, I cornered Jim Carrey in the gents and was regaled with a 10-minute routine about attending a motivational seminar for celebrities by Tony Robbins. To this day, it remains the only party I’ve attended where people stood out for not being celebrities. As I worked the room, some of the most famous people on the planet would point at me, saying: ‘Who the hell is that guy?’
Now, it’s basically a Lufthansa airport lounge. I haven’t been in more than 20 years, but judging from the reports of the dozens of journalists who attended this year — no need for hacks to gatecrash now — it’s a corporate snore-fest. The food is provided by In-N-Out Burger, while the dancefloor is sponsored by Apple. If you aren’t among the thousands to receive invitations, no need to worry — you can livestream the party via Verizon, one of several phone companies who sponsor it each year. Other sponsors — such as Instagram, which used to have a photobooth at the event — have pulled out because the party’s become so uncool. For the exhausted stars — there are more than 50 comparable parties during Oscars week — it has become a 10-minute photo-call on their way to one of the private bashes hosted by Madonna or Jay-Z.
One of the reasons the party has fallen from grace is because it has become so insufferably woke. Hollywood celebrities talk a big game in public, but in private they enjoy letting their hair down. There used to be scantily clad ‘cigarette girls’ roaming the party and there was no need to ask where the bathrooms were — you just followed the trail of white powder. Today, the magazine is edited by Radhika Jones, a former editorial director of the New York Times books department, who has replaced the magazine’s tried-and-tested formula — movie stars, society scandals and true crime — with the mantra of ‘diversity, inclusion and equity’, or DIE for short. News-stand sales have predictably declined. At this year’s shindig, she boasted to a reporter that she’d been working to make it more inclusive. A laudable aim, no doubt, but hardly the way to attract A-listers.
In fairness, Jones is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The reason the Oscars aren’t what they used to be, and the after-parties have lost their luster, is because the entire media-industrial complex has been captured by an army of sanctimonious finger-waggers. Being lectured about the evils of dairy farming by a bug-eyed environmental clutching a gold statuette isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun night out. The zeitgeist has taken up residence elsewhere.