We were ready to have a very nice party, a friend's big brother's 21st birthday affair in a fancy house on the cliff over the ocean, a keg of beer already tapped and some amps set up where the band would play. The parents were out of town, of course. Before folks started to arrive, a few of us, mostly high-schoolers, were sitting around on the deck watching the late afternoon sun sink towards Catalina Island.
Jack Nicholson walked out through the big sliding glass doors and took a look around. “Hey guys, nice place, yeah.... looks like a little party comin' on, yeah?” he said from behind his shades. We all sat speechless, staring. Nicholson walked over to the keg, grabbed a plastic cup, poured half a beer, and strolled over to the stone wall over the cliff.
"Nice....nice” he continued, looking out at the sea, then drained his beer, turned, gave us that trademark evil knowing leer, and walked back into the house. None of us had said a word. This was Jack Nicholson, recently of two of the greatest performances in two of the greatest films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Chinatown.
It turned out the house was for sale, privately, and he had made the hour's drive south from Beverly Hills or Malibu or wherever he lived in LA to check it out (he didn't buy it; back then the pad might have gone for around $500k; now it would probably be more like $15 million). Once we got our voices back, his little visit gave us something to talk about at the party besides the usual high school nonsense.
Like most people, I've often enjoyed movies, but have never cared a rat's tail about movie stars, directors, Hollywood in general, or their awards. The Oscars and all the other such award programs have always struck me as a hugely egoistic form of public masturbation. Even as a kid it seemed to me that these spectacles were really all about marketing, about stoking flagging interest in last year's flicks to get more tickets sold. Perhaps I was prematurely jaded, but I grew up in a zone where movie people wandered and frolicked and familiarity bred, if not contempt, severe skepticism. I visited film sets and studios and found that whole scene amazingly boring and non-glamorous. I'd had drinks with John Wayne; big deal. When I was even younger, there was even a hushed-up murder via Oscar™-statuette bludgeoning just down the street from us; no big deal.
But then I got invited to the Oscars™.
This was a few years after the Nicholson sighting, and I was in graduate school. For a brief time I was blessed with a very lovely girlfriend whose father was some sort of big Hollywood honcho — I never really figured out what he did and didn't care. Academy Award time came and at the last he found himself with two extra tickets, which he normally would have given to clients or other big shots, no doubt, but instead he offered them to his daughter, and she invited me. Well, why not? It would best studying... maybe.
The usual fancy party question was “what to wear?” but I really had little choice, and so put on my fine collegiate corduroy jacket and one dark Goodwill tie, and off we went. Out in front of the hall there was a crush of people and cars and lights, and a few recognizable faces and bodies (Faye Dunaway looked great up close; some others, less so — and look, there's Jack Nicholson himself again, still in shades, but I refrained from walking up to him and saying something inane like “Hey Jack, remember me from our beachfront kegger?"). My date looked like a starlet herself with her long curling hair spilling down over a long slinky shimmering green dress she'd no doubt bought with her parent's cash, and sure enough, although we were herded into the big hall with the relative hoi polloi and did not march down any red carpet, at least two photographers assumed this stunning young thing must be somebody famous and asked her to stop, pose, and allow herself to be photographed. I think they assumed that I, in my wrinkled threads and sleazy mustache, was a bodyguard or some other sort of factotum. I stood discretely off to the side.
Inside, we climbed to our seats, at the very back and top of the nosebleed section. The term seemed doubly correct as, since there was no chance of the TV cameras bothering to peek up at who might be up there, people were not only smoking like fiends — both tobacco and other more fragrant herbs — but shoving white powder up their nostrils with hardly any attempt to hide it. It was those times, and it was nuts. The buzz we all seemed to share just from being there apparently wasn't enough and by the time the show started people were chattering and fidgeting and getting up to adjust their fine dresses and rented tuxedos as if there were termites inside.
The show itself was a long slow boring blur. How does anybody stand this crap? I found myself wondering. When will it ever end? I hadn't seen any of the movies under consideration and didn't care to. I thought about asking the addled couple just in front of us if I might trade them something for a blast of their marching powder but thought better of it, instead opting for a couple short naps on my date's lovely shoulder (I didn't think she appreciated this show of non-enthusiasm, but at one point she returned the favor, snoring sweetly).
When the ghastly self-regarding spectacle was over, we wound our way down to the crush of folks waiting for limos and cabs and such; her dad was off to some of the private after-parties, and we figured to find a way homeward, even via stinky bus if need be. But somebody called her name and a little old guy in a fancy suit came up to us, smiling. “Hi Uncle Benny!” she said. Benny, it seemed, also was some sort of former Hollywood fixer, or something; he offered us a ride in his big Mercedes. “Come up to my house first if you wish,” he said, “a few people are coming over to gossip and drink.” Well why not. One thing for sure, I was hungry.
Benny's place was up in the Brentwood hills, above UCLA. Not a huge or ostentatious mansion, just a lovely old house on a leafy street, but with some very fancy cars parked outside. Some people were indeed already there, let in by his maid, who wore an old-school apron and took my ratty coat without remark. In the living room, she had set out a veritable smorgasbord of edibles and Benny set to work at a well-stocked bar nearby. Before long, famished, I had met a few elegant people who were polite enough but obviously had little interest in talking to a nobody kid like me, so I was alone and shoving hors d'oeuvres, canapes, crudites, or whatever into my mouth while Benny got to my drink — I told him whatever whiskey he most preferred, on the rocks, would be great (I rarely drank the hard stuff, but my dad sure did, and I wanted to show at least some kind of class by not ordering a beer). I later checked the brand of scotch he was serving and learned it cost hundreds of dollars per bottle; that was wasted on me, but fine.
After awhile there were about a dozen people arranged around the room, chatting mostly about people and things I had no knowledge of. An old guy — had to be in his 40s — had my date cornered and was yakking away, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, likely thinking this was some dumb starlet he could mack on with his 'industry' contacts. She hated that stuff, having seen and been subjected to it her whole life, so I figured she could handle herself, while also wondering if eventually I should go rescue her just to be manly. But soon I saw Benny, no dumb guy he, intercept and steer his sweet niece over to the couch where I sat, still munching. They sat down with me.
Benny rattled the ice in his drink and said “There's the sound of civilization right there” and we laughed. “So, what'd ya think?” he asked me. “First time there?” I said yes, I'd never been to the awards before, although I figured he knew that already. “How many times have you been?” I asked him. He said he'd lost count of how many years he'd been going and also found it boring and silly but as a member of the Academy, he felt he had to show up. Then he said something that piqued my interest — “Plus all the votes have been bought and paid for and tallied before the whole thing starts — the real best acting of the year is when producers and directors and studio execs pretend to be surprised at anything.” What did he mean, I asked quietly. “Look, an academy award is worth lots of cash to any studio who has a film nominated — millions of dollars, in fact. There are a few thousand of us voting and some of these guys are more than willing to shell out big bucks for our votes. It's like a casino or the stock market in the week or so before the awards, with odds changing in Vegas for each award and the going rate for a vote zooming up and down. Play it right and you can make out like a bandit — not that I would ever do such a thing, of course!” And Benny guffawed again.
I laughed too, and said “Gambling? I'm shocked, just shocked!” and Benny laughed even harder, while I quietly congratulated myself on using the perfect line from Casablanca in this context. His niece was looking at me with admiration, maybe mixed with relief that I had not got on some high horse about such corruption like the grad student I was. Benny held forth a bit more on what a common tradition the market in votes was, and how one could get all sorts of payment besides or in addition to cash — a car, stays on the French Riviera, a racehorse, loose women, etc. — “Not that I would ever know about such things!”
This was decades back, and I never saw Uncle Benny again. Or went to the Oscars™. Being not only beautiful but also smart, my date dumped me soon after. She was used to luxury, and I was a grad student whose only post-degree plans were to see as much of the world as possible while still young (I did so, but on the cheap). I've wondered if her uncle was messing with me, the obvious rube, or drunk, or both, or just having an excessively candid moment at home. At that point in his life he seemingly had nothing to lose, and it sounded like he knew what he was talking about; on the other hand, it seems such scandalous news of corruption involving so many people would have been publicly exposed by now. Or maybe the gravy train is just too good.
In any event, every time the Oscars™ roll around, I can't help but envision each presenter standing up there and saying, with great suspense: “And the Oscar™ goes to — The Highest Bidder!”