The Academy Awards are my Super Bowl. Every year I gather with friends to watch the stars arrive on the red carpet and then the show itself. It’s the highlight of my entertainment year.
This year was a tad different, though, as my friend, Shelly Cline, and I found ourselves experiencing the glamour and excitement of the Oscars live (!) from the red carpet. We entered an online lottery last fall, won two seats and last weekend somewhat disbelievingly made our way to Hollywood for the 81st Academy Awards.
Shelly and I reached the red carpet on Sunday at our designated 9:30 a.m. arrival time. Decked in Jayhawks gear, we checked in, giddily donned our official bleacher credentials and made our way to our seats. They were five rows back, second section, giving us a perfect view of the celebrities as they arrived. The red carpet area spanned the entire width of Hollywood Boulevard. A tent at the far end shielded the stars after they exited their limos and gave them a final place to preen before walking in front of the wall of photographers and press. The fan bleachers ran down one side of the street and the cameras and film crews were on the opposite side, with the red carpet in between.
The first few hours were relatively slow, with camera crews setting up equipment and checking lights and angles. We made friends with our bleacher neighbors, two mother-daughter pairs from Seattle and a middle-aged couple from Nashville. We exchanged stories and found our respective roads to the red carpet were similar: We entered an online lottery at www.oscars.org in September, were notified of our acceptance in November and then had to pass a background/security check. Thousands applied; 700 of us won seats.
Things began to pick up in the early afternoon with the arrival of the major network entertainment reporters (Ryan Seacrest! Joey Fatone! Mary Hart! Tim Gunn!). Chris Harrison, host of “The Bachelor,” noticed our Kansas T-shirts and asked us when the Jayhawks would be leaving the hill. We emphatically replied, “Never!” Mario Lopez (we loved him in “Saved by the Bell”) is apparently of such short stature that he feels compelled to wear shoes with visible heels to increase his height. Gunn looks exactly the same in person as he does on “Project Runway.”
Around 4 p.m., the real celebrities began to arrive, and the excitement level in the bleachers and on the red carpet started to visibly increase. Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, was on hand to announce the stars. First up was Miley Cyrus, accompanied by her mom. Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney has always been short, but it was still surprising to see him barely reach Osborne’s shoulder. Current teen heartthrobs Zac Efron (“High School Musical”) and Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) were both remarkably well-spoken and gracious.
Most of the stars stopped to talk with Osborne after he introduced them, and to greet us, the fans, directly. Queen Latifah, Heidi Klum and Seth Rogen all seemed to really enjoy the fan interaction. Sean Penn, on the other hand, was visibly uncomfortable. The entire cast of “Slumdog Millionaire” was there, and all of the kids stood in a group and waved enthusiastically at us, huge grins on their faces, clearly having the time of their lives. It was adorable; we waved back. Meryl Streep was incredibly gracious and chatted with Osborne and the crowd for quite a while.
By this time, the red carpet was a sea of tuxedos and gowns, the regular (read: non-celebrity) Academy members shuffling through en masse on one side of a velvet rope and the stars stopping to greet the press, pose for pictures and wave to the fans on the other. Eventually it got to the point where there were so many celebrities that we lost track of them: Anne Hathaway! Penelope Cruz! Beyonce! Sophia Loren! All stunning. We cheered for each one, and the excitement built.
But then there was a palpable change in the air, in the very energy of the place. It suddenly was very quiet and the red carpet became somehow less crowded. We all craned our necks to see who was about to enter. Then a man in a tuxedo strode onto the carpet, smiling, his arm in the air, and we all leapt to our feet, screaming. It was Brad Pitt, followed closely by Angelina Jolie. The flashbulbs and fervor that accompanied this couple was completely unprecedented on a carpet filled with Hollywood’s biggest stars. Their arrival and the frenzy that followed felt like a truly authentic Hollywood moment — if there is such a thing. It’s how I imagine it must have felt to see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart or Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Jolie was stunningly beautiful. Pitt laughed and rolled his eyes at us.
One of the more remarkable sights of the day was the nominees who remained on the red carpet in the midst of the Brangelina madness. Nearly everyone cleared off, presumably to avoid looking B-list in the face of such superstardom. But Kate Winslet and Ron Howard both arrived before the power couple and both were still there, graciously speaking with the press and interacting with the fans, long after Pitt and Jolie entered the Kodak Theatre and the show was about to start.
When the show did start, the red carpet fans were escorted across the street to the historic El Capitan theater to an Academy-sponsored viewing party. The Oscars telecast was projected onto the enormous movie screen, and we felt like we were really there, particularly after having just seen all of the nominees and winners moments before.
Three and a half hours later, the Oscars, and our adventure, were over. Shelly and I made our way wearily back to our hotel, still reeling with all that we had seen and heard and experienced. It was an extraordinary day, one not soon forgotten. Hollywood gets a bad rap sometimes for being so superficial, but I was pleased to see that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Fans and celebrities alike seemed to be enjoying the red carpet for its entertainment value. To say that sitting in the bleachers on the red carpet at the Academy Awards was a dream come true makes me feel a little silly, but I suppose that’s what it was: a silly dream come true.
— Sarah Arbuthnot has an Master of Arts in English from KU and is grantwriter for Van Go Mobile Arts. Shelly Cline is completing her doctorate in history at KU. Both are originally from Belleville and became fast friends during high school when they discovered a mutual obsession for “Gone With the Wind.”