I am the man in the box at the Oscars for The Associated Press.
I stand in an opera house-like box near the stage at the Dolby Theater that offers a great view of the show, but an even better view of the audience. I look through binoculars to provide what journalists call “color” to give readers luscious behind-the-scenes details.
Hours before the broadcast, a representative of the academy with full access to the theater takes me for a labyrinthine walk through corridors, through black curtains and velvet bows. Until we got to the box that I share with the members of the technical team of the award ceremony.
This year, the logistical design of the ceremony will force me to work outside the box, in the press room, with the rest of the team of journalists at the Oscars. The food will be better, from the outset “it will be”, but I will miss that little box from where I watched the following moments.
A DISASTROUS DEBUT
The fiasco happened in my freshman year.
It was 2017, my first time inside the Academy Awards. I was looking down on the public. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had just announced “La La Land” (“The City of Stars. La La Land”) as best picture.
The celebration of the supposed winners soon turned into murmurs of confusion. I’m not sure anyone has ever seen as many stunned famous faces as I was staring at after the true victory of “Moonlight” was revealed. The mouths of Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, and Michelle Williams were in varying degrees of agape. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had a crooked expression that, in his wrestling days, he called “the village eyebrow.”
“I’ll never see something this crazy again if I do this for 20 years,” I thought. It turned out that it only took five years.
LITTLE BIG DETAILS
Big moments aren’t usually my job. My thing is the details.
From the box, I can see who the first celebrities to sit down are, usually older actors who don’t need or want to be a part of the red carpet madness. One year it was Jane Fonda, amid a sea of empty seats. I watched Christopher Plummer, 88, the oldest nominee at the time in 2018, take his place more than an hour before the last-minute hustle and bustle that accompanies the start of the broadcast.
I also got to see how really long the walk from the back of the theater is for non-celebrities. One year, I could hear the cheers of the proud mother of a victorious sound editor, though she could barely see her, even with binoculars.
The trips to the bathroom, which require being accompanied by a member of the academy staff and passing by a guy who operates a camera on a large crane, are an adventure in themselves, although they do offer hope, sometimes materialized, that it will end. you may end up standing quietly next to the likes of Denzel Washington.
In 2017, I saw Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel passing out a pocket bottle to people in their line, clearly having the best time in the room. When Timberlake did the opening performance of him performing “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, Javier Bardem was the only one who danced his heart out the whole time.
SPIKE LOSES CONTROL
The crowd at the Oscars does an excellent job of playing the role of “audience.” They comply with all the unspoken signs of applause. They rise in amazing synchronicity to standing ovations. They know how to keep quiet. They return to their seats before the cameras start rolling.
From my perspective, the best audience member to watch is Spike Lee. For one, he always dresses distinctively, making him easy to spot in a sea of black tuxedos. And he’s as pumped up as he is when he sits courtside at New York Knicks games.
In 2019, Lee, clad in a purple suit, won his first competitive Oscar for the screenplay for “Black KkKlansman.” His film was also up for best picture, up against “Green Book,” a film that, for Lee and many others, had an archaic and simplistic view of race relations.
When “Green Book” was announced the winner, Lee made the “fuck this” gesture with his arms, which he often does to NBA referees. She got up from her seat and headed for the back doors. With all eyes on the stage, and a few others with my eyes, he went unnoticed by almost everyone. It was the closest thing to a scoop the box has given me, and my tweet describing it was among the first to mention it and wildly popular.
THE SLAP AND THE SCREAMING
Five years later came the slap. I must clarify that I did not see with my own eyes Will Smith hit Chris Rock. He was sitting rapidly drafting a story when I saw, on one of the equipment monitors, Smith come up on stage and raise his hand.
In hindsight, this was a great moment, but when it happened, many thought it was planned. The audience’s laughter sounded nervous, but there was laughter. Still, I quickly stood up and paid attention. The laughs continued even after Smith yelled at Rock to get the name of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, out of his mouth.
It was only the second time Smith yelled it, louder and emphasizing each word: “THE – NAME – OF – MY – WIFE!”, that it became clear it wasn’t a joke. There was a stunned silence. He reminded me of being in a classroom when the students realize that the funny teacher is really angry.
The academy recently apologized for not taking quicker action with Smith. But they weren’t the only ones who didn’t know how to respond. We journalists had to decide how to deal with it. Was it a side story, or THE story? There was no format.
Two other AP reporters were among the regular seats in the audience, and I was glad. The vibe was too heavy for one person to carry on their shoulders. A surreal pall fell over the rest of the night, with most assuming that Smith would likely win best actor soon.
I kept my binoculars on the front row, where Smith was sitting. Bradley Cooper and Tyler Perry approached him during breaks, as if giving him advice. They both hugged him. So did Denzel Washington, who held him in a long hug, whispering to him the whole time.
During his tearful acceptance speech minutes later, Smith said Washington had told him: “At your highest point, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”
I look forward to getting back to my high point in theater next year. I’ll keep an eye out in case the devil shows up.