In 2010, I spent the month of February checking my P.O. box in Montana for tickets to the Academy Awards show, a spectacle I knew only from television and which usually left me feeling, the morning after, both merrily derisive and left out—the way you may feel right now. I had reason to hope that it would be better in person. Up in the Air, a satirical novel I’d written, had been adapted into a movie that had earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Since I fancied myself the project’s creative father, I was profoundly, personally flattered. Without my lonely winter of nicotine nights typing away in a chilly one-room cabin, there would be no film at all and no starring role for my cool new pal, George Clooney. The man belonged to me that year, I felt, a walking projection of my mind and pen.
I’d spent the months before the ceremony building up the muscles of my vanity by helping with the movie’s Oscar campaign. I attended parties, banquets, festivals, and a couple of small, insider award shows, lending a touch of literary gravity to the frivolous glamour of the proceedings. It was an intoxicating experience, a four-star junket that just kept going. Minibar-no-object paid hotel stays. Limo rides in the really serious limos; those ominous, traffic-parting, black Suburbans that are probably armor-plated and tracked by drones. And the most unexpectedly blissful perk of all: escorted VIP passage through airport terminals.
Soon, the great evening itself hove into view. With only a week or two to go, I still hadn’t received the invitation that I felt was my artistic due. After a frustrated, Ambien-muddled night, I vented my resentments in a tweet of grandiose embitterment—“caution to writers: don’t expect that because you write a novel that becomes an Oscar-nominated film that you’ll be invited to the Oscars.” It wasn’t just me who’d been shafted, this suggested, but literature itself, the written word. Astonishingly, the world seemed to agree. In the days after I posted my sour quip, Perez Hilton and a number of leading newspapers, including one in far-off London, rallied to my cause. The result was two tickets and an ego-gasm of shivering intensity.
My date was my eleven-year-old daughter. She won this prize in a battle with my girlfriend over who could make me feel the guiltiest about my recent neglect of those who loved me. The studio limo met us in the parking lot of a Whole Foods store in Tarzana. Next stop dreamland, where the most impressive feature was the barricades holding back the rabble like two muddy walls of a parted Biblical sea. Its next most impressive feature was Ryan Seacrest, who thrillingly took notice of my existence when I stepped on the train of Rachel McAdams’s dress, causing her to turn and hiss at me. I was glad I’d brought my daughter along. Her look of paradigm-redefining wonder as she gazed around at the great scene (Look, Dad: Quentin!) was the best gift an absent, divorced dad could give a kid.
Once inside the theater, no longer walking in the overspill of Miley Cyrus mania (why was she here? It cheapened the whole tone), the thrill of the evening abated some. My daughter and I took our distant, high-up seats, our view of the stage occluded by a camera boom. Beside us in our obscure, low-status row were two European men, modest and polite, attending on behalf of The White Ribbon, a bleak German allegory of the Holocaust that I pretended I’d seen and loved and they pretended to believe I’d seen, spurring a pointless exchange of business cards that was interrupted by Alec Baldwin, the broadcast’s tiny (from our perspective) co-host. I knew it was him because I’d read the program, not because I could actually see his face.
The broadcast. I’d almost forgotten that’s what it was: an event in which the intended audience was elsewhere, in anonymous living rooms stocked with chips and wine. You knew this because of the time-outs for commercials that broke the show’s momentum every few minutes, reducing it to a series of short, lame bits that forced us—the supposed chosen ones, who were really just extras brought in to fill the shots—to cravenly, insincerely applaud a show that sucked even worse in real life than on television.
Television. That’s where I ended up watching most of it anyway, out in the lobby, on a set above the bar, where I kept getting stranded because the warning lights that signaled us to rush back and take our seats after each of the endless commercial breaks flashed faster than I could bother to move my legs. Plus, the show just looked better on screen, which allowed me to see into the front-row drama pit where Clooney and Baldwin were joshing with each other in a way that convinced me the Best Actor contest had already been decided in George’s favor. Meaning my favor, really.
But I was wrong. Six times in succession, the film I called “my movie” failed to gain the Academy’s approval. The first losses struck me as a direct rebuke, until I realized I needn’t take them personally, since they related to others’ failures, not mine. All I’d done was pen the underlying material; what had appeared on screen was Hollywood’s fault. I did feel bad for Clooney, though. The junkets had endeared the guy to me. He’d hit on my girlfriend, which I took as a compliment. He’d refrained from sleeping with my girlfriend, which I counted as a favor. He’d gossiped with me about Sharon Stone and asked me the proper spelling of “mammal.”
The show ended suddenly, like its televised version, turning instantly back into a pumpkin. I shouldered past Miley Cyrus with my daughter, whose face had that sated, bored, post-birthday-party look. After forcing her to shake hands with Christopher Plummer—a scrapbook moment that I insisted she’d cherish later in life, when she realized who he was—we climbed back into the limo and drove away.
That night confirmed my suspicions: The heart of the matter with the Oscars, and with Hollywood generally, is that there is none. Just when you think you’ve reached the epicenter, the VIP room within the VIP room, a shift occurs, a reversal of perspective, and you find that you’re on the inside looking out with much the same sense of longing and displacement you felt when you were looking in. There’s always another, cooler party behind the next locked door.
I know. I was there. And I can’t wait to go back.