Free champagne, chocolate statues, and high security: What it’s like to go to the Oscars

My wife, a Turner Classic Movies exec, was lucky enough to score a pair of tickets. This is what we saw on the red carpet and inside the Dolby Theater.
Janelle Monae on the red carpet

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

One of the first things you notice watching the Oscars live in person at the Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard is that the show seems to move much faster than it does on TV. It helps that you can watch the crew scramble to set up the stage for the next segment while the commercials play noiselessly on large screens mounted on the walls. Also, there’s an open bar on every level just outside the auditorium doors, which certainly helps one cope with restlessness.

Perhaps I should back up and explain how I, a lowly magazine correspondent, came to know these things. My wife, an executive at Turner Classic Movies who works on partnerships with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, got lucky this year and received one of two pairs of Oscars tickets allotted to her network. When she learned the good news a few weeks ago, she gushed, “This is my Super Bowl!”

Flash-forward to our limo ride to the theater: You’d imagine you were approaching a West Bank border crossing what with all the security. First off, attendees must use an approved car service—Uber is not an option. As your car crawls toward the drop-off point just off Hollywood Boulevard, the driver is asked to lower the windows and pop the trunk so police can look inside. The cops also check the underside of each vehicle with mirrors mounted on sticks. Given the crazy length of some of the stretch limos I saw, that’s a lot of checking.

Each ticket bears the attendee’s name, so you have to present photo ID before you can step onto the red carpet. As you’d expect, there are two tracks to the theater—one for the stars and the other for the, albeit privileged, hoi polloi—separated by stanchions and ushers. The stars are surrounded by the familiar gallery of TV reporters shouting for the stars’ attention. On our side, there’s a row of bleachers filled mostly with women who somehow scored a seat to watch the red carpet proceedings in person. They’ll have to rush home or find a TV to see the actual Oscarcast, but in the bleachers, they’ve got a better view of the stars than I do. Still, while being urged to keep moving by an army of ushers, I can see such A-listers as Justin Timberlake, Dakota Johnson, and Atlanta’s own Janelle Monáe. For a brief, scintillating moment, I’m an arm’s length from the exquisite Salma Hayek, separated only by a velvet rope.

Then everyone must open their bags and pass through metal detectors—cell phones allowed, of course, but no point-and-shoots—before entering the building. On any other day of the year, the area is a shopping mall lined with upscale shops and cupcake boutiques, but on Oscar Sunday, the storefronts are hidden behind floor-to-ceiling red curtains. The nominees, presenters, and other big shots head straight for the ground-floor doors to the auditorium. The rest of us head up the grand stairwell to our assigned balcony levels, where we are greeted by the welcome sight of well-appointed bars serving fancy French Champagne and mixed drinks.

Oscars 2017

Photograph by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Dolby Theater holds 3,332 seats—about 1,000 fewer than Atlanta’s Fox—with three mezzanines. Our seats in the first mezzanine afford us an enviable view of the stage and—just as important—the rows of seats containing recognizable faces from the silver screen. From where we sit, I can pick out Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Nicole Kidman, and, in a floor-level opera box, butt-kicker extraordinaire Jackie Chan. Oddly, the two seats next to me remain empty throughout the night. Could someone really not find a babysitter willing to work during the Oscars? A few minutes before the show begins, host Jimmy Kimmel strides across the stage with a group of crew members, presumably to make sure everything’s in place. An announcer warns attendees to keep the main aisle clear so as not to block a fast-moving production number that we soon learn features the aforementioned Mr. Timberlake. Then the countdown to showtime begins.

A few behind-the-scenes observations:

  • You’re allowed to visit the bar or bathroom during a commercial break, but the doors will be locked until the next break, and you can’t bring your drinks inside.
  • There are TV monitors in the lobby, but they’re muted—so we end up watching the bit where Kimmel welcomes the surprised tour group in pantomime.
  • Food options are hard to come by. If you don’t feel like eating the candy handed out during the show, you’ll need to bring your own snacks.
  • During each break, the famous people below us jump up to mingle, network, or visit the powder room as a phalanx of seat-fillers rush in to make sure that no chairs are empty when the cameras go live.
  • The announcer encourages hearty applause every time the show returns from a break, but demands you remain silent during the in memoriam.
  • Presenters do not read the lists of nominees live—to avoid Idina Menzel-style mispronunciations, their pre-recorded voices play over the PA as clips are shown.
  • The screens unfortunately do not show the crowd reaction shots that often make for entertaining TV viewing.

Speaking of reaction shots, I wish I’d had a camera to capture my wife’s jaw dropping when La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz said, “There’s been a mistake.” I’m guessing that as shocked as y’all were watching the Best Picture snafu at home, the level of astonishment was greatly magnified for those watching events play out onstage right in front of us. In our balcony—filled, I’m sure, with jaded industry insiders—everyone looks at each other with the kind of WTF-did-we-just-see amazement you’d expect if Adam Sandler beat out Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor.

But there’s no time for analysis—once a shaken Kimmel intones “Good night,” there’s a mad rush for the doors. Experienced attendees know they need to bust a move if they hope to grab a table at the Governors Ball, the Academy’s official after-party held a few escalator flights from the Dolby. There, in a dimly lit, lavishly bedecked, cavernous room, we find more open bars and numerous waiters proffering trays of Wolfgang Puck-concocted small plates containing Dover sole, baked potatoes topped with black caviar, individual chicken pot pies in ramekins, and smoked salmon on matzo in the shape of Oscars.

Inside the Governors Ball

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Charlize Theron and Shirley MacLaine sit down at the table next to us. (I’m tempted to tell MacLaine, “Your brother really screwed up tonight!”) Michelle Williams chats with Isabelle Huppert at the bar. Nicole Kidman holds court for nearly an hour in the center of the dance floor. Even Warren Beatty shows up for the festivities. While strolling the room, I pass by Brie Larson, Riz Ahmed, Gael García Bernal, and the lovely Naomie Harris. My wife grabs a wingwoman in a mission to buttonhole Viggo Mortensen. After nearly two hours, as the party is winding down, the folks from Moonlight arrive amid a hail of TV lights.

After picking up a gold-coated chocolate mini-Oscar at the door, we find ourselves back at the start of the red carpet. Espresso stations have been positioned every few yards to hand out free coffee. Just past 11 p.m. Pacific time, we find ourselves in Hollywood’s version of the great equalizer: the long wait for the limo. Amid those clutching gold statuettes, we try to ward off the desert chill while listening for our number to be called. One woman graciously drapes her shawl around the shoulders of a stranger shivering in a sleeveless gown before stepping into a 30-foot limousine. The leader of the Italian makeup crew that won for Suicide Squad is on his phone next to me, talking to family back home. At the curb, I tell Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins that I recently interviewed his former film-school professor, who spoke glowingly of the young director’s talent (look for this story in next month’s Atlanta magazine). Then our car arrives and it’s back to our hotel—and back to reality.

There are worse ways to spend an evening.

Scott Henry is an editorial contributor for Atlanta magazine.