The Night I Got Really High and Crashed the Oscars
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because nothing is quite as irresponsible as a man in the grips of a fame binge.
The author is a visual artist whose work appears in the recently published coffee table book Visual Abuse.
It was a sunny afternoon. Monday, March 26, 1990, in Laguna Niguel, California, about 60 miles south of Los Angeles. I’m at my pal Steve’s place. We went to high school together in the early ’80s when we lived in the oil company town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
I’d visit Steve in Southern California once a year in the ’90s, arriving from Seattle for a week of “whooping it up,” which usually meant a dizzying, wild time.
“Dude, I think we’re going to The Oscars.” Steve had just hung up the phone.
“Are you shitting me? I don’t have anything to wear!”
Without filling me in on the details, Steve got me a black suit, a tie and serviceable dress shoes. He threw on a black tuxedo and we headed out in his 1987 Pontiac Firebird.
Our first stop was the limo company where Steve worked. I waited in the car for 15 minutes. When he returned, he had a smile on his face and a fluorescent orange car pass that would get us valet parking, a walk on the red carpet leading to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and a clear shot at entry to the 62nd Academy Awards. Actress Candice Bergen had canceled her limo that night, and we snagged her unused car pass. Getting on Interstate 5, we jammed the car pass on the windshield of the Firebird, and headed north.
My visits to Steve always involved limousines and sports cars. I was a broke-ass cartoonist and illustrator in my 20s who drove a ratty Datsun pickup, so it was fun to indulge in luxury vehicles, especially in Los Angeles, car culture capital of the world. Once Steve had picked me up at LAX in a white triple-stretch limo, emerging from the sunroof in a ridiculous cowboy hat and holding a 15-liter bottle of Champagne. I had a line of coke, a glass of bubbly and a lit joint in my hand within five minutes of leaving the airport.
Who exactly did they think we were? Who did we think we were?
So, as we sped north on I-5 toward the Oscars, it didn’t seem that unusual, given Steve’s track record. We fired up a doobie, and 10 minutes after we finished smoking it, I was quite high and “perceiving very strongly.”
We made our way toward the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. There were cops and patrol cars everywhere, and a perimeter had been established around the theater complex, blocking all vehicles without the magic orange pass.
Steve had driven limos to this type of event many times before and knew exactly where to go. We were waved through the gauntlet of cop cars and queued up behind a line of limousines, town cars and other vehicles. When we reached the front of the line, a pair of valets opened the doors of the Firebird and took Steve’s car keys.
Here I am, stepping onto the red carpet at the motherfucking Academy Awards! I was still very stoned, and so nervous that an eyelid began to twitch uncontrollably behind my dark sunglasses. Having fearless Steve at my side helped calm me down.
At the top of the carpeted steps, we joined a procession of celebs and execs in tuxedos and fancy dresses heading toward the theater entrance. To our left was a bank of bleachers filled to capacity with throngs of giddy fans and tourists waiting to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Packed along both sides of the red carpet were hundreds of TV cameramen, photographers and reporters looking to get an interview. Did they think Steve and I were famous? Who exactly did they think we were? Who did we think we were?
As the line of attendees slowly moved forward, I realized Robin Williams and his wife were directly in front of me. I didn’t recognize him at first, standing so close to him. I could see the pores on his face and dandruff on his shoulder. The further we moved along, the more faces I recognized: There’s Sly Stallone, there’s Arnie Schwarzenegger, there’s Jerry Brown, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Mel Gibson, Jeff Bridges, Jack Lemmon, Morgan Freeman, Glenn Close, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Tom Selleck, Daryl Hannah.
Then I saw Candice Bergen, who’d unwittingly given us access to “celeb central.” We should have thanked her but didn’t. My first impression on seeing so many famous humans in one place was that most of them were short and had big heads. I’ve read that directors prefer actors with small bodies and large heads. Makes sense, I guess, in terms of how they project in the camera frame.
The exceptions to this rule were also the most impressive-looking celebs I saw that day: Gregory Peck (then 74), Geena Davis and Daniel Day-Lewis, who had long hair and won best actor that year for My Left Foot. But Julia Roberts was slouchy and mousy-looking. How did she get so famous?
Crashing the Academy Awards, impossible in post-9/11 America, was a surreal peak experience and a testament to a bygone era.
I even recognized a few directors: Spielberg, Kurosawa, Peter Bogdanovich, Spike Lee. At one point Ron Kovic, the Vietnam vet portrayed by Tom Cruise in Born on the Forth of July, thumped into the back of my leg with his wheelchair. Gimme a little room, bro!
Speaking of Tom Cruise, he made a dramatic entrance before a screaming crowd, briskly sweeping past the army of microphone-waving reporters with an entourage that included his then-wife Nicole Kidman and his mom. As they walked by us, Steve leaned in and forcefully said something to him. His entire cortege wheeled around to stare at us.
After a half hour of mingling on the red carpet, Steve and I made a move to the theater where the awards ceremony would take place, even though we had no tickets. We strolled into the lobby and surveyed the layout.
There were two men checking each person for their greeting-card-size ticket at the main entrance to the theater.
Steve had spied a service elevator, and we worked our way toward it. Perhaps we could get in from the kitchen or somewhere in the bowels of the building. We slipped into the elevator, where we were immediately stopped by a security guard asking what we were doing and if we had tickets. We feigned ignorance and retreated. The guard had his eye on us, though, so we exited the lobby and returned to the red carpet.
That’s when I spotted someone who looked just like cartoonist Robert Crumb. But he looked so out of place with his rumpled suit and old-fashioned hat. As he moved closer, there was no doubt.
“Hey, R. Crumb, I work at Fantagraphics [one of his publishers]. I’ve been sending you my Blatch zine for years! What are you doing here?”
“You work at Fantagraphics? What the hell are you doing here?” Turns out Crumb got his ticket from Premiere magazine, which had hired him to do a cartoon about his experience at the Oscars.
Eventually we got bored with hanging out on the red carpet. Funny how quickly the excitement of being at arm’s length from the most famous celebrities in the world faded. Fuck them, they’re just pathetic humans like everyone else, I thought. The truth is, I was much more excited to see Robert Crumb, one of my all-time art heroes. We stepped off the red carpet, the valet retrieved the Firebird, and we went out for an expensive steak dinner. We were all dressed up after all, and it seemed like the right thing to do, even if we couldn’t afford it.
Back at Steve’s apartment, we scanned the 10 o’clock news for evidence of our pre-Oscar infiltration. We recorded some of the footage on VHS tape, including lots of Steve and Jim cameos and a priceless sequence that captured Steve interrupting Tom Cruise.
Crashing the Academy Awards, impossible in post 9/11 America, was a surreal peak experience and a testament to a bygone era when you could still “get away with shit.” Shit you can’t get away with now—except for the weed part, depending on the state of your state. At least you can get away with that. As often as possible. Preferably in front of your TV on Oscar night.