LOS ANGELES — I was the box man at the Oscars for the Associated Press.
I would stand in an opera-style balcony near the Dolby Theater stage which offers a great view of the show but an even better view of the audience. I’d look down with binoculars to provide what journalists call “color,” sprinkled into our stories as we try to give readers a behind-the-scenes look.
Hours before the telecast, an academy employee with a black belt credential would take me on a labyrinthine walk through the hallways, through black curtains and over velvet ropes, past the Foot Locker and Sephora that make up the complex. indistinguishable from a suburban mall and in the box I shared with the technical crew members of the show.
This year, the logistics of the ceremony will force me to work outside the box: in the media room, with the rest of the Oscars press. The food will be better than the nothing I usually get, but I’ll miss the box — where else could I have seen the following moments?
The fiasco came in my first year.
It was 2017, my first time at the Academy Awards. I was looking at the audience. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had just announced “La La Land” as best picture.
The celebration of the supposed winners soon turned to murmurs of confusion. I’m not sure anyone has ever seen as many surprised famous faces as I was suddenly looking down upon after the revelation of the true victory of “Moonlight”. The mouths of Meryl Streep, Matt Damon and Michelle Williams were all varying degrees of love. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had a crooked expression that, in his wrestling days, he called “the people’s eyebrow.”
“I’ll never see anything this crazy again if I do this for 20 years,” I thought to myself. Turns out it only took five.
BIG LITTLE DETAILS
Big moments aren’t generally my thing. I deal with details.
From the box, I could tell who the first celebs are seated: generally, older actors who either don’t need or don’t want to join the red carpet. One year she was Jane Fonda, in a sea of empty seats. I saw an 88-year-old Christopher Plummer, the oldest candidate at that point in 2018, take his seat more than an hour before the last-minute scramble that accompanies the start of the telecast.
I got to see how long the walk from the back of the theater is for non-celebs. One year, I could hear the squeals of joy from the proud mother of a winning sound editor, though I could barely see her even with binoculars.
Trips to the bathroom, which require an escort from a show employee and a climb in front of a guy with a big crane camera, are their own adventure, with hopes – sometimes conscious – that I might end up standing silently next to people like Denzel Washington.
In 2017, I saw Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel pass a bottle to people in their row, clearly having the best time in the room. When Timberlake gave his opening performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Javier Bardem was the only one who danced his heart out the whole time.
A RISING STORM
The Oscars crowd does a great job of playing the role of “audience.” They hit every speechless applause. They emerge in stunning synchronicity to standing ovations. They know how to keep quiet. They return to their seats before the cameras roll.
The best audience member to watch, from my perspective, is Spike Lee. First, he always dresses discreetly, making him easy to spot in a sea of black tuxedos that—from my perch—can make it difficult to immediately tell a Brad from a Leo. And he’s just as animated as he is sitting courtside at New York Knicks games.
In 2019, Lee — dressed in a purple suit — won his first competitive Oscar, for writing “Black KkKlansman.” His film was also nominated for best picture, against “Green Book,” a film that to Lee and many others had an archaic, simplistic take on race relations.
When “Green Book” was announced as the winner, Lee made a “to hell with it” hand gesture that he often makes to NBA referees, got out of his seat and headed for the back doors. With all eyes on the stage and few others with my point of view, it went unnoticed by almost everyone else. It was the closest thing to a scoop the box gave me, and my tweet describing it was my most popular ever, by a mile.
THE SLAP AND THE FRACTIONS
After five years came the slap. Full disclosure: I did not, with my naked eyes, see Will Smith punch Chris Rock.
Tasked with telling a quick story, I was sitting typing away when I saw, on one of the crew’s monitors, Smith walk up to the stage and take his swing.
In retrospect, this was a huge moment – but when it happened, few could say it wasn’t planned. The audience’s laughter was nervous, but there was laughter. However, I stood up and paid attention. The titles remained even as Smith yelled at Rock to keep Jada Pinkett Smith’s name out of his mouth.
It was only the second time Smith had said it, louder and emphasizing each word—“MY. SPOUSE’S. NAME.” — that it became clear that this was not a joke. There was a stunned silence. It reminded me of being in a classroom when the students realized that the fun teacher is really crazy this time.
The Academy recently apologized for not taking action sooner with Smith. They were not alone in not knowing how to respond. We journalists had to decide how to deal with it. Was this a side story or THE story? There was no template.
Two other AP reporters were in regular audience seats and I was happy. The vibrations were too heavy for a person to weigh. A surreal tangle hung over the rest of the night, with most assuming Smith was likely to win best actor soon.
I kept my binoculars on the front row, where Smith was sitting. Bradley Cooper and Tyler Perry came up to Smith during breaks, as if to counsel him. They both hugged him. So did Denzel Washington, who held him in a long hug, whispering to him throughout.
During his sobbing acceptance speech minutes later, Smith said Washington had told him, “In your highest moment, watch out, that’s when the devil comes for you.”
I hope I can return to my own high point in the theater next year. I’ll watch out for the devil.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton
For more coverage of this year’s Academy Awards, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/academy-awards