You can tell it’s Oscar season at Vanity Fair’s offices because you begin to overhear members of staff having the following telephone conversation as you wander down the main corridor:
“Who? Oh my God! How the hell are you? I haven’t heard from you in, like, 10 years, man.”
“Gee, I’d love to help but there’s really nothing I can do. I’m not even invited myself. Sorry.”
Click. Dial tone.
One of the burdens of working for the magazine–and I was a contributing editor for two-and-a-half years–is that for the month of February you do virtually nothing other than field telephone calls from your most distant acquaintances fishing for invitations to the Oscar party. Each year, 15,000 people call editor-in-chief Graydon Carter’s office begging to be invited. It’s not an exaggeration to say that an invitation to the Vanity Fair Oscar party is more coveted than an invitation to the Academy Awards.
People go to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a place on the guest-list. Someone once called up a member of the magazine’s staff and offered them a bribe of $300,000 (£215,000) for an invitation. “Give them my cellphone number,” Graydon joked when he heard about this. “I have four children to educate.”
To date, the only non-celebrity successfully to gatecrash the party was a hack from the Star supermarket tabloid who turned up in 1996 with a pig on a leash. Claiming it was the pig from Babe, which was a Best Picture nominee that year, the reporter sailed past the clipboard Nazis who were apparently unaware that over a dozen pigs took turns to play the title role.
Since then the party has been made gatecrasher-proof. These days, in order to get anywhere near the entrance you have to get past a series of checkpoints manned by Los Angeles County Sheriffs. If you’re in a car, you have to display a colour-coded parking pass on the dashboard. At the third checkpoint, assuming you make it that far, you’ll be greeted by what one journalist described as “a surgically modified brunette with a headset” who’ll check your name against her “master-list”. Even if you’re on the list, that’s no guarantee you’ll get in. Invitations are staggered according to whether you’re A-list, B-list, C-list or D-list, with those at the bottom of the celebrity food chain only being allowed to come at the tail end of the evening. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, for instance, was turned back in 1998 when she arrived at 9.30pm. She’d been told not to get there any earlier than 11.30pm.
Rather surprisingly for such an exclusive party, the total number of guests has been growing steadily each year. At the very first Vanity Fair Oscar Party, held in 1994, less than 750 people were invited. Today, that number has more than doubled and Graydon has to employ his architect, Basil Walter, to pull down the back wall of Mortons and build a marquee in the garden to accommodate the overspill. Glass bricks are imported from London; Dutch tulips are flown in from the Netherlands. The upshot is that a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that usually seats 190 is transformed into an 11,000-square-foot fantasy backdrop. The finishing touches are supplied by lighting designer Patrick Woodrooffe.
The reason for all this hoopla is simple: the harder the party is to get into, the more people will clamour to be invited. By branding the event “the most exclusive party in the world”, Graydon has succeeded in making it the hottest ticket of Oscar week.
“It’s not who you say ‘yes’ to,” Graydon confided to me as the party was winding to a close one year, “it’s who you say ‘no’ to.”
Of course, not all the guests have to beg to be allowed in. Believe it or not, some of them actually receive invitations out of the blue. For instance, all the Oscar nominees in each of the major categories are invited because that’s the only way Graydon can ensure that the winners will have the necessary documentation–parking pass, stiffy, etc–to get past the various checkpoints.
The most important guests at the party are those who comprise the Hollywood A-list and no stone is left unturned in persuading them to attend. These include past Academy Award winners like Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow and Martin Scorsese, moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Edgar Bronfman Jr and Sumner Redstone and “blue-haired California matrons” like Nancy Reagan, Barbara Davis and Betsy Bloomingdale.
Yet even these people are unlikely to receive “plus ones” on their invitations. In 2002, Halle Berry made the mistake of bringing along a train of followers in addition to the Academy Award she’d just won for Best Actress. Even though the guests at the party had given her a standing ovation as she made her acceptance speech on television–Oprah Winfrey was the first on her feet–she wasn’t allowed in.
More resources are devoted to planning the Oscar party than to putting together the Hollywood issue of the magazine, which is saying something. (The annual cost of throwing the party is in excess of $1 million.) To describe the degree of preparation that goes into organising the event as “military” is an insult to Sara Marks, Vanity Fair ‘s British party planner who also oversees the magazines bashes in London and Cannes each year. In 1999, she scoured Cuba looking for a 16-piece band to play in a marquee that Graydon had got his architect to put up in Mortons’ car-park. If Sara Marks had been in charge of the Bay of Pigs, it might not have been such a fiasco.
“It’s the turbine behind the scenes that makes the party work smoothly on the night,” Graydon recently told the Los Angeles Times. “The trick is to make it look easy.”
Graydon takes it all very, very seriously. When I spoke to him in the course of writing a piece about the party for the New York Post, he said: “Don’t make it fucking snarky or I’ll come and carve your heart out with a pencil. If you say anything other than it’s the number one party I’ll fucking kill ya.” Every year, a crack team of 15-20 Vanity Fair staffers flies down to LA at least two weeks beforehand to set up a “war room” at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They command a team that, at its height, comprises several hundred people: construction and video companies, florists, on-site seamstresses, the restaurant staff, private security personnel…the list is endless. Graydon arrives a week before D-Day to take command of the operation personally.
Why does he lavish such attention on the party? In part, it’s for solid business reasons. The Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair is so fat with advertising it could do with some liposuction. The magazine has advertising revenues in excess of $100 million a year and the March issue forms the cornerstone of its annual advertising strategy. The reason advertisers want to be in that issue is because, thanks to the party, it receives more publicity than any other. It’s an “event issue”, the publishing equivalent of an “event movie”.
The party also serves to brand the magazine as a sexy, glamorous product; it links it in the public’s mind with everything that’s desirable about Hollywood. Of course, it helps if something scandalous happens at the party and there are usually one or two celebs happy to oblige. In 2001 Elizabeth Hurley and Pamela Anderson started making out in full view of the other guests. Rather surprisingly, neither was invited the following year.
“Two kinds of people read Vanity Fair,” Graydon once told me. “Trailer- park white trash and everyone who matters.” The reason the former read it, at least in part, is because they see the coverage the Oscar party gets in papers like the National Enquirer. The reason everyone who matters read it is because they’re invited to the party. This goes to the heart of why Graydon attaches such importance to the event. It gives him leverage over some of the biggest players in the media-industrial complex. Graydon hasn’t created this annual institution to make the job of editing the magazine easier; he edits the magazine so he can throw parties like this.
For the Royal Canadian Airforce brat and former railway worker, the Oscar party is an annual reminder of just how far he’s come. During the run-up to the event, he’s feted by all the biggest names in town, culminating in a lunch party in his honour hosted by Barry Diller. This lunch is attended by, among others, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Ronald Perelman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sandy Gallin, Diane von Furstenberg, Fran Lebowitz and Edgar Bronfman Jr. One VF staffer who spotted him immediately afterwards in 1998, cruising back to the Beverly Hills Hotel in his Mercedes, described him as looking “as happy as a pasha”. At moments like this, Graydon isn’t simply the cat that got the cream. He’s the python that swallowed the panther that ate the cat that got the cream.