Harrison Ford looked over at me. I nodded. He nodded back.
What would happen if someone held an awards show and there was little to no audience? I’d never asked myself that question, but this evening, I lived through such an experience.
It had been a roller-coaster week. While on the way to class last Monday evening, I stopped by a bulletin board outside the Cinema-Television building. As is typical, there were many fliers touting various movie fan conventions or short film productions in need of a crew. One glossy flier stuck out though – it seemed that that Friday evening, there was to be a banquet of some sort at the Shrine Auditorium adjacent to the USC campus. On the note was the stellar guest listing of: Harrison Ford – obviously well known for his Indiana Jones role along with many other action films, George Lucas – the billionaire creator of the “Star Wars” empire, and James Cameron – writer/director of “Titanic” as well as the first two “Terminator” films. Obviously this was going to be a rare treat!
It did seem odd that I was just learning of this event only a few days before it was scheduled. I didn’t think too hard about that fact though and faster than a speeding bullet, I reserved myself a ticket.
When Friday evening arrived, I made my way over to campus for what I assumed would be a struggle through crowds of people. I was surprised to find that while there was a large group of photographers getting set up along the proverbial red carpet outside the Shrine Auditorium entrance, there was not much of a crowd of attendees/gawkers. The few who were there had disproved my assumption that people would not follow the event’s stated ‘formal evening attire’ dress code. I was glad that I’d grabbed a suit before driving over.
The ‘red carpet walk’ began at 7:00pm. Photographers standing behind a low metal barrier at the start of the carpet easily outnumbered the ‘fan section’ next to the auditorium lobby entrance. I kept looking around that ‘fan section,’ wondering why there only seemed to be thirty or forty people standing around next to me. Was everyone coming late? Where they all simply taking their seats inside?
The first famous person to arrive – and the last to make it inside the building – was the primatologist Jane Goodall. Since I really didn’t know what the ‘awards’ being given out that evening were for, I wasn’t sure how she fit into the whole scheme of things. She’d given a lecture the prior evening at USC regarding her forty or so years living among the chimpanzees of Africa. While she’s certainly well known in academic communities, but what was she doing hanging out with Harrison Ford?
Odder still, was the arrival of several cast members from the first three “Star Trek” television series. They all seemed to arrive at the same time – like they’d been in a mini-bus or something. It was really odd and those of us in the ‘fan’ section we were quite surprised. What the heck were the “Star Trek” people doing here?
I will say that the “Star Trek” actors were quite gracious with stopping by the fan section to sign autographs for the couple of people who had notebooks along to get signed. Admittedly, it probably isn’t too hard to look good by pressing the flesh when there are only three dozen people and two have autograph requests.
By 7:30pm, the fan section of the fence got more crowded when ten costumed ‘storm troopers’ arrived for what I’d assumed was the chance to spot George Lucas. They stood in ‘formation’ for a few minutes but then seemed to give up that routine when they realized that no one was paying attention.
Harrison Ford arrived around the same time as the storm troopers. He was escorted by his razor-thin girlfriend, the actress Calista Flockhart (T.V.’s “Alley McBeal”). After the couple had gotten most of their photos taken together, Calista must have decided that it was time to split and breezed passed the television crews on her way into the auditorium. She would be the only celebrity of the evening who walked the red carpet and snubbed the fan section. Realizing that we were about to get snubbed, one bold gentleman in our group yelled out “Calista, I love your new series!” This remark did get her attention and prompted a pause to wave. Then she disappeared.
The British actor Malcolm McDowell – probably still best known for his lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” – actually passed Harrison Ford on the carpet after getting significantly less attention from the television crews. He was quite friendly with the couple of fans seeking autographs and made a funny remark about being upset if he found out that the photos he’d signed were posted on eBay the next day.
When Harrison Ford came near the fan section, it seemed at first that he was going to ‘pull a Calista’ and snub us. One of the autograph hounds yelled out “Harrison, you promised you’d sign for me!” This remark prompted Ford to stop and project an exaggerated “Who? Me?” expression our way. It was classic and he strolled over to hang out for a few minutes with our little group.
He signed some autographs, chatted a bit with those around me who had questions. I was admittedly star struck. I didn’t know what to say or ask. Who the heck had thought I’d have had the chance? My camera had been confiscated, I’d not prepped a question, and I didn’t have any paper on me to get signed. All in all, a minor disaster. Next time, I guess one needs to be better prepared.
Those who did sneak in camera-phones were able to get a few photos. The paparazzi actually mobbed over into the fan section and suddenly flashbulbs were going off everywhere. It was quite blinding. After everyone seemed to have their fill, Ford said a polite good-bye and stepped through the auditorium entrance.
Natural or not, Ford looked fantastic for his age and certainly lived up to his reputation as genuine. He seemed rather shy, but was very polite and quite witty with is remarks. Any doubts about his credibility playing Indiana Jones one more time, even though he’s now in his early-60s, are completely without merit. A bit of makeup and he’ll be fine.
George Lucas looked more jovial than I’d have expected during his red carpet walk. He wasn’t the trim man we see in photographs from the 1970s, but he looked quite youthful for a man in his mid-60s.
James Cameron stepped out of a black SUV and was likely the most physically imposing individual of the evening. Cameron is well known for his temper on movie sets and also for physical demands that he subjects to actors/crew – earning the respect of Arnold Schwarzenegger. One tends to forget that this man actually worked with his brother to engineer better underwater vehicles so that he could shoot real footage of the Titanic for use in his eventual fictional and documentary films. Hardcore to say the least.
Unfortunately for the fan section, both Lucas and Cameron were still doing interviews with the television crews when the Shrine Auditorium staff began yelling that the doors were closing and no admittance would be allowed if we didn’t go inside. I didn’t believe them at first and stuck by the carpet gate. Only when I saw the doors begin to shut did I sprint over to enter the lobby.
I’ve hoped that the next couple of years in Los Angeles could be an opportunity to demystify the world of Hollywood for both myself and those back home. If one lesson is being learned, it is how often things are either exaggerated in such a manner that it makes ‘events’ in Los Angeles seem like a lot bigger deal to those watching or seeing photographs from back in middle-America. Tonight was obviously such a night.
As much as celebrities will complain to the media that fans or press hound them in public, I have to wonder how much of the whole ‘I can’t go out in public’ thing isn’t overblown. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the most devastating moment in a celebrity’s life must be that time when they find that they no longer get noticed. There were a couple of people walking the red carpet who paused in front of the fan section and waved. Unfortunately, the little group of us all stood dumbfounded. One lady in particular waved twice and then seemed to give up. Based on remarks by those around me, no one seemed to know who she was and no one really cared. Rather sad.
The Shrine Auditorium contains a significant amount of entertainment industry history. It was the semi-regular home of the Academy Awards/Oscars since 1947. It has also long hosted the Emmy awards, along with the American Music Awards. It isn’t as big of a theatre as it looks on television, probably owing that scale to a selective use of camera lenses. If it was filled to capacity, it supposedly holds five thousand people. On this evening, there was only a fraction of that number inside.
After finding my seat in the balcony, I had a good view to assess the audience. The main level wasn’t empty, but there were large sections that only contained a few groups of people. Even towards the front, it seemed like everyone second or third seat was empty. The balcony contained virtually no one.
The big names of the evening: Harrison Ford, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Jane Goodall ended up sitting in a private balcony adjacent to where I was sitting. They were probably a good twenty yards away from me, but it was certainly close enough for me to observe them as the evening went on. While everyone waited for the show to begin, George and Harrison seemed to engage in intense conversation. Perhaps they were working out the specifics of the new Indiana Jones film?
Jane Goodall didn’t seem to be getting much attention and at one point tried to entertain the crowd by swinging her scarf from their balcony. The scarf had a toy chip attached to the end. It was kind of creepy and she didn’t do it for very long.
The actual ‘show’ began at least forty-five minutes late. As things progressed, I did start to piece together exactly what was going on and why the event was happening in the first place. It seemed that for the past fifteen years in France, there has been an ‘adventure film festival’ that has drawn a claimed thirty thousand people per year. Based on clips that were shown, the founders of the festival had been quite successful in luring a fair number of action film or science-related film stars of yesteryear to Paris.
This was the first year that the festival had tried to branch out and they’d chosen Los Angeles as the place to give it a roll. The aforementioned Malcom MacDowell was actually the host of the ‘show’ and even he seemed to acknowledge that the festival still needed to grow here in L.A.
As stilted as television awards shows can look at times due to everything being scripted, after witnessing the opposite approach I have to say that scripting things is still the way to go. Heck, I question if they ever practiced any element of the evening. McDowell has an engaging personality, but even he seemed a bit lost at times.
Most painful to watch were the French founders of the festival. The two men were in their late thirties or early forties. Every time they appeared on stage, it was painfully obvious that they wished that they could do a ‘time out’ and turn to the audience to exclaim “Holy Cow! Can you believe we got these famous people to come here tonight?” Also, I realize that English was not their first language, but if they knew that they didn’t speak very good English, it was probably not a good idea to give themselves so much stage time. Malcolm MacDowell’s host duty seemed to get forgotten as the evening went on and that was a shame.
The first ‘award’ recipient was for the special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. His appearance amid such a low key turnout only seemed to add to the surreal nature of the entire evening. He’d been inspired as a young man by “King Kong” and for his award, he was presented with the last remaining model of “King Kong.” This model was used in the original 1933 film and the fur/body of Kong had long since deteriorated to the point that only a metal frame was left. Given that this artifact of film history has been discussed before on many a special effects documentary, it is somewhat of a legend in its own right. I was taken aback by how Harryhausen showed no fear in grabbing hold of it on stage and started ‘animating’ the body. What if he broke it?
To further add to the significance of his appearance, one should realize that Harryhausen has often been cited by George Lucas as a hero of his while growing up. In many ways, Harryhausen quietly carried the baton on films that would inspire the modern special-effect blockbuster that Lucas (for better or worse) would later pioneer. So, here they were, the billionaire watching his hero at work, both individuals in the twilight of their respected careers.
George Lucas took the stage for the next award and had it presented to him in a lengthy tribute by James Cameron. Cameron’s string of box office bonanzas in the late 1980s and 1990s paved the way for “Titanic” to eventually knock “Star Wars” off the top of off the global highest-earning film list. Lucas seemed to glow as Cameron described how he saw “Star Wars” on opening night and vowed that he “….had to be making movies.” He immediately quit his job, his marriage at the time would end in divorce, but seven years later, Cameron would make the low-budget hit “The Terminator” with Schwarzenegger in 1984. There were hugs and laughter. Maybe a tear? Again, the entire event continued to be surreal. It seemed as though these profound moments were happening for these industry leaders while an intimate crowd of strangers looked on in the dark.
The bizarreness reached its peak when a montage of clips from the work of George Lucas and Harrison Ford was shown. Seeing famous scenes from “Star Wars” or the “Indiana Jones” films and being able to look over at their creator’s faces was certainly a unique experience. Even Lucas later told the crowd that it was odd to see his whole life so neatly encapsulated into a montage film.
Harrison Ford’s award acceptance speech was the most unconventional of the evening. He went on about environmental causes, going so far as to tell a story about growing up without religion in Chicago. He admitted that he would eventually find an order to the universe in nature and through that find a relationship with God.
Wild, wild stuff.
Jane Goodall capped off the evening with a presentation regarding chimpanzee exploitation. She was an unexpectedly interesting public speaker and by the time she was done talking, I was ready to help her save the chimps.
Things came too an end with a last-hurrah of waves on stage from the featured guests. They even called up to the stage all of the random “Star Trek” cast members, but didn’t bother to introduce them. The “Star Trek” folks can’t seem to get respect anywhere these days. After that, a historical adventure documentary was shown and the curtain closed on the evening.
Oh and for those who care, the specifics on the “Star Trek” figures who rather randomly showed up on the red carpet together, passing by me and the autograph hound standing next to me by the gates:
- Walter Koenig – “Chekov” from “Star Trek” original series/movies
- George Takei – “Sulu” from “Star Trek” original series/movies
- Majel Barrett – “Nurse Chapel” from “Star Trek” original series/movies
- John de Lancie – “Q” from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
- Marina Sirtis – “Counselor Deanna Troi” from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
- Malcolm McDowell – “Soran” from “Star Trek: Generations”; killed Captain Kirk in that film
- Rene Auberjonois – “Odo” from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”
On my way to the car, I did spot a rather touching moment on campus. It was parent’s weekend and a daughter was saying good-bye to her mother and father. As she walked away to her door, the parents stood together and watched her walk away. One could tell how proud they were of her, as they seemed quite giddy in their conversation.