LOS ANGELES – I was the man in the box at the Oscars for The Associated Press.
I would stand in an opera-style balcony near the stage at the Dolby Theatre that provides a great view of the show but an even better view of the audience. I'd peer down with binoculars to provide what journalists call “color,” sprinkled into our stories as we seek to give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse.
Hours before the telecast, an academy official with a black-belt-level credential would take me on a labyrinthine walk down hallways, through black curtains and over velvet ropes, past the Foot Locker and Sephora that make parts of the complex indistinguishable from a suburban mall, and into the box that I shared with the show's technical crew members.
This year, the ceremony's logistical layout will force me to work outside the box: in the media room, with the rest of the Oscars press corps. The food will be better than the nothing I normally get, but I'll miss the box — where else could I have seen the following moments?
A DISASTROUS DEBUT
The fiasco came in my first year.
It was 2017, my first time inside the Academy Awards. I was gazing down on the audience. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had just announced “La La Land” as best picture.
The alleged winners' celebration soon turned to murmurs of confusion. I'm not sure anyone had ever seen as many stunned famous faces as I was suddenly looking down on after the true victory of “ Moonlight ” was revealed. The mouths of Meryl Streep, Matt Damon and Michelle Williams were all varying degrees of agape. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had on a crooked expression that, in his wrestling days, he called “the people's eyebrow.”
"I will never see anything this crazy again if I do this for 20 years," I thought to myself. Turned out it only took five.
BIG LITTLE DETAILS
Big moments are not generally my job. I deal in details.
From the box, I got to see who the first famous folks seated are: generally, older actors with either no need or no desire to be part of the red carpet scrum. One year it was Jane Fonda, amid a sea of empty seats. I saw an 88-year-old Christopher Plummer, the oldest-ever nominee at that point in 2018, take his spot over an hour before the last-minute scramble that accompanies the telecast's start.
I got to see how truly long the walk from the theater's back is for the non-famous. One year, I could hear the shouts of glee from the proud mother of a victorious sound editor, though I could barely see her even through binoculars.
Trips to the bathroom, which require the accompaniment of a show staffer and a climb past a guy who runs a big crane camera, are their own adventure, with hopes — sometimes realized — that I might end up standing silently next to the likes of Denzel Washington.
In 2017, I saw Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel passing a flask to the people in their row, clearly having the best time in the room. When Timberlake gave his show-opening performance of “Can't Stop the Feeling,” Javier Bardem was the only one wholeheartedly dancing the entire time.
A SPIKE STORM
The crowd at the Oscars does an excellent job of playing the role of “audience.” They hit every unspoken applause cue. They rise in surprising synchrony for standing ovations. They know to stay quiet. They get back to their seats before the cameras roll.
The best audience member to watch, from my perspective, is Spike Lee. For one, he always dresses distinctively, making him easy to spot in a sea of black tuxedos that — from my perch — can make it hard to immediately tell a Brad from a Leo. And he is just as animated as when he sits courtside at New York Knicks games.
In 2019, Lee — clad in a purple suit — won his first competitive Oscar, for writing “Black KkKlansman.” His movie was also up for best picture, against the late-surging "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 gave the kind of “the hell with this” gesture with his arms he often gives NBA referees, stormed out of his seat and headed for the back doors. With all eyes on the stage, and few others with my view, it went unnoticed by almost all others. It was the closest thing to a scoop the box has given me, and my tweet describing it was my most popular ever, by a mile.
THE SLAP AND THE SHOUTS
Five years in came the slap. Full disclosure: I did not see, with my naked eyes, Will Smith strike Chris Rock.
Tasked with pounding out a quick story, I was sitting down typing when I saw, on one of the crew monitors, Smith stride up on stage and take his swing.
In retrospect, this was a huge moment — but when it happened, few could tell it wasn't a planned bit. The audience laughter was nervous, but laughter there was. Still, I leapt up and paid attention. The titters remained even after Smith shouted for Rock to keep Jada Pinkett Smith's name out of his mouth.
It was only the second time Smith said it, louder and emphasizing each word — “MY. WIFE'S. NAME." — that it became clear this was no joke. A stunned silence fell. It reminded me of being in a classroom when the students realize that the fun teacher really is mad this time.
The Academy recently apologized for not taking swifter action with Smith. They weren't alone in not knowing how to respond. We journalists had to decide how to treat 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 glad. The vibes were too heavy for one person to weigh. A surreal pall hung over the rest of the night, with most assuming that Smith was likely to soon win best actor.
I kept my binoculars on the front row, where Smith sat. Bradley Cooper and Tyler Perry came up to Smith during breaks, as if counseling him. Both hugged him. So did Denzel Washington, who kept him in a long embrace, whispering to him throughout.
During his tear-streaked acceptance speech minutes later, Smith said Washington had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that's when the devil comes for you.”
I'm hoping I can return to my own high point in the theater next year. I'll keep an eye 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