In April, 1992, I was in Los Angeles preparing to go to the Academy awards as the date of someone who had been nominated for an Oscar–my mother. The Oscars are about Hollywood, about bright, ephemeral glamour, about surfaces that reflect. My mother is not about these things. Yet there we were, an unlikely pair, preparing for our big night.
My mother had spent the previous ten years working on a documentary film entitled "The Restless Conscience," which examined the resistance to Hitler inside of Germany. Most of those years were solitary, with little in the way of financial or moral support from the world at large, and for a time my mother’s commitment to the movie had overtones of Don Quixote. Suddenly, we were on a plane to Los Angeles, perusing the Coca-Cola Academy Award insert in People magazine, which dutifully listed in the Best Documentary Feature category "The Restless Conscience." To recall the tone of the previous ten years, and to contemplate the substance of the movie itself, which was not about surfaces that reflect, and to contrast that to this glossy advertisement in People and all that lay before us just then- all this had the effect of broadening one’s sense of what is possible in the world.
We arrived several days in advance and my mother set herself up in the Beverly Hilcrest Hotel while I went off to stay with a friend. The Beverly Hilcrest Hotel was almost certainly a glamorous hotel at one time, but that time had passed. My mother’s room was enormous, with a great view, and yet it had a vaguely decayed quality. The color scheme was what could best be described as "mustard." There were floor to ceiling drapes, slightly frayed, and I found them heartbreaking for some reason. Whenever I visited her in that hotel room she seemed small.
The big day arrived at last and I went to pick my mother up, wearing a new tuxedo I had purchased for the occasion. It itched. Having briefly considered hiring a limousine, we prudently decided on a taxi instead. Our taxi pulled up to the hotel curb with a wheeze. It was not luxurious. We got in and said, "Academy Awards, please." There was a long pause, and then we remembered to give the driver the piece of paper with the address on it.
As we approached the venue, I noticed that the population of limousines on the street was increasing. Eventually there was nothing but limousines, all extra long and of various shades of gray, blue, black, and white, and they were all stuck in traffic. It was like the display floor of an enormous car dealership specializing in stretch limousines. In the midst of the limousines was our taxi, which was blue, except for the hood, which was orange, and which seemed to have been built in a different era as the rest of the car.
My mother and I had heard that it was customary for people to circle the venue in their limousines, waiting until just the right moment to arrive. But no one was circling now. No one was moving, in fact. It was three in the afternoon, and the starting time was a half hour away. After a little while a few people began to get out of their limousines and walk. Gradually more and more people started walking. It was like one of those old movies where there is a panic about an impending nuclear war or the arrival of Godzilla, and everyone takes to the highway and when that gets jammed, they start to flee on foot. In this instance people were fairly calm and matter of fact about it. No one was going to let this traffic jam ruin their day. The doors to all the limousines opened up and out came calm, well dressed men and women wearing fabulous shoes that weren’t made for walking. My mother and I got out as well.
Eventually we got to a point where there was a density of police. I went up to one of them and asked directions.
"Could you tell me where the entrance to the Academy Awards is?" I said.
The police man was wearing mirrored sun glasses. Several seconds went by. It is hard to convey skepticism while wearing mirrored sun glasses, but the policeman managed to do it.
"My mother is nominated for an award," I said. I gestured to my mother, as if her presence was some kind of proof. Another moment went by. Then, as if we had passed some test, he pointed up a hill. There was a mob of people there, and a fire truck.
"Of course," I said. "Thank you."
The entrance to the academy awards was a bit daunting. A red carpet cut through a canyon of bleachers crammed with people, all of whom seemed to have cameras. We showed our tickets and stepped forward, and all at once the cameras started to whiz and chirp. It was like listening to locusts devour a forest. My mother held my arm, and we marched solemnly down the red-carpeted aisle, as though I were giving her away at a wedding. I wondered if people were taking our picture, and then I realized that the man a few feet in front of us was Kevin Costner. I held up a moment to let him a get further ahead, and then we went on, down through the valley of the locusts.
My mother and I entered the sight lines and consciousness of hundreds of people, all of whom had cameras pressed to their faces. I could feel their viewfinders bearing down on us. Memories were scanned and calculations made. A second went by, maybe less, and then all those hundreds dropped their cameras to their chests simultaneously, a chorus line of disappointed fans and paparazzi.
My mother and I continued down the red carpet, looking at the palm trees that had been brought in for atmosphere, at the disappointed paparazzi, and at each other. My mother was wearing quite a bit of make up, which is unusual for her, and I found this unnerving. She had gone to a special place to have her face made up, appropriate for the occasion I thought, except now her expression was slightly distorted. We smiled at each other and she squeezed my arm. A wave of sadness came over me. My mother and I had failed the litmus test of fame, and to make it worse she didn’t even look as good as she normally does. My tuxedo itched mercilessly. The palm trees, I decided, were fake.
Then the paparazzi revived interest, and the locusts began their frenzy again. My mother and I stopped for a moment, stunned I think, and we turned around to see Daryl Hannah taking what appeared to be bows in the manner of royalty when they are in the presence of their subjects. She looked regal, wearing a golden dress, and with lots of blonde hair done up like Marilyn Monroe. The sun as setting, and it was very pretty.
The awards themselves were like a game show with very attractive contestants. I thought about the people in my mother’s movie – their concern for ethics, their sense that actions have consequences – and how odd it was that they should in some way be here, in a place filled with tuxedos and chiffon dresses.
The presenters for the best Documentary category were Spike Lee and John Singleton. They took turns reading off the names of the nominees, and as each name was mentioned a brief clip of the film was shown, selected by the Academy, not the directors of the movies. My mother and I had spent a fair amount of time speculating which five seconds, out of two hours, they might choose to run. As it happened they ran a shot of Hitler and then a quick shot of a Nazi flag. My mother had gone to great lengths to keep Hitler off stage in the movie; he was a supporting character, not the main event, but there he was anyway, our little contribution to however many million people were watching: another shot of that bad guy.
But there was no time to worry about this because the announcement was at hand, and, besides, in reciting the nominees John Singleton had just mispronounced our last name. It’s "Beller," and he said it "Belyer." No big deal, I thought– the guy is under a lot of pressure, he’s reading from a TelePrompTer, it’s his first time on the Oscars, there are bigger things to worry about in the world. And yet several hundred million people had just fleetingly apprehending our last name incorrectly.
Then came the envelope. When we arrived my mother had been disturbed by the fact that we were not on the aisle, where she thought the winners would be seated. I assured her that this wasn’t the case, that only two very secretive accountants knew who had won, and that they would never do something so obvious as seat the winners were they could most conveniently get to the stage.
Now Spike fumbled with the envelope, and my mother clutched a carefully folded piece of paper– an acceptance speech that she had spent the last several days working on. She had been told that all acceptance speeches had to be under forty five seconds, or else, and so she had devoted a great deal of time in her huge mustard colored hotel room creating a text that was filled gratitude, and emotion, conveyed a message, included thanks to about twenty people, and could be delivered without any haste in less than forty five seconds. Spike finally had the piece of paper out of the envelope and a great hush came over the hall.
Even the most ardent Oscar enthusiasts probably don’t care much about the Best Documentary Feature category; it may be the category with the lowest celebrity quotient. But I sensed a reverential silence as Spike and John Singleton prepared to utter the winner. This silence is a moment of truth that everyone recognizes; it is, I think, like a window through which you can climb for just a moment, into a place where you can pretend to be the one on the edge of his seat. In this case, pretending wasn’t necessary.
"And the Oscar goes to…" Spike said. I glanced sidewise at my mother, whose hands were clasped over her speech. Her face was stern, almost grim. For ten years everything that happened to this movie happened because she willed it to, yet now, of course, we had no say in the matter. The dice were in midair. Singleton read the name of the winners, and whoops and cries of joy erupted from the aisle seats at the end of our row.
The winners made their speech, and then it was time for the next category. It all seemed so odd– the importance of the event wildly magnified and simultaneously diminished by that game show atmosphere, the big monitors, the surreal dresses. I sneaked a peek at my mother. She sat there completely still, her face impassive and without expression, or so it would have seemed to someone else. To me, there was a lot going on in that face. Her hands still clutched the speech. She was clutching it so hard the piece of paper trembled a little. I didn’t know quite what to do, and it was then that the man sitting on the other side of her, a documentary film maker named Vince DiPersio, who had been nominated for two Oscars now and had now been runner up twice, turned to her quite suddenly and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. He had a beard, and I imagined the bristles of his beard touching her skin. It was as if something melted, and a more familiar expression came over her face. She turned to him and we all laughed. At that moment my mother’s face was a surface that reflected, and the light surrounding her was wonderfully illuminating.
This essay is part of "How To Be a Man," by Thomas Beller
A version of Mother Goes to Hollywood originally appeared in the New Yorker.