At Oscars, Drama Can Stem From Seating Arrangement

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Imagine trying to put together the seating chart for the Academy Awards: You've got ex-wives, decades-old rivals, veterans who just might snooze by the second hour and divas who demand to be close to the stage. Host Michele Norris talks to John Lopez, a contributor to Vanity Fair, about the politics of Oscar theater seating.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And that secretive artist is just one of thousands of challenges for people producing the Oscar broadcast.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Live from the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, it's the 82nd annual...

NORRIS: Now, imagine if you're the person responsible for figuring out where all those actors sit. You've got actors who loathe their former producers, all those stars who only want to be shot from their best side; there are the ex-wives, the decades-old rivals, the veterans who just might snooze by the second hour, and the divas who demand to be close to the stage. Pass me the Excedrin.

John Lopez has written about this perennial puzzle. He's a contributor to Vanity Fair, and he joins us now from NPR West.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN LOPEZ (Writer): Oh, thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Now, you've written in Vanity Fair about what you see as the hierarchy of Oscar seating. This has got to be a difficult job.

Mr. LOPEZ: I think so. I liken it to awards Jenga. You have to figure out where...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOPEZ: ...all the pieces go and make sure that you don't topple the tower at the end of the night.

NORRIS: You know, I want to talk a little bit more about this hierarchy that you've described. You talk about the chosen ones and how there's a sort of magical triangle in the Kodak Theatre where every camera line's sight seems to converge and the lighting is really wonderful. Tell us about the folks who are so lucky to be seated in that area.

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, this year, I think those folks would include Natalie Portman, for one; Colin Firth, for another; anyone who it's almost seen like a preordained truth that they are going to get an Oscar. And those are the people that you want to make sure you get all the great angles at.

NORRIS: And then, there are the elder statesmen section.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes. This is the people who are kind of perceived members of the Academy's core group, and I think someone who's already won an Oscar and is kind of coming to the Oscars not really caring if they win. I think the prime example of this will be Jeff Bridges. He already has his Oscar. He's beloved by Hollywood, and by all accounts, he is a very, very cool dude. So for him, it's more about being able to display the perfect carefree smile when someone else's name is announced, for example.

NORRIS: Got one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

NORRIS: Then there are the stars who have been nominated multiple times but they have not yet won, and you have them grouped in an area called the mocked ones.

Mr. LOPEZ: Those are those people who continually get nominated and continually lose. And this year, actually, the mocked ones might be the place to be because someone who is continually been a mocked one despite his amazing technical genius is Roger Deakins, the cinematographer behind "True Grit." He has been nominated so many times and never won, but this year, it looks like he might actually win.

And another person, surprisingly in the mocked ones section, could be Annette Bening. She's been nominated several times. Even though it seems kind of foreordained that Natalie Portman is going to win her Oscar, there has been scuttlebutt amongst Oscar cognoscenti in the last few days that she may pull off an upset. So the mocked ones might be not a bad place to be this year.

NORRIS: So what would happen if two people showed up and Melissa Leo looked at Annette Bening and said, hey, girlfriend, let's trade seats. What would happen? Would the axis shift or something like that?

Mr. LOPEZ: The universe would cave in. Hollywood would lose power. Cats and dogs would start doing musical numbers from Busby Berkeley together. It would just go nuts.

I think everyone is so handled and so well directed. They know exactly where they go. And I think, frankly, if you're someone showing up at these award shows, you're going down that red carpet, you've got so many people asking you for interviews, so many flashlights. You're basically like a deer lost in a giant military industrial complex. You just want to be led by the nose to your seat, wait for your moment, recite your Oscar speech over and over and over again, and hope your name gets called.

NORRIS: And what if you want to leave early?

Mr. LOPEZ: That's not allowed. No one leaves the Oscars early. It's kind of like "Fight Club."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOPEZ: You're in there till the bitter, bitter bloody end.

NORRIS: John Lopez, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you, Michele. Thank you.

NORRIS: John Lopez, he's a contributor to Vanity Fair, and he joined us to talk about the seating arrangement at the Academy Awards ceremony, which will be taking place on Sunday evening.

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