Hanging With Madonna, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt: Diary of an Oscar Partygoer

Oscars Red Carpet Kidman Cruise - H 2013
Ron Galella Collection/WireImage/Getty Images

Oscars Red Carpet Kidman Cruise - H 2013

Which star set off Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter, why Madonna said "I'm so bored!" and other delicious tidbits from THR's Bill Higgins in his 25 years inside the most celebrated shindigs.

This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If anyone can take credit for the media-saturated Oscar party, it’s agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar. His began in the 1960s at his house and ended in the early ’90s at the original Spago. I began attending in 1987, covering for the Herald-Examiner.

My first encounter with Mr. Lazar (he didn’t like being called Swifty; his friends called him Irving, and I think I called him Mr. Lazar, Your Highness) was just before the telecast. I was talking with the now-late Allan Carr (two years later, he produced the infamous Academy Awards that had Rob Lowe and Snow White dancing, poor Allan.) Out of the blue, Swifty was there pointing his finger into my stomach -- he was roughly 5 feet tall -- saying, “Who are you?” (He pronounced this, “Who-ah-u?,” in a tone someone in the Gambino family would respect.) This was not an auspicious beginning to a career covering Oscar parties.

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Carr truly saved me by saying, “It’s all right, Irving, he’s with me.” Swifty seemed suspicious and literally growled and walked away. Right then, I knew I owed Carr my life, but before I could thank him, he said, “Do you have any aspirin?” I said there might be some in my car. He told me to get them, and I obediently walked to the parking lot and returned with a small bottle of Excedrin that Carr emptied in one swallow. It was a moment where you think, “OK, if this is how glamour goes, so be it.”

My first impression of the viewing party was that it seemed staid. Guests were expected to remain seated and discuss among themselves. Swifty was 80, and these were his friends and clients. It was Old Hollywood, but really old Hollywood. To give an idea how staid, the next year I was talking with novelist Larry McMurtry, who’d brought his 15-year-old niece. Nearby was Madonna, and of course McMurtry’s niece had no interest in the likes of Jimmy Stewart. She slipped over to speak with Madonna. When she came back, McMurtry asked what the singer had said, and the niece replied, “She said, ‘I’m so bored.’ ” That started McMurtry screaming, “You can’t print that!”

When the telecast was over, many of the older guests left, to be replaced with the influx of ceremony attendees. That’s when it got good. Spago filled with more famous people than I’d ever seen under one roof in my life.

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My memory of those early parties are one big blur: John Huston pulling the oxygen tube out of his nose whenever a photo was taken (vanity until the end); Gene Kelly being a bit uptight; Elizabeth Taylor with an incredibly thin waist, arriving in 1989; Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman making a display of affection that seemed too much for public consumption; Brad Pitt rolling his eyes when a reporter from People asked his date, Juliette Lewis, about their relationship (there are times when even if you’re with the press, you want to kill the press); suddenly realizing that Phil Spector was not someone with whom to have a light, amicable conversation.

Swifty died nine months after the Oscars in 1993. The next year, Vanity Fair slipped into his time slot, but at Mortons. (It’s now at the Sunset Tower.) VF has published an extensive article on its party, and its history is better chronicled than the Iraq War. I only know what I saw. By then, the Herald was dead, and I attended for the Los Angeles Times. I, or more correctly the Times, was seated for dinner.

As with Swifty’s format, roughly 125 guests, tending toward the older and wealthier, are invited to dine. As an example, the first year I was seated next to Eli Broad. I had no clue who he was. The billionaire had to patiently explain his businesses to me.

The next year, my place card was next to Liza Minnelli, who didn’t show. She was the only absentee. That really set VF editor Graydon Carter off. I remember him saying: “That’s it, that’s it. I have had it with her.” So if you’re invited, show up.

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That was the only time in 20 years I’ve seen Graydon, who’s the most gracious of hosts, get upset. Besides no-shows, he also has a thing about smoking. It seems to be encouraged. It’s almost like an act of rebellion against a politically correct world. And hardly anyone smokes -- except him. There are ashtrays on the dinner tables with Zippo cigarette lighters inscribed with “Vanity Fair,” and you can’t believe how quickly the rich and famous pocket them as souvenirs.

The afterparty is famous for its eclectic mix. You stand in a crowded room and think, “Did Prince Albert of Monaco just walk by me?” (Yes.) I remember turning my head once and seeing a pilot who landed on the Hudson talking to an astronaut who landed on the moon. Where else does something like that happen?

At the height of the Clinton scandal, Monica Lewinsky made a dramatic late arrival for dinner, and Jay Leno (seated in a banquette with producer-director George Schlatter and others) said, “My God, she’s got an ass bigger than George’s.” One year, an inebriated Anna Nicole Smith threw her arms around me while saying, “But you love me, you love me,” with her glowering Samoan bodyguard standing nearby. (I noticed she didn’t get invited back the next year.) I was seated another time in a banquette with Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen, who has a thing about pushing gay Hollywood stars to come out of the closet. When I said that’s all he ever wants to talk about, McKellen went into a rant about a presumed gay megastar. I interrupted with, “Exactly,” and Jagger laughed.

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So I made Mick Jagger laugh. That’s a successful night. Last year, after a few drinks, it seemed like a good idea to ask Steven Tyler to have our picture taken together in an old-style photo booth -- it wasn’t. But I got to talk for a while with his daughter Liv Tyler, who is truly angelic.

It’s a fun few hours.