The defiant ones

No envelopes, please.

EVERY YEAR I INVITE a few glum guests to my cramped lower Queen Anne apartment to watch the Academy Awards. The small, somber soiree isn't for friends or family but for those poor souls with no place else to go on Oscar night: the non-nominated, the overlooked, those shunned and ignored by the AMPAS—despite their seemingly deserving work. After all, not everyone has the good fortune to be cast as a tortured genius overcoming obstacles.

So it was that The Man Who Wasn't There adulteress Frances McDormand (plus director husband Joel Coen) could be heard chatting in my living room before the telecast with The Royal Tenenbaums' deadbeat dad, Gene Hackman, among other guests. Ghost World's borderline pedophile, Steve Buscemi, helped The Deep End's icy corpse-sinking housewife, Tilda Swinton, prepare canap鳮 The Business of Strangers' hard-drinking, pill-popping, manless executive, Stockard Channing, chopped vegetables with Under the Sand's grief-deranged Charlotte Rampling.

Oh, and Steve Martin also dropped by, still peeved about Whoopi Goldberg hosting the show (but bringing an extra pony keg).

As the music swelled, the embittered group pulled my set of metal folding chairs up to the TV, and, as at Oscar parties everywhere, maintained a constant stream of dish during the gala event. A collective gasp was heard when Tom Cruise suddenly and confusingly appeared to open the ceremonies. His reassurance that our patriotic duty was to forget Sept. 11 and return to the movies prompted Hackman, a former Marine, to scoff: "Oh, great! Top Gun pretty boy tells us life is back to normal so we can all start lining up tickets to see Mission Impossible 3. Semper fi, dude!"

Then, as Whoopi Goldberg was lowered on a trapeze, Nicole Kidman-style, to the stage, Martin piped up, asking, "Is this supposed to be a reference to Moulin Rouge or Close Encounters? That tutu makes her ass look as large as the mother ship."

The usual post-commercial chatter quickly hushed for the first of the periodic minidocumentaries by the never- nominated Errol Morris—here reduced to asking a long line of celebrities, "What do the movies mean to you?"

A chorus of bitter responses erupted from my guests. Channing: "Playing the mother to actors 10 years younger than you!" Buscemi: "Another year of sidekick roles while waiting for Tarantino to sober up!" McDormand: "Earning yearly what Tom Hanks makes in interest each month!"

But the loudest laughter erupted at the sight of Glenn Close and Donald Sutherland being reduced to chipper infotainment anchors ࠬa Entertainment Tonight, beseeching viewers to stay tuned with promises of stars to come. "What's next for those two?" slurred Rampling. "ThighMaster infomercials?" Knocking back her bourbon on the rocks with one swift, well-practiced motion, Channing muttered, "Thank God for West Wing."

WOODY ALLEN initially caught our attention with his introduction to the N.Y.C.-set movie montage. Then the dreaded words "Nora Ephron" were uttered, causing an astonished Martin Scorsese to do a spit take of red wine on my new white carpet. (To his credit, he did attempt to wipe it up with a napkin.)

All were in agreement that it was a bad idea to have presenters read quotes they probably didn't understand. Between bites of pasta salad, Buscemi said, "J.Lo quoting Ira Gershwin? That's like Carrot Top citing Proust."

As it did all across America, Arthur Hiller's windy, meandering acceptance speech for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award prompted a mad rush for the bathroom and the kitchen, with Thora Birch actually losing a shoe in the stampede.

With his plate replenished and a fresh Corona in hand, Waking Life director Richard Linklater chuckled at the Best Animated Feature Oscar going to Shrek. "See, I told my producer that we should have a tie-in to a toy or an amusement park ride or a video game or something," he drawled. "Maybe a little Speed Levitch action figure that talks really fast when you pull the sting."

Halle Berry's sobbing had everyone reaching for drinks, not tissues. "This looks familiar," groused McDormand. "Oh, that's right, it's the same performance she gave in Monster's Ball." "Maybe that's where we went wrong with The Man Who Wasn't There," theorized Coen. "Billy Bob could've been married to Halle, and we'd have gotten both the death row thing and the interracial romance!"

Finally, all leaned forward as best director and picture went to . . . A Beautiful Mind? An unmistakable groan filled the room, followed by a pause to light cigarettes. "Maybe there's a valuable lesson here for all of us," observed Coen sardonically. "So in In The Bedroom, the kid recovers from his head wound. In Iris they cure Alzheimer's! The lovers stay together in In the Mood for Love. There's no dogfighting in Amores Perros, and Betty doesn't kill herself in Mulholland Drive. No more unhappy endings!"

Which means next year it could just be me and Todd Solondz.

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