Media Circus: The rise and fall of the Hollywood party

Tinseltown orgies just aren't what they used to be.

By Catherine Seipp
Published August 1, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

people often ask what Hollywood parties are really like, and I hope you'll excuse me for not getting around to answering until now, but what with the constant, ultra-glamorous whirl of glittering premieres, sophisticated cocktail parties, naughty little soirees at some movie star's home with assorted members of the perky-butt club lining up to have sex with the host in the back room, well, you know, I've been busy! Anyway, I -- what's that? You want reality? Oh. OK. I suppose I'd better back up a bit, then.

First of all, as usual, I missed out on the sex-with-the-movie-star gathering. I was told about it by Jennifer Young, who was a regular on the Heidi Fleiss party girl circuit before, as she puts it, with a sigh, she unthinkingly "introduced Heidi to that undercover cop." Also, Jennifer did not herself queue up. Instead she used the opportunity to make long-distance calls on the host's phone, until he noticed and yelled at her to get off. Somehow, that kind of undercuts the glamorous decadence of the whole scene.

Second, the sad truth is that in Hollywood, the sophisticated cocktail party is generally anything but, being typically distinguished by: (a) shop talk; (b) men with big, stinky cigars; (c) babies. Should you happen to fall into pleasant conversation with a man who is not at that moment either smoking or diapering, odds are good that within five minutes a crumple-faced girl will appear out of the crowd, attach herself to his side like a limpet and announce plaintively, "Ohhh, Robert, I'm feeling that pain again, and there's nothing here at all I can eat!"

Well, that's festive, isn't it? But I don't want to sound too negative. Actually, last year I went to a very jolly Hollywood party, a pre-Oscars media get-together co-hosted at Bar Marmont by the New York Observer's well-connected Hollywood correspondent, Nikki Finke. I often find Hollywood media gatherings awkward, because generally a sizable chunk of the guest list isn't speaking to me. But Nikki had decided to forgive my describing her in print as "semi-sane" a few years earlier, and she proved an excellent hostess, gracefully making introductions to all and sundry -- a rare thing in Hollywood, where you're lucky if anyone remembers your name. Alas, shortly after that, when I ran into Nikki at another party, for some reason she decided to be mad all over again.

"I can't believe you called me semi-sane!" she erupted, apropos of nothing, in front of the pleasant little clot of people we were talking to at the time. "How could you?" That kind of put a damper on things.

Nevertheless, Nikki invited me to her pre-Oscars media party again this year, although she seemed a bit grumpy when I actually showed up, and wasn't so gracious about the introductions this time, at least not in my direction. However, it was still quite a good party, as Hollywood parties go. Someone said I looked like Kristin Scott Thomas in "The English Patient." Unfortunately, it was another woman, and her vision seemed more than a little blurred from alcohol, but hey!

Usually when people tell me about parties they've been to, the point isn't that they had a good time (they usually didn't) but that there was something remarkably off about the whole event, even by Hollywood standards. A former actress I know went to an engagement party for a friend hosted by a TV producer and his wife who had recently bought the old Menendez house in Beverly Hills. "They don't own up to the fact that it's the Menendez house," she says, "but they threw the party just in the family room where the murders took place. It was creepy. A screenwriter I know whispered in my ear, 'You go sit on the sofa like Kitty and I'll pretend I'm coming in the room like Lyle and Erik.'"

Things were different in the old days. The ultimate Hollywood party was the movie premiere -- which was an event of such fabulous excess that Nathanael West used one for the famous climax of "The Day of the Locust." Everyone had a glamorous date, even if it was only Rock Hudson. Mamie Van Doren used to complain after these parties that Rock never made a pass at her -- but at least they looked good together. At the last premiere I went to I sat at a table with two young woman film executives, who were each other's date for the evening.

"Don't mention husbands to us!" wailed one. "It's all couples here," complained the other, sawing away at her tough steak sandwich.

The other day I was flipping through the new 25th anniversary edition of W, the publication of record for those who take parties seriously. I was struck by the picture of the child Tatum O'Neal, her eyelids smeared with glitter, at the 1975 premiere of "Tommy." God, what a lost world that evokes! The party that producer Allan Carr organized for that movie is generally cited as the last of the pull-out-all-the-stops Hollywood premieres. But even then it was something of a relic.

I remember asking Carr about this a few years ago and he said that, actually, the "Star!" premiere in the '60s had pretty much put an end to old-style studio parties. "Julie Andrews was the biggest star in the world at the time, but the picture was an abject failure and ended an era," he explained. "They did a gigantic party and people just sat there in shock."

And even Carr, the last of the great showmen, had wearied in general of entertaining on a grand scale. "Now you feel, 'Well, do I want all these people in my house?'" he said, sitting at home in his bathrobe. "'Do I want to move around the objets?'"

At its core, the Hollywoodland party bears as much relation to a real party as Hollywood does to real life. This bothers some more than others. I used to chat with William Hamilton, the longtime New Yorker cartoonist, at social gatherings now and then. He never really adjusted to life in Los Angeles, and a few months ago he and his family moved back to New York. Once he said that the thing he found hardest to get used to here was how, at parties, the person you were talking to was always glancing around for someone more important to talk to.

I'm afraid I looked at him (although, I'm happy to say, only him) blankly. Because I realized that I couldn't remember experiencing any other situation at a party.

Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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