the oscars

Don’t Hold the Oscars at Union Station

A smaller, “supper club”–style Oscars are being held at the historic train station. Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

The biggest Los Angeles secret outsiders don’t know is that the Oscars are held in a mall. Every year, millions of viewers around the world watch as celebrities walk down the middle of a street and into a standard-issue shopping center, past a Hard Rock Cafe and a M.A.C Cosmetics store, to their seats. It’s a lot of work to de-street and de-mall the entire environment just to erect a red carpet, which is why, every year, the Oscars fence off a protective orb around Hollywood and Highland, where the Dolby Theatre (formerly Kodak Theatre) has held the awards ceremony for nearly two decades. In the early days, it was so novel to see actual film-industry stars traipsing once again through the middle of Hollywood that the inconvenience felt oddly thrilling. But the sheen quickly wore off. Hollywood is a place that’s full of tourists, but it’s also an actual neighborhood where regular people live and work, and this spectacle transforms it into even more of a surveillance zone than usual just to host a private event that has grown huge over the last two decades. Hollywood Boulevard used to be closed for a week; in recent years it’s been more like two, and many more streets have been forced behind the blockade — along with sidewalks, bus stops, and a subway station — in an ever-widening security perimeter around the theater. In the early 2000s I lived two blocks away, and one year I had to walk through a metal detector just to go to the farmers’ market.

This year, it seems as if Hollywood might get a reprieve. The Oscars, like so many other American institutions, are operating on a COVID-19 delay, with the nominees just announced yesterday, a full two months late. Now the Academy is eyeing a ceremony on April 25, and loosening-but-still-not-all-that-loose state restrictions will allow for some kind of low-capacity, in-person gathering. Apparently the Dolby Theatre is still under contract and will be used “in some fashion” this year, but instead of filling it with an audience full of those celebrity cardboard-cutout heads normally used for rehearsals, with real humans in every fifth seat, the Academy has opted for a smaller, “supper club”–like ceremony at a different venue: L.A.’s Union Station.

With its cinematic arched entrance plazas and grand ticketing halls — which have, of course, appeared in many films — the 1939 landmark won’t need weeks of staging from the glam squad. But if anything, the significant problems posed by the Dolby location would be made worse here, at a location that is supposed to be completely open to the public. I joked on Twitter that Union Station would only be an acceptable venue if all attendees took mass transit to the Oscars, because as far as I know there’s only one, Ed Begley Jr., who has ever done it. He had to walk from the next-nearest station in Hollywood because the Metro station directly below the Dolby Theatre was closed, and the closure of other transit lines was an early concern when the idea of using Union Station was first floated. Metro has promised that no bus or rail service will be affected this year, and that the agency is “working hard to minimize disruptions around Union Station.” But as anyone who has been there during a film shoot, navigating closed-off entrances and heavily patrolled detours, knows, it will end up negatively impacting people who rely on transit. It also seems extremely likely that the large unhoused community living near the station will be chased off to someplace else. Advocates have expressed similar concerns about the Olympics, which is why a coalition is trying to stop the games from coming to the city in the summer of 2028.

It’s too bad, really, that the Oscars passed over a much better alternative for holding a ceremony that’s outdoors enough to be safe, wouldn’t create such a disruption, and might have allowed more people to attend. If you are facing the front entrance of Union Station, all you have to do is turn around and look up to see it. Dodger Stadium — with its 16,000-space parking lot — has played many essential roles during the pandemic. Oscar winner Sean Penn, after all, led the COVID testing effort in L.A. headquartered at the ballpark, which became the country’s largest testing site, before it was turned into the country’s largest vaccination site in January. If case numbers decrease over the next few weeks as expected, the newly renovated stadium will be able to house the home opener on April 9 for a maximum of 10,000 baseball fans (one-fifth of its capacity). With a similar capacity for the Oscars, it might have meant everyone who worked on the nominated films would have been able to come. It would have been a nice way to acknowledge that the industry was declared “essential” by officials early in the pandemic, with productions heading back to work long before other similar types of businesses were open, resulting in many outbreaks, and sadly some deaths, among casts and crews. Instead of walking a red carpet, attendees could have been vaccinated as they pulled up at what is, after all, still going to be a vaccination clinic, a scene that would have been both highly entertaining and deeply moving.

The Oscars, Hollywood-born and -bred, could use this moment of inflection to pivot to a ceremony that’s more civic-minded overall. In December 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Academy faced a similar quandary, and Bette Davis, who was its president at the time, suggested moving the show to an auditorium and allowing the public to buy tickets, with all proceeds going to the Red Cross. Davis’s plan was rejected, but the Academy did hold a sort of “austerity-chic” ceremony for the next three years, which would be appropriate in a time of climate crisis; anyone outside the 30-mile zone should be discouraged from traveling in order to shrink the show’s carbon footprint. In general, awards shows simply need to evolve. This year’s Golden Globes, simulcast from L.A. and New York, was a mess, including the revelation of the not-so-ethical practices of the extremely-not-diverse Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The Emmys worked fine, cutting away to sometimes quite delightful cast-and-crew celebrations all over the planet. The Grammys, held earlier this week, exceeded expectations from a performance perspective, and staging decadent site-specific spectacles instead of trying to cram everyone and everything into a single arena turned out to be a good idea. If awards shows do ever take place in person at full capacity again, they might take cues from other ceremonies like the Independent Spirit Awards, which will be fully virtual this year, but have always been held on the beach in Santa Monica on the Saturday before the Oscars: refreshingly low-key, extremely low-impact, and blessedly low-emission.

Don’t Hold the Oscars at Union Station