Last night, Hollywood paid a visit to Hollywood for ugly people.
A- and B-listers like James McAvoy and Stephen Root shared the red carpet with local A- and B-listers like Madeleine Albright and Kal Penn outside of Ford’s Theatre. There, Robert Redford premiered his latest film, The Conspirator, for a crowd sprinkled with film-industry types and members of Congress but which seemed to be mostly populated by society sycophants and journalists. You couldn’t argue with the location, at least: The film centers on the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The guest list included plenty of actors (McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood) and politicians (11 senators, 10 House members, one Supreme Court justice), which drew an eclectic assortment of media. The Washington Post and the network affiliates and the likes of People and US Weekly were there; so were wire-service photographers, who probably spend most of their week in the White House briefing room. Also along the red carpet: Brightest Young Things, Wonkette, and the American University Eagle. “Do you think the tribunals were a good idea?” yelled Wonkette blogger Riley Waggaman at Attorney General Eric Holder as he passed. Holder didn’t comment.
A small crowd assembled by 4:30 p.m. on 10th Street NW across from Ford’s Theatre, and it ballooned to a couple hundred bodies an hour later, when the marquee talent began to arrive. Teens like Maria, from Arlington, and Bethany, a student at Washington Bible College, had come for McAvoy’s appearance; others, like Brenda Robertsfrom Canada (“just Canada”) and Paul from Australia (“just Paul” from “just Australia”) had seen the crowd and wandered over. That was also the case for Buddy Breen, who had visited the Spy Museum earlier in the day. He’s a senior vice president at Sonco, a Bladensburg company that rents barricades to the federal government for use in the District. He was pleased to be standing behind his own product. “We should’ve used the black ones.” They look nicer, he said.
Limos and Escalades began pulling up to the red carpet. As actor Norman Reedus (The Boondock Saints, The Walking Dead) stood for portraits, a Voice of America reporter pulled me aside. “Do you know who this gentleman is?”
Moments later, a few flashbulbs went off for character actor Tom Wilkinson; he then had to step aside for Eric Holder, a prize for the evening’s paparazzi.
Historians who consulted on The Conspirator—-the first title from the American Film Company, which focuses on historically accurate pictures—-circulated among the journalists, selling the movie’s fidelity to the facts. Someone asked Evan Rachel Wood what she was wearing. She turned to her handler. “What am I wearing?”
Journalistic performance, for the most part, was exactly what you’d expect from the setting. I heard variations of the question “What was it like to work with Robert Redford?” at least four times. One reporter asked Wood about the film’s contemporary political subtext—-military tribunals are a major plot element—-but she dodged. Another asked her how she stays thin.
Meanwhile, Ruth Bader Ginsburg skipped the red carpet altogether, making a B line for the main entrance.
In his opening remarks, Paul Tetreault, the Ford’s Theatre Society’s director, thanked everyone for coming—-but especially members of Congress (who only two days earlier had averted a shutdown by dicking over the District). Joe Rickets, the CEO of the American Film Company, explained his organization’s accuracy-first mission. Redford, introducing his film, was brief. “I’m not going to take credit for bringing two sides of the aisle together,” he said. “I’m just glad you’re all here.”
Strong performances were scattered throughout the film—-about Mary Surratt, who was hanged, perhaps wrongly, for being part of the group that conspired to assassinate Lincoln—-but otherwise it was a dud: wooden dialogue; muddled motivations; a looooooooong, boring second act mostly set in a courtroom; and heavy-handed allusions to the age of terror. As a filmgoer, I think movies ought to be good first, and, you know, historically accurate second. But as a journalist, I know how hard it sometimes is to make a true story sing. When that happens, it’s usually a sign that the story isn’t worth telling.
The crowd didn’t seem to mind, cheering especially during the film’s postscript, which explained that the protagonist Frederick Aiken, Surratt’s lawyer, went on to become the first city editor of The Washington Post.
From there, festivities moved to the Newseum, where Capitol File was hosting an after-party, and where I ordered the least useful vodka tonic of my life. McAvoy and Root circulated; Redford posed in front of the magazine’s logo for professional photographers and a semi-circle of cell-phone cameras. “I hope there’s not a VIP room,” said a woman beside me. It was actually more of a curtained VIP cube, and Redford retreated there after his portrait was taken. McAvoy and Root continued to circulate for a while. The former couldn’t move without being mobbed. If how cool you play it when celebrities are in the room is a fair test of sophistication, D.C.’s society crowd did not pass.
I swung back to the bar for another drink, and noticed that the evening was sponsored by Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Flavored Vodka. They drink the same stuff at BYT parties.
Eventually, most of the actors moved to the VIP cube; the only remaining celebrities were D.C.-grade. I moved toward the exit, passing Chris Matthews on my way out.