Carrie Bell
February 28, 2011 AT 11:55 PM EST

Image Credit: Jose Flores/LandovLet me start by first acknowledging that there are far worse jobs than being a red carpet reporter. Chilean miner I am not, but as with all paying gigs, there are drawbacks. One of the biggest being that no one really wants to know the truth about what you do. No one wants to see the dream dashed, the hero fall, the mirage disappear. Even after 15 years of explaining to my family what I do, my mom still asks what Julia Roberts is really like as if we’re besties who hike Runyon Canyon on the weekend. Long-lost junior high pals reconnected by Facebook confuse working an awards show with attending one. Once a stranger on a plane commented about how cool it must be to get to borrow Neil Lane diamonds. She obviously had me confused with a Bachelor contestant. It’s often wrongly assumed you’re partaking in the glitz and glamour instead of being just one small part of the machine responsible for its creation and maintenance. Fans want to believe the hype, and no more so than on Oscar night.

The annual Academy Awards celebration is billed as movies’ biggest night, and rightly so. A-listers come out of the woodwork to present trophies, collect trophies, eat trophy-shaped food and show off new trophy wives. “This is our championship game,” Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo explained. “It took me 20 years to get here, so I sure as hell plan to enjoy it every step of the way.”

Last night’s gala was no exception. Step to the left an inch on the red carpet and you were likely to be standing on Mila Kunis’ Versace train, Christian Bale’s ginger beard or any number of paparazzi tongues when Halle Berry walked by. The bling was blinding as were the smiles, the hair was sculpted into impressive head art, the custom dresses were priceless and the cumulative box office grosses represented was possibly enough to pay off U.S. debts to China. The music industry even lent a few powerhouses — Florence Welch, Celine Dion, Mandy Moore and Jennifer Hudson — to the festivities. The filled-to-capacity fan bleachers almost let out as big a roar of love for the accountants who tallied the votes as they did for mogul Harvey Weinstein, The Donald, a peace sign-waving Keith Urban, America’s sweetheart/2010 Best Actress Sandra Bullock and a beefed-up-for-another-round-of-Wolverine Hugh Jackman.

During arrivals, the future losers still have a glimmer of hope in their eyes that maybe, just maybe, Melissa Leo, Natalie Portman and Colin Firth didn’t have their categories on lock. “I hear a lot of people blabbing about a lot of stuff and all I can say is that we have no idea what will happen until the envelopes are opened, and that’s what makes this night fun,” Kevin Spacey, exec producer of The Social Network, said optimistically when I asked if he’d already accepted a King’s Speech Best Picture victory in his mind. Generations mingled (Justin Timberlake turned a chance bump into an opportunity to shake hands with honorary Oscar winner Eli Wallach); new parents like Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and Mark Wahlberg got some much needed adult interaction; while others made the evening a family affair. Jeff Bridges was surrounded during interviews by his wife, three daughters and a son-in-law, while Russell Brand got a ton of mileage out of acting appalled when people inquired about his mum being his date. People even seemed to accept how little press Portman, who arrived mere minutes before the show began, chose to do on account of being pregnant. (She was the last to arrive on the scene at the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday as well.)

When you log five hours on the carpet, you get plenty of reminders that you’re not a celebrity. They have limos. You stack park several miles away, assured you’ll “probably” be able to get out if you need to leave while the show is taping. They have teams of stylists. You slap on your own makeup and a black dress you’ve worn several times before. They float in to pose for pictures that will sell for thousands of dollars. You are practically strip searched, required to wear a photo badge taken in bad light with a webcam and herded into your tight spaces with the rest of the journalist cattle. They have indoor plumbing and two-ply should nature call, and you have outhouses ready for a Jackass stunt.

So about now you’re either thinking, “Quit complaining. I clean toilets for a living, princess!” or “Why do you put yourself through this?” Sure, we aren’t them and we sure as heck don’t get paid like them, but as Ruffalo said, this is our championship game, too. We have almost as much invested in seeing who comes out on top as they do. And there’s usually a moment or two where you forget the divide. Last night, it was watching Timberlake vogue Madonna-style, talking about wack-a-doo fashion with Helena Bonham Carter, seeing the purity in Hailee Steinfeld’s joy, admiring Melissa Leo’s up-with-50-year-olds attitude, and hearing Welch scat spontaneously from less than a foot away. (I paid good money to see her live last year from far inferior range.) I liken it to what my mother-in-law says about giving birth: She swears you forget the pain and the end result is worth it anyway. I’m sure I’ll have forgotten the mammoth blister, the traditional post-season sickness and all of the other lows associated with this labor of love just in time to report to the same place, same time, next year.

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