February 2010

Why I Need an Oscar

For all the obvious reasons, sure...but my appetite for the award goes far beyond Hollywood acclaim

Brett Ratner

hollywood rules, Oscar, Brett Ratner

When I first came to Los Angeles, I had three goals: direct a feature film, which I have; become a member of the Academy, which I am; and be invited to Dani Janssen’s Oscar party. The third—little did I know—would be the most challenging.

After some success, Vanity Fair did an article on me in its Hollywood issue, and I was invited to the magazine’s famous Oscar party. But always, I longed to be a guest at Dani Janssen’s. While it was very cool to go to the Vanity Fair party every year and mingle with movie stars and filmmakers holding their statues, more than a thousand people are always there. As exclusive as that may seem, in my book it just isn’t. I had heard that you haven’t really arrived until you’ve been to Dani’s. So I made it my mission to get an invite. How hard could it be, anyway?

To my dismay, I learned there was a requirement: an Oscar. And I was so far from even a nomination. No chance, I thought. But as luck—and Hollywood—would have it, I was at Barry Diller’s Oscar party one year and happened to be sitting at a table with Mariah Carey on one side and an elegant older woman I didn’t know on the other. Between bites of barbecue, I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Brett Ratner.”

“Hi, I’m Dani Janssen,” she replied.

Holy s--t, I thought, though what came out was, “It is very nice to meet you.”

It took all my self-control not to make my case. Her Oscar party had taken over for Swifty Lazar’s bash 22 years ago, and I had been dreaming of going for years. And here she was. I had this one chance.

What would I say to close the deal and make my third Hollywood dream come true? I astutely recognized that a select few of the legends were alluding to seeing her “later” or “at dinner.” And I knew an opening when I saw one.

“What kind of dinner are you having?” I asked.

“An Oscar party, but sorry, kid, you’re not invited.”

“What do I have to do to get in?”

“Win one,” she deadpanned.

We laughed. For an hour, we made small talk, and I tried not to act interested...until I couldn’t wait any longer.

“Mrs. Janssen,” I confessed, “ever since coming to Hollywood, it’s been one of my ambitions to be invited to your Oscar party. You see, like Groucho Marx, I always want to be a member of the club that doesn’t want me. If you let me in, I promise that before I die, I will win an Oscar. Now, I’ve never had any such plans. I’ve been happy making big-box office movies, the kind I know you’ve never heard of—the Rush Hour series, X-Men: The Last Stand—but if you let me into your party, I will work so hard to prove that I belong!”

“Well, Mister...what was your name again?” After a long pause, she said it: “I am going to make an exception.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Janssen.”

“Call me Dani.”

“Dani, you won’t regret it.”

So after Barry Diller’s, I went to the Vanity Fair Oscar party—typically the highlight of my year—but on this night, I couldn’t wait to leave. I was out of there by 8:30 p.m. When I pulled up to the gate at the Century City address Dani gave me, the guard let me in with no fuss. There was no crowd, no paparazzi. I wondered if maybe it was all a hoax. Maybe she gave me a wrong address? I was beginning to worry about the whole thing...

I entered a courtyard with two towers and took the elevator to the penthouse floor. I detected no noise coming from any doors. To the contrary, the hallway was empty and reminded me a little of my grandparents’ apartment building in Miami Beach. Again, was the joke on me? And then I saw a door ajar. I pushed it slightly, and in the small foyer, on a center table, proudly stood a dozen glimmering, brand-spanking-new Oscars—the entry ticket to the party.

Now, I am not shy. I’m not often awed, uncomfortable or a fish out of water. But for the first time ever, I froze in my tracks. As I entered, I felt as if everyone was looking at me, thinking, What is he doing here?

I walked toward Steven Spielberg, the only person in the room I knew, and sat next to him quietly. And there they were. Sidney Poitier, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood lounged on the couches as if they were in their own living room. In a corner huddled Quincy Jones and Morgan Freeman. Jim Brooks had Al Pacino’s ear. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard were chatting with Reese Witherspoon. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand stood close by. And the list goes on and on. In reality, no one probably even noticed I was there.

There were no stragglers or hangers-on, no publicists or agents, no entourages or bodyguards—not even any arm candy. I was mesmerized. Far from the hullabaloo of the Vanity Fair party, America’s greatest film icons (and I!) were nestled in an apartment no bigger than the one I grew up in (albeit with a 180-degree view), complete with brown shag carpet and those tchotchkes you get from Neiman Marcus.

Finally, I leaned into Spielberg and asked, “What exactly is going on here? I’m in the dark. Why is everyone here?”

“Just wait. In a few minutes, you’ll see.”

I’m thinking, Jesus, is Dani gonna jump out of a cake or something? What has stolen these legends away from the Vanity Fair party to this hideaway?

I watched as Dani took pictures of all of her friends with her old Brownie camera.

Then suddenly, servers and a slew of capped silver chafing dishes giving off the most delicious smells that even now I can conjure up were placed on the buffet. Apparently, for three days, in that small kitchen, Dani had painstakingly, as she does every year, cooked sheer love right into those dishes. From my first bite of monkey bread, I was hooked. There were smothered chicken, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, broccoli casserole and five desserts. (Everyone huddled around the red-velvet cake.) I am telling you it was the most divine comfort food I have ever eaten. If I am ever to be put on the chair to be electrocuted, I swear my last meal is going to be cooked by Dani Janssen. I even asked her to marry me in front of the entire room.

And that, my friend—as Spielberg knew so well—was what brought those A-listers together. No doubt, the universal language is good eats. I don’t know where Dani learned to cook like that, but I’ve been to her party every year since 2006, and I wouldn’t dream of missing that meal.

Dani, I’m working hard. I’m going to earn that Oscar and bring it right to you. And in my speech, you bet, you’re the first one I’ll thank! Please save me some monkey bread.

BRETT RATNER is a filmmaker with more than a billion dollars in box-office hits, whose Miami Beach grandparents now live with him.