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At left, photo via the author; at right, Getty Images.
Entertainment

Once Upon a Time…in the Hollywood In-N-Out Parking Lot

Considering the industry's biggest bite on its biggest night.
February 11, 2020, 7:19pm

It’s territory as well-trod as the path up to the Griffith Observatory (you know, La La Land, the infamously not Best Picture winner of 2016) to talk about Hollywood, the physical place, as the ultimate manifestation of high- and low-brow contrast. Oscar night really puts this cliche in its sharpest relief. Where were you—perhaps right here, right now!—when you learned that the Dolby Theater, venue of Hollywood’s Biggest Night, sits in a large shopping mall just an escalator ride away from a California Pizza Kitchen and a Skechers store? Every time, this blows my mind, though it is so exactly Hollywood. This year, from my friend’s balcony just a few blocks uphill, I saw the post-show searchlights sear into the full moon sky, cast up from lamps located, at best guess, on a roof somewhere between the Cabo Wabo Cantina and the Hard Rock Cafe. Some would gaze upon this Hollywood Boulevard scene and feel inspired to say, “that’s showbiz, baby.” I think, more specifically, “that’s…how showbiz babies are made.”

Hollywood’s glamour, of course, hardly exists in the exterior of these neon lowlands. The idea we have of "the industry" as consumers of its image all happens on the inside, insulated between the Dolby Theater and the Annenberg Center, shuttled between them by Escalades busy burning tomorrow’s smog as they idle in the awards-permit-only zones that block off Hollywood & Highland. I know I’m a corny transplant, but it’s still all so jarring to me—that optical fission between the most elite glitz we have access to through our TVs, and the boggling, fluorescent regularity of Hollywood’s commercial district. What outrageously ripe an opportunity this offers for the lucky star pursuing relatability on this otherwise gilded night. So much normal stuff just beyond the edge of the red carpet, all right there for the Instagram-taking.

The fastest route from the Dolby to the nearest In-N-Out.

That brought me to the auspiciously located Hollywood location of the In-N-Out burger chain. I’d been sent to investigate the Oscars night scene, to nab the scoop on any post-win burger celebrations which have become such a tradition of celebs just doin’ regular guy stuff, after all of that simply exhausting famous guy awards stuff. Just a couple of blocks south of the Dolby, if their chauffeur takes Sunset, it’s exactly on the way from getting a winner’s statuettes engraved to the exclusive Vanity Fair afters. If there was an In-N-Out drive thru in all of Los Angeles for me to stalk, feverishly snapping zoomed in pics of potentially famous hands emerging like whack-a-moles from the backseat windows of Escalades in an attempt to figure out by their jewelry who just ordered fries and a milkshake, this would certainly be the one. Who was going to show up and win tonight, for most relatable celebrity?

The awards season burger run stake-out is a fairly recent stargazing site in the constellation of Oscar night lore, codified into tradition sometime after Hilary Swank hit up the AstroBurger by the Paramount lot after winning Best Actress for Million Dollar Baby in 2005. That was pre-Instagram, back when the awards for best performances on screen ended there at the Oscars, not to continue ceaselessly into the night via social feeds. Now, it’s a post-awards rite of passage to get your hands on a double-double, as Brie Larson did in Chuck Taylors (the hamburgers of shoes).

Like declaring a voyage to Disneyland after winning the World Series, going to In-N-Out after the Oscars is a cartoonish everyman’s symbol of celebratory Californian consumption after winning an elite entertainment contest. It’s one that brings the winner back down to earth with the rest of us watching along as you have the best night of your life. It’s a sideshow performance of you-and-me-ness, and we love to see it: a total fantasy fairytale, punctuated by a drive thru five-dollar feast. At this point, it now seems almost like an unspoken requirement, like how politicians have to get beers with random people on the campaign trail. Are you even a human being if you don’t celebrate your gilded trophy for extraordinary cinema with a hamburger? What kind of bordering-on-inhuman elitist cyborg scum would be satisfied with only celebrating the award of a lifetime with Wolfgang Puck’s signature molded chocolate Oscar-shaped candy treat?

It looked like things could have been different, though, this year, as Hollywood bumbled through yet another one, lodged deeply in an era of its own high-key reckoning, with mostly increased buzzword usage and mild gestures to show for it. I wondered if this tradition would be such a thing in an awards season marked by the wave of menus going plant-based—Puck, whose catering HQ is on floor five of the mall (two floors up from Dave & Busters, in case you were wondering), catered his twenty-sixth Academy Awards with an exclusively vegan pre-show hors d'oeuvres round, followed by a 70% plant-based and 30% responsibly sourced animal-stuff dinner at the Governor’s Ball. Hours before, Julia Butters, of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, brought a turkey sandwich to the red carpet in a crystal pink purse because “she doesn’t like some of the food there.” Relatable, the people retweeted. It me, et cetera.

Thing is, she’s ten. What were the adults gonna do?

It was a bit after 8 pm, and as the Oscars headed into big boy award time, I was mapping out a plan to park my Prius at the In-N-Out overflow lot and investigate—it has perfect views to who’s entering the drive thru, and even if I couldn’t see who was beyond the backseat tinted windows, I could count the Escalades with awards permits on them to give me some kind of data point. Of course, I’d get a burger and scope the joint, too, but it seemed unlikely any star would go through the trouble of waiting in the indoor line. I begged my friend, the one with the Hollywood apartment, to come with me, as I suddenly envisioned my likely reality of sitting cold and alone for definitely almost two hours outside of a fast food drive thru. After some bargaining, I struck a deal with my sidekick, contingent on me buying her a double-double. “It will help my piece,” I pleaded. She sighed. “Okay. If it’s for your art, I’ll go.”

I looked up from my zoomed-in satellite view of the parking lot on my phone’s map to watch the announcement for Best Actor on the screen. That’s when my mindset shifted completely, when Joaquin Phoenix took the stage to collect his Oscar for being The Joker. In fact, he rocked my expectations to their core.

“We go into the natural world, and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow. And when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

My god. After this potent beard-stroker, whom among us would dare find themselves in line tonight for a Stolen Mother’s Milk-Shake or an Inseminated Beef Sandwich? Suddenly, the question at the crux of my Oscars night burger quest was completely rerouted. I now wondered, what would win out this year: performative relatability, or carnivorous guilt?

I parked in the lot to scout out my answer, and instead learned what it’s really like at the In-N-Out on Sunset Boulevard after the Oscars: Drunk mid-thirties Hollywood bros in tuxes attempting to unlock Lime scooters outside and failing. Chauffeured college-aged children of studio execs in repurposed prom dresses (I can only assume) soberly post-game inside. Four to five sharply dressed, grizzly-bearded older men walk across the patio and in response to every one of them I shoot up and yell at my friend, “IS THAT AL PACINO?” It was never Al Pacino. Two absolutely too wasted to drive middle-aged men in suits screech up in a BMW next to us, get out, knock on my window, and ask my friend and I what we’re going to order and if they’ll see us inside. She is high off an edible, becomes very skittish about this, and crawls into the backseat to hide. I enter the In-N-Out moments later to see them chatting up two other young non-Oscar going women trying to eat their burgers in peace. One of the men’s number is called, and he displays his fry-strewn tray in front of my face. “JEALOUS?” he screeches. I replied something to the effect of well, no, because I had just ordered my own, and I’m like, only three orders behind him. He staggered off, defeated.

I cruised the perimeter, looking to chat up anyone on the job on this peculiar Hollywood holiday. “In-N-Out! On Oscars night, am I right! You must have crazy stories?” According to the employees, it’s actually a quieter night than your usual Sunday. That’s mostly because the hullabaloo of closed-off streets makes navigating to the Sunset location a put off for most pedestrians. All the traffic cones everywhere. I had already ordered my own double-double animal style and chocolate milkshake when we first went inside an hour before, but now it was time to investigate the drive thru. I had questions for those staffers. Plus, my friend finally got hungry and I owed her one.

“Have you seen any celebrities?” I asked the paper-hatted teen serving the drive thru.

“Yeah! The director of Thor! I forget his name. Oh, and Russell Crowe.”

“Tonight?!” That could be exciting, since that would be Taika Waititi, who had just won Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, and who had reminded the millions watching that Hollywood was built on Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash land.

“Oh, no, not tonight. Just like, in general, before today. It’s Hollywood. You know.” We both nodded and he took my friend’s order.

Over the course of my couple hour perch (for journalism), I noticed that I wasn’t the only one scouting the scene. There were a couple young looking dudes in tuxes that were just, you know, chilling, looking around with an air of waiting for something to happen. Whether it was a text with an after party invite, or a celeb sighting, I’m unsure. It was certainly more a destination for stargazers than the stars themselves, as the everybodies in line would do the is-that-guy-famous? squint any time the door swung open with another group in black tie attire. The reality is, actually going to the local In-N-Out after the Oscars is mostly a tradition for those in the balcony sections—your ABC people, your studio folks, your Academy members, et cetera—not the stars on the floor.

Those shots of Brie Larson or Reese Witherspoon or Priyanka Chopra or any other stunning celeb pulling the Effortless Cool Girl Card as they clutch a burger in their gowns? They all happen at the Vanity Fair afterparty, where every year for the last several years, the drive thru is brought to them. After the sit-down Governor’s Ball supper, the stars roll up to the Annenberg, drunk and probably craving that Salt Fat Acid Heat vibe, where everyone knows what to expect. That would be the In-N-Out truck, hired to park outside every year, ready and able to dish out thousands of burgers to sloshy celebs who suddenly find Wolfgang's smoked salmon statuettes and vegan spring rolls unable to sufficiently support all of the champagne this deep into the night. Which seemed about right to me. What else is the most perfect capstone to the performance of the Academy turning plant-based to make a statement, so then Vanity Fair can say to its invitees, “You can have a little inseminated cow, as a treat”? Of course, Joaquin left Hollywood for Koreatown, where he could get a vegan burger at plant-based Monty’s Good Burger.

I enjoyed my meal while sitting in my car and wondering, just like I do on any other night I find myself staring into space in that particular part of town, if any of this matters. The day before, the youth faction of Extinction Rebellion staged a die in at the Hollywood sign, on that same popular path to the Observatory. “There’s no Hollywood on a dead planet,” they chanted. “Will Hollywood declare a climate emergency at the Oscars tonight?” Later on Instagram, they applauded Joaquin’s speech and the win of Parasite, but the answer, obviously, was no. The total impact was that Oscar guests enjoyed vegetarian canapés inside a ballroom while their drivers idled outside for hours in 14 MPG Escalades. There’s no real net-morality equation that applies to anything relating to this town. A film about capitalism’s inescapable game of brutality won Best Picture, then had its own after party at Soho House. Wolfgang went plant-based at 9 pm, so In-N-Out could sling burgers at midnight. Joaquin said “inseminated beef” out loud and I still ate some and liked it.

After my last straw disappointment of seeing yet another old dapper man who was not Al Pacino, I decided to call it a night. It was after 11 pm; the Governor’s Ball had probably wrapped, and if any Oscars attendee was hungry before heading to Annenberg, they would have driven through by now. Since Hollywood Boulevard was still blocked off with traffic cone barricades, I took the longer way home down Sunset as the In-N-Out rumbled uneasily in my stomach. I drifted past the corporate office buildings where all the people who I'd actually seen at the fast food chain would show up to work tomorrow, and I wondered what the stars were up to. It was easy to imagine them in front of the burger truck, jokingly looking over their shoulder to see if Joaquin was judging, or whispering that they were still hungry after the catering, as they waited in line. Maybe they felt shy taking the post-awards burger selfies this year and the guilt won out. Maybe they suddenly felt weird about it all—the movie business, morals, meat, meaning. At the end of the night, if that were to be true, wouldn’t that the most relatable content of all? To exist here in Hollywood, and feel both In, N Out of all of this at the same time?

Follow Dylan Rupert on Twitter.