The Academy Awards used to take place at the Shrine Auditorium in south-central LA. The event has moved, but now has its own shrine in the form of Hollywood's newly built Kodak Theatre. The theatre cost millions of dollars, but is essentially an upmarket, tourist-friendly shopping mall (Coach leather goods, Louis Vuitton, Mac make-up, all very high end) and temple dedicated to the worship of Oscar. From an imposing entrance, visitors are inexorably led up a simply enormous staircase with a golden balustrade and red, glittering steps. The overall impact is something along the lines of Gone With the Wind meets Caesar's Palace; and the idea is that, having done a bit of credit-card exercise, we civilians can mimic those famous red-carpet Oscar moments and glide up the stairs "like a real celebrity". Disappointingly, if you wish to follow through and walk into the auditorium where once a year the golden boys are handed out to the stars, you will be accosted by a security man.
The entire structure is propped up by ten vast marble pillars inscribed with the name of every film that has won Best Picture since the awards were invented in 1929. From the first Academy winner (Wings, a First World War drama with the original It girl, Clara Bow), it's a mesmerising roll-call of America's grandest cultural export. There are a few British offerings (Oliver, Chariots of Fire), but these seem too arty, a thistledown irrelevance swept away by the sheer iconic power of the heavyweights. It's a staunch parade of the American credo, via Gone With the Wind and Gentleman's Agreement, past Casablanca, The Greatest Show on Earth, West Side Story, and on to Forrest Gump and Titanic. These films are confident, unshakeable, their peerless stars and script lines embedded in the collective memory of billions across the globe.
These are the winners, the box-office smashes, this is the fodder endlessly repeated on the Turner Classic Movies channel, their names as intoxicating and familiar as the names of the saints. Forget Bollywood, or anyone else; these are the incontestable Best Pictures; a canon of work displayed for ever in marble and gold. There are some anomalies: the proximity of the pillars to the huge staircase means that Gladiator is not perhaps as high up as I suspect Russell Crowe would like it to be, and American Beauty's moment is also somewhat in the dark, stuffed next to a shop selling "bath and body" prettifying products, but maybe that's quite fitting.
Naturally, with such a countdown, it is intriguing to see where it ends. The theatre was opened with much noise and publicity when Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind took the prize, but that's not the last name on the pillars. So, perhaps a final blank space for this year's winner, to be announced on 23 March? Are you crazy? To round off the display and suggest that the list is complete would be like announcing the end of the American empire. Because if America rules the globe, which it so clearly does, the movie business is nothing other than its cultural ambassador, filtering across the world via outposts in multiplexes, satellite TV and video.
And according to the authority of the pillars at the Kodak Theatre (which I concede is a novel way of predicting the future, but why not?), the American empire is going to be in charge for quite a few years yet. There are empty spaces for Best Pictures from this decade, and the next, and the next. In fact, if the Kodak Theatre is anything to go on, we will still be applauding Oscar winners trooping up the red carpet in 2071.
While I was standing considering this, and wondering at which point and on which pillar my own cinema-going habit would effectively peg out, I met President Bush. With his entourage, his little Stars and Stripes lapel badge and his cowboy boots. He walked up and grasped my hand firmly. It was, in fact, Lee Lorenz from Idaho, but Lee is one of a rare breed - a lookalike who actually looks like their lookalike. I've never seen such a doppelganger. This man is absolutely identical to the pres. Lee used to be a security systems fitter until his destiny was made clear when he looked in the mirror and thought about the (then) governor of Texas. Spending time with him is not hopelessly out of reach; booking Lee to appear at your party and do meeting and greeting, plus a 20-minute photo session, will come to just $1,000, plus travel expenses. Currently, he's in huge demand. It's Lee's moment as well as his mentor's.
Was he a fan of what the real president is up to? "You betcha. We should have done it a while ago. The UN is a total failure, but you Brits have done good. I served in 'Nam for two years, 1967 to 1969. And the anti-war protesters then, to me it bordered on treason. It's unpatriotic. You fight for freedom in all America." And right now, in Hollywood, the cultural heart of the American empire, all America is, in effect, all the world.
Rosie Millard is the BBC's arts correspondent