On the red carpet you could see Helen Mirren embrace Sophie Okonedo and call her a princess. You could see members of “The Incredibles” crew with their incredible lapel pins. You could step back as Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke moved, as one, from microphone to microphone and Kirsten Dunst shook her head in flattered disbelief when the crowd yelled “Mary Jane!” You could see a woman inadvertently take a step back into Orlando Bloom and then, turning to apologize, become so paralyzed that her friend had to yank her out of the way. You could hear the mostly female crowd scream in near-hysteria upon the arrival of Johnny Depp and shoulder your way through the gridlock formed around Don Cheadle.
But for pure, nonstop stargazing, the best spot at the Oscars was outside the two unisex bathrooms backstage at the Kodak.
Halle Berry was waiting and waiting when Renee Zellweger finally opened the door. “Oh my God, sorry,” Zellweger said, leaning forward to kiss Berry, who in a few moments would walk out into the embrace of Robin Williams, whose place in line was quickly filled by Leonardo DiCaprio.
In the nearby touch-up room, Cate Blanchett took the shine off her forehead; Tim Robbins, with a peace sign emblazoned on his tie, had a button sewn back on his jacket. The trophy models reapplied their lipstick and Kate Winslet fiddled with her curls.
After the roiling, shrill cacophony of the red carpet, the atmosphere behind the scenes of the 77th annual Academy Awards was almost astonishingly calm and quiet. One celebrity after another dutifully emerged from the green room. Nominees who’d received their award onstage lined up like nervous (and well-dressed) doctoral candidates to be photographed and interviewed. Even as some reappeared with the Oscar emotionally clutched in their hand, the scores of show organizers and laborers carried on with a quiet professionalism; another piece of the puzzle was unfolding within minutes.
Backstage the air was chilly and bathed in ever-changing light from the set, now pink, now white, now purple, now blue. Tuxedoed stagehands sat and stood watching monitors, reading from scripts, looking at laptops as one act gave way to the next. Then they sprung into action, silently hefting 12-foot-tall Oscar statues, heaving platforms that carried grand pianos and drum kits, shoving into place the wings and towers of the elaborate set.
Yes, this is the biggest televised awards show, with digitalized this and widescreen that, but the cameras onstage were anchored with dumbbell plates, and men heaved on ropes to open and close curtains, just like in the movies.
“Prepare for organized chaos,” said one stagehand as the backstage announcer counted down seconds to show time.
Down the hall, Chris Rock issued his last request before going onstage for his much-anticipated monologue: “You got the ice, the glass and the Mountain Dew out there, right?”
With military precision, his query order was passed down the line through three assistants until the confirmation came back in a walkie-talkie transmission near Rock: “The ice, the glass and the Mountain Dew.”
In the dim light of stage right, three shelves’ worth of Oscar statuettes glinted in precise rows while the trophy models waited in director’s chairs as the stagehands prepared for the first musical number.
Everyone was dressed in black, so when the American Boys Choir made its appearance, the result was visually startling. In their red vests, white shirts and blue trousers, the choir thundered up the steps to the backstage area like, well, a group of boys, and for a moment the Kodak was transformed into any school auditorium.
Occasionally the professional politeness of the room was stripped away.
Robin Williams walked by, prompting one of the boys to say, saucer-eyed: “That’s Robin Williams.”. Then two of the boys said it. Then six, until even the comedian, standing quietly in the doorway, had to grin as he prepared to stride onstage.
Ten minutes later, when Morgan Freeman, best supporting actor Oscar in hand, appeared, everyone from stagehands to photographers to pages burst into applause that followed the actor through the winner’s walk -- a pathway around the back of the stage to the elevator that took the winners up to the press room.
The presence of one Kate with a K and one Cate with a C caused a bit of confusion.
After Blanchett won for best supporting actress and disappeared into the elevator, a page came down the elevator saying to another staffer with a phone, “Kate Winslet wants her husband brought up.”
“Kate Winslet?” said the woman with the phone. “You mean Cate Blanchett.”
The page grew pale.
“Yes,” she said with absolute uncertainty.
Nearby, a stylist chased Mike Myers down, pancake sponge in hand. “Do you need more powder?” the stylist asked.
“I just got some, but if you think I need it.... I do have a very active T zone,” Myers said, gesturing to his nose and forehead.
Beyonce, too, submitted to the fussings of a stylist, twitching her dress and tweaking her hair, but moments before going onstage the singer was oblivious to all but the forthcoming moment.
Eyes closed, she sang to herself.
As the awards accumulated, so did star sightings. Alexander Payne accepting his Oscar for adapted screenplay, looked down at a young page. “How did you get this job?” he said before being infolded into a gaggle of photographers who wanted him and co-writer Jim Taylor to hold the “Sideways” statuette. “That was such a good ‘get,’ one photographer said to another afterward.
Two minutes later, Antonio Banderas embraced Andrew Lloyd Webber, while nearby the nominees who didn’t win for best documentary short shook hands all around and said, “See you next time.” Meantime, Robert Hudson, the winning short-documentary co-filmmaker, was being led toward the pressroom, passing Yo-Yo Ma tuning his cello. “This,” Hudson said, “is the coolest thing America gives out.”
Excitement built: Julia Roberts, the “special guest” to present best director, arrived with a loud laugh and an impossibly wide smile. Stagehands whooped when Jamie Foxx won his best actor Oscar. Barbra Streisand quietly entered backstage with an assistant holding up the train of her dress.
The moment the winner for best picture was announced, however, people began leaving.
“I’m going to get something to eat now,” said super-agent Pat Kingsley said, striding toward the exit.
But the evening wasn’t over until Chris Rock bounced off stage, jokingly yelling expletives, laughing as he went.
“Just to see my mother that happy,” he said, “made the whole thing worth it.”