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Hustle, bustle and a cheery host

Times Staff Writer

ELLEN DEGENERES set a relaxed tone backstage, as well as in the house, this year. Which was a good thing, because it was cheek-by-jowl behind the scenes. Squished in with the trophy models and the movie stars were the new “thank you cam” and the show announcers; for the first time, the backstage area was also dressed with a mini red carpet and an Oscar.

Historically a dark, busy place filled with stagehands in tuxedos, lots of heavy equipment and a silent stream of famous faces recognizable only in profile created by spill light from the stage, backstage this year was part of the show.

Chris Connelly, the preshow host, strode through several times tallying the wins and cracking jokes. Winners walked back to extend their thanks on Oscar.com, and DeGeneres came back for a visit or two.

She was revving up early -- an hour before the show, as young women with Marie Antoinette hair, bathrobes and Ugg boots were still prowling the backstage halls of the Kodak Theatre and the lone male trophy model, in requisite iPod and skullcap, had his feet up reading “The Alchemist.”

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DeGeneres bounced nervously on her heels, resplendent in a wine velvet tux. “Nap?” she said to the stage manager. “Of course I didn’t nap. If I were a rocket, I would be in the” -- here she shook her entire body like a vibrating Titan -- “stage. Now I’m just going to go make a few changes to the opening monologue,” she said to the general panicked merriment of those standing around her. “Just a few changes. Get out your pens.”

The backstage celebrity quotient was high half an hour till showtime, with a near collision between Jennifer Lopez and Nicole Kidman, Kidman hopping slightly because of a footwear malfunction -- her foot kept slipping out of her shoe. “OK, you two are the best. You guys look beautiful,” said the show’s producer, Laura Ziskin, as she passed.

Lopez continued past DeGeneres’ dressing room, where the host stood in her doorway, a much more marked presence than hosts in previous years. “What are you doing?” DeGeneres called to Lopez. “You just passed here five minutes ago. Are you trying to get my attention?” Other stars engaged in similar banter. Robert Downey Jr., after asking his wife if she needed to use the restroom, shouted to DeGeneres, “You’re gonna handle it, honey.”

“Oh yes, I’m gonna handle it,” she returned.

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Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, tiny and as gold as the Oscar itself, laughed with the host as they passed. And Melissa Etheridge yelled, “You’re funny.”

“You’re funny and sweet and a great singer too,” came the reply.

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Funny stuff

As presenters and receivers began to move on- and offstage, the setup put everyone in physical proximity, with a lot more bumping of shoulders -- literally. Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly stood laughing together (so loudly, in fact, that they threatened to disrupt the backstage bit DeGeneres was doing with a stagehand). And a few minutes later, there were Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell, hanging around after their moment onstage, waiting to greet Alan Arkin, who’d just won a best supporting actor Oscar for “Little Miss Sunshine,” the film in which they all starred.

“Wow,” Carell said, putting his hands around the statue. Arkin, truly amazed, was emotional as he embraced the two. But then he said with a laugh, “Now I can talk to people about subjects I know nothing about, because now I know I’ll get asked.”

Perhaps the most striking “only at the Oscars” moment was the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore rehearsing their “Oscar goes green” routine. (Interestingly, Gore looked much more at ease than DiCaprio, who seemed rather nervous.) As they left, Tom Hanks walked by, punching DiCaprio in the shoulder with a “Hey Leo, you looked good out there.” The parade continued. Helen Mirren walked by, with Ben Affleck just behind her.

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A riot of costumes

Sherry Lansing panicked a bit just before receiving her award from Tom Cruise. For one thing, she was unused to being on the performing side of the entertainment business. For another, some 50 people in full costume stood between her and the stage -- one of the most colorful moments backstage was watching the Chinese emperor followed by the French queen followed by the pop star and the corgis filing past on their way to celebrate costume design.

A crew member soothed the former Paramount chief, saying: “Watch what’s unfolding on the screen. This is all about you.” To which Lansing snapped, “I’ve seen it already, I want a moment to myself.” And that’s the difference between an ex-studio executive and a first-time nominee.

The photo op of the evening, from backstage anyway, was Lansing and Cruise coming offstage, embracing, as he and show writer Bruce Vilanch assured her that she had been gorgeous. “It was fabulous. It was completely ‘Hello, this is Mrs. Norman Maine,’ ” Vilanch enthused. It never hurts to quote “A Star Is Born.”

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Suave stars

Here’s how you can tell George Clooney has walked into the room: The women around you begin smiling so widely that their faces are in danger of exploding. Add the presence of Clive Owen, no slouch himself, and the words “atwitter” and “aflutter” are not at all misplaced.

As the men leaned together with bad boy smiles, Clooney remarked, “We’re never going to be invited to the Armani show again.” When asked what transgression they had committed, he flashed his heart-stopping grin and said, “We just giggled a lot, and we probably shouldn’t have.”

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Win, then work

The most touching scene: Seeing Jennifer Hudson as she came offstage after her best supporting actress win. Because she would be performing and had to return to the stage, she couldn’t do the traditional winner’s walk, which takes the Oscar-clutching actors past the green room, with a stop to chat with Gayle King from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” before they jump into the chaos of the press room. Hudson, instead, climbed onto the service elevator as photographers took her photo with the Oscar. Just one more reminder that as glamorous as the Oscars seem, everyone here is working.

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Tonsorial notes

Jack Nicholson came backstage early, having already been the talk of the evening with his shaved head (although the trademark shades remained.) As he headed toward stage right, the backstage photographers dutifully snapped, and when they were done, he nodded their way, saying: “Beautiful work, boys, beautiful work.”

Speaking of hair, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s was studiously mussed and firmly sprayed into place. It was, as one reporter remarked, Oscars’ first case of sarcastic hair.

Odd little note: Clint Eastwood looks exactly the same on camera as he does in person. Everyone else looks different, but not him.

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All hail ‘The Queen’

As the show neared the 3 1/2 -hour mark, the trophy models slumped in their chairs. Reporters shifted from one sore foot to another, and more than one stomach audibly growled. But when Mirren won, despite the lack of surprise, there was spontaneous applause. As she exited, she stood for a moment just offstage, her face squinched up in sheer delight like a little girl’s, and everyone clapped and remembered for a moment that this was the Oscars.

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And then the confetti

But nothing came close to when Martin Scorsese finally picked up his trophy. The sight of Nicholson whistling from offstage as if he were at a Lakers game was worth the price of admission. Moments later, when “The Departed” won best picture, there was even more whooping, more camera flashes and Scorsese found himself turned around and taken back to the wings to watch Graham King make his acceptance speech.

And then with a burst of confetti, it was over. DeGeneres walked offstage, unhooking her mike as she went, and producer Ziskin appeared out of nowhere, congratulating and being congratulated.

“That was a treat,” she told Steven Spielberg, who stood with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. “Yeah, it went well,” Coppola said. “We got two laughs, maybe even three.”

“And we came in under four hours,” Spielberg said.

“Three hours and 46 minutes,” writer Vilanch said as he passed.

“That’s great,” said Spielberg, “and that’s how long my next movie will be.”

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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