The mood backstage was high. Champagne had been poured and a long evening seemed destined for a suave and elegant ending. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway glided through the wings and onto the stage to announce the Oscar for best picture. But things went sideways inside the Dolby Theatre: "Oh my God," said a stagehand, "he got the wrong envelope."
That glitch led to the one of the biggest embarrassments in Academy Awards history when Beatty handed the envelope to Dunaway, who incorrectly named "La La Land" and not "Moonlight" as the winner. Stunned silence rolled through the darkened wings as stagehands peeked out to the spotlight. Confusion ensued and the casts of both films stood like well-groomed prizefighters in a disputed final round.
Those excruciating moments belied months of planning, rehearsals, sound checks, production designs, scripts and precision behind one of the world's most watched television shows. The days leading to the program were filled with backstage intensity, tempers, humor and sublime narratives, such as the sultry notes from a lone saxophone and union workers wearing bootees so as not to dirty the carpet in the green room, where an Italian executive, who gave his name only as Massimo, roamed with exacting flair.
Backstage is a parallel, narrow universe that is the machinery of imagination. It is crowded with computers, cameras and stage sets that exist just a curtain away from the glamour that rises when the show begins.
To navigate this terrain is to chase characters in a sprawling play that unfolds through mazes of hallways and offices, past wardrobe rooms, caterers, security guards, carpenters, artists and stand-in presenters who pretend to be movie stars while giving mock acceptance speeches and holding up fake, wooden Oscars. They mingle amid the "talent," including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who arrived with a new haircut, rapped a tune about "Moana" and wore a sweatshirt that read: "Rehearsal is the best part."
One seasoned crew member nudged his underling. "If they tell us to do something, we do it. It's the law." Seconds after he finished the sentence, a woman floated by like a swan in a white gown, a man with a valise whispered to no one in particular, "It's a little bit of a learning curve," and a publicist assured her client over the phone that he or she would be sitting close to Justin Timberlake on awards night. She knew this because black-and-white pictures of celebrities were taped to sticks on seats in rows that gave the sensation of turning pages in a yearbook filled with cool kids.
The day before the show, director Glenn Weiss scrolled his iPad and sat before 25 tiny video screens at his desk in the theater during a rehearsal. He has dark, shoulder-length hair, a graying goatee and possesses a magician's sly energy.
"Go to 19 and roll wide," he said into his microphone as actor Mark Rylance stood onstage practicing his lines. Rylance, the supporting actor winner from the year before, would present the supporting actress award on Sunday night. Weiss said the Oscar's were an awards show "on steroids" and he wondered what President Trump or other unscripted moments he might encounter during the live show.
"The political climate is impactful on me because there's 24 awards where someone will be standing at the mike saying something I have no knowledge or control over," he said. "It's complex in many ways because of the magnifying glass the show is under. The whole world is tuned in to see this and you want to make sure every entrance, every last movement onstage you maximize and get the most out of."
To do that, Weiss, mounted a camera on a track in the orchestra pit to follow movement on stage. It rose like the elongated neck of a strange bird, and when needed, switched tracks and rolled under the stage, popping up from a hole amid Art Deco set designs and 300,000 Swarovski crystals.
"Technology allows us to do really fun moments and theatrical things that five or 10 years ago," said Weiss, who has directed two Oscar shows . "You have to keep it moving. You're doing it for millions on television but you don't want to lose this room either."
Weiss' compatriot was stage manager Gary Natoli, an ever-present wanderer, a kind of phantom with a headset whose voice commands attention. "All right everybody we're going to try one here," he told dancers as John Legend took the stage to rehearse "La La Land" music. "Hello, dancers," said Legend, dressed in black and characteristically chill. Natoli stepped to the side: "Five, four, three, two, one." The dancers twirled and swayed, two of them rising on strings suspended against the twilit Hollywood Hills.
It seemed magical. Until a man with a bucket of paint and a roller walked past. He disappeared down a hallway. Legend and the dancers did another take, and another. "Here's to the heart that aches," sang Legend. Again, lovely. But ticktock. Singer-composer Sara Bareilles and Auli'I Cravalho, the 16-year-old voice of "Moana," were on the schedule. "Thank you, everybody," said Natoli, "We're moving on." The dancers dispersed; Legend descended the stairs and drifted away. The orchestra glowed in the pit.
Samuel Jackson showed up in sweats and sneakers on Saturday to run his lines. Jason Bateman practiced with Kate McKinnon. Dwayne Johnson held his arms up onstage as someone snapped a picture with an iPhone. Scarlett Johansson approached the mike with cropped hair and a tapered jacket. Each of them had a sliver of a part in a drama that on paper was a carefully blocked out night told in 15 acts that on occasion could drain more hours than a Shakespeare play.
Sunday arrived with clouds and early rain. Lights and publicists warmed the red carpet, and inside, past guards and through metal detectors, a quiet intensity settled over backstage. Voices were hushed. A few production hands fixed their bow ties while others, wearing tool belts, made last-minute fixes to the scenery. A drilled whined. Their work finished, the men vanished with a ladder deep into the wings.
The screen over the backstage entrance laid out the night: "1) Cold open 2) Opening copy/hand-off/intro 3) Monologue/throw to PKG." And so on. Producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd took their places. Two men in tuxes and wearing white gloves — reminiscent of altar boys polishing chalices after Mass — moved the Oscar statuettes from a cart to shelves near the curtains.
The procession to the green room began: Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Alicia Vikander, Javier Bardem. The stage band, guitars and horns gleaming, shimmied through the hallways toward the wings, singing, "Going to the Oscars, Going to the Oscars." Then silence. A breath.
Music rolled and the show began and relief and adrenaline flowed. De Luca was happy with Justin Timberlake's opening number; Kimmel's entrance was strong. Vince Vaughn took a left into makeup.
Viola Davis exited the stage with her Oscar; dabbed her tears. People in the wings moved back and forth, like a stream coursing past monitors, cameras, scenery, brooms, hammers, scrapers and a seamstress with a bag of needles and thread. A man in a tux leaned over to his buddy: "A lot of union guys in the house. Lots of crooked noses." He mentioned something about Las Vegas but his words were lost in the prattle rising around a passing star.
The big awards were rolled out. Cinematography, screenplay, actor, actress. The men with the white gloves were down to statuettes from the last shelf. The horizon was near. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway arrived. They watched the monitor as Emma Stone gave her acceptance speech. They were that young once; the couple starred 50 years ago in "Bonnie and Clyde", a film that revolutionized American cinema and made them, even in a town accustomed to hype, legitimate legends.
He in sleek tux, she resplendent in white gown, they took the stage. The night was nearly done, a touch of class for the final prize.
No one saw or anticipated the iceberg.
Beatty opened the envelope. He seemed perplexed. "And the Academy Award for best picture … "
A stagehand turned in the wings.
"Oh my God," she said, "he got the wrong envelope."