Anthony Breznican
March 04, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

For once, when the F-bomb was dropped, Christian Bale was nowhere in sight. The star, long favored to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter, was playing hooky at the Kodak Theatre’s lobby bar when his costar Melissa Leo let the curse word slip on stage. ”We ducked out to have a little drink with Dicky,” said Bale, referring to Dick Eklund, the comical, charismatic, and formerly crack-addicted boxing trainer Bale plays in the true-life story. ”We weren’t allowed back in and unfortunately missed Melissa’s acceptance. I didn’t know they were so stringent, but we were banging on the door and they wouldn’t let us in.” He shook his head. ”That was a lesson learned.” Unfortunately for the Academy, viewers at home were also skipping out on the show — and not clamoring to return. Oscar had tapped movie-star hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway in an attempt to appeal to the advertiser-beloved younger demographic. But the show lured only 37.9 million viewers, down 9 percent overall from last year, with an 11 percent drop in the critical 18-49 age bracket.

The Oscars are always a night of backslapping and bruised egos, but if The King’s Speech emerged as the Academy Awards champ with four top trophies, the clear loser was the broadcast itself, a critically pulverized show that struggled to hold the attention of viewers, both at home and in the Kodak Theatre. ”The worst Oscarcast I’ve seen, and I go back awhile,” proclaimed Roger Ebert via Twitter. (See EW’s own prescription for ”How to Fix the Oscars”) Like the royal drama about a stuttering king learning to address his people — which earned prizes for Best Picture, lead actor Colin Firth, director Tom Hooper, and screenwriter David Seidler — it seems most of the interesting action took place away from the microphone.

As the evening began, stars made their way down a red carpet spanning the width of Hollywood Boulevard. Risers of shouting reporters and photographers were on one side, with bleachers of gleefully shrieking fans on the other. ”Everyone’s yelling your name, screaming from all directions,” marveled John Hawkes, a veteran character actor and first-time nominee for his supporting turn in Winter’s Bone. ”I’ve been doing red carpets a long time, and this is the biggest, most intense one ever.”

When the nominees reached the end of the ruby-colored road, they entered the warm, golden lobby of the theater. Cut loose from their entourages and press apparatchiks, they were inclined to cling to their plus-one: Annette Bening, the star of The Kids Are All Right, who would lose Best Actress to Black Swan‘s Natalie Portman, stuck close to husband Warren Beatty, an Oscar veteran who seemed perfectly at ease. The King’s Speech‘s Helena Bonham Carter, who’d be edged out by Leo for Best Supporting Actress, whispered with her longtime companion, director Tim Burton. Jeff Bridges, a Best Actor nominee for True Grit after winning in that category last year for Crazy Heart, found himself quickly abandoned by his three daughters. ”Uh-oh, look out,” he said, digging his hands into his pockets and rocking back on his heels as they took off, cheerfully stargazing through the crowd.

There is no bigger venue for being seen than Oscar’s red carpet, though it’s hard to tell in the moment if you’re a hit or a miss. Jennifer Lawrence, the 20-year-old first-time nominee for Winter’s Bone, broke into a huge smile when told the Twitter reaction to her curvaceous fire-red gown could only be described with Hanna-Barbera-style cartoon sound effects. ”Oh my God, that’s good enough,” she laughed. ”I can go home now!”

As a soothing but insistent voice boomed overhead that the show was about to start, stars began a slow shuffle into the theater. Cate Blanchett asked The Social Network director David Fincher if he felt confident. Fincher shrugged. ”Well, if you don’t [win], I will commit hara-kiri,” she assured him. (Cate: He didn’t, but don’t.)

Just like at a high school dance, everything got more relaxed after the lights went down. Though the reviews would be brutal, James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s opening lightened the mood in the auditorium. The suspense was nearly over. Those who didn’t expect to hear their names were the first to take it easy. ”Winning those things is probably not so good for your head,” joked Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky. ”It’s probably good to lose. That’s probably better long-term. Maybe I’m just rationalizing since I’m a long shot, but we’ll see what happens.”

Nearby, Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, and Hugh Jackman were being cornered by big-time suits: Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos and News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch. The group laughed over the satiric song Hathaway had sung at Jackman’s expense. ”I expected to see you get up there on stage with her,” Gianopulos said, as Murdoch nodded solemnly.

”You should’ve just started dancing,” said Kidman. ”That’s what I’d have done.”

As Kidman et al. headed to the lobby, they nearly knocked over Lisa Cholodenko, the director and co-writer of The Kids Are All Right. Cholodenko had popped out to get a glass of water and, like Bale, found herself locked out until the next commercial break. ”I’m exhausted,” she said. ”This whole thing, I can’t believe what this Oscar-season process is like, how long it is and how much it takes out of you.”

As the night went on, there were so few surprises in the high-profile categories that one of the only moments of suspense came when Kirk Douglas jokingly dragged out the announcement of the Best Supporting Actress winner. When Leo finally rose to the podium, she let slip the F-word, prompting chuckles and a quick-fingered silencing by ABC’s censor. After finishing her speech, she was escorted off stage by the 94-year-old Douglas, who allowed her to grab his cane and playfully stagger into the wings. ”I did feel a little weak-kneed,” she said a short time later, climbing the stairs to the third-floor smoking balcony with her Oscar in hand.

Mark Wahlberg, nominated for producing the Best Picture contender The Fighter, was soon holding court in the lobby, with his wife, model Rhea Durham, beside him. Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner, both Supporting Actor nominees (and costars in May 2012’s superhero team-up The Avengers), also hung out at the bar, yukking it up loudly with Animal Kingdom Supporting Actress nominee Jacki Weaver. Asked if he felt upset about losing, Ruffalo offered a sincere demurral: ”Not at all, man. Not at all.”

Those whose categories were still to come wore the worry on their faces. Natalie Portman kept clutching the hand of fiancé and soon-to-be father Benjamin Millepied as he escorted the pregnant actress through the theater. But even she couldn’t linger forever in the pressure cooker of the front rows. ”We just went and raided all the food backstage in the greenroom,” she told a friend, waiting outside the theater doors for a commercial break. ”We’re sooooo hungry.” What sort of food was available? Portman groaned: ”Very little.”

Later in the night, the tension of the competition dissipated a little and people began to socialize more. Winners seemed giddy with relief, though not totally relaxed. Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich claimed Best Animated Feature, and stood backstage with The Social Network executive producer Kevin Spacey as well as Burton and Bonham Carter. ”That was awesome,” he said. ”But since I was also nominated for Adapted Screenplay, they kind of rushed me back to my seat. It was surreal to be whisked back to my seat so quickly after winning. Now I’m going to do what I should have done after coming off stage.” He then slipped through the backstage entrance to schmooze.

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who shared Best Original Score for The Social Network with Atticus Ross, was inclined to lie low after snagging his Oscar. ”Getting to know all the other nominees through this whole process is interesting, because they’re actually all really nice people. And sitting next to them, then getting called up…” He shrugged as he headed back to his seat. ”Right now, I feel kind of weird walking back into that. With this.”

Even though The King’s Speech was on an obvious roll and Oscar prognosticators had long forecast a win, the producers of the film were still fearful of a last-minute upset, most likely by The Social Network. This is how nerve-racking the Academy Awards can be — every syllable of the presenter’s announcement brings torment until victory is certain. ”There are a lot of other nominees that start with The,” noted The King’s Speech producer Iain Canning as he recalled filmmaker Steven Spielberg declaring the evening’s final winner. ”So not even the first word gave it away. We had to wait for the second word. It’s The Kids Are All Right, it’s The Social Network, it’s The Fighter. It wasn’t all in the bag on the first word.” (Additional reporting by Carrie Bell and Ari Karpel)

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