Meryl Streep, it turns out, is very good at playing Meryl Streep.
She was all airy nonchalance (with just the right touch of modesty and chagrin) while standing on stage and collecting her Best Actress Oscar on Feb. 26 for The Iron Lady. ”When they called my name,” she said, ”I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh, no! Oh, come on. Why? Her? Again!?”’ But as soon as she stepped into the wings, Streep found herself overcome with emotion. She may not be a stranger to the Academy Awards game — she’s now a three-time winner with a record 17 nominations — but it had been nearly three decades since her last victory, for 1982’s Sophie’s Choice. She was only inches out of the spotlight on Sunday night when she halted in her tracks, tears in her eyes, and asked the crew if she could sit for a minute to gather herself behind the curtain.
The backstage area was bustling: Scenery moved in for the final segment, Tom Cruise awaited his cue to walk out and deliver the Best Picture prize, and the show’s producers were so confident that The Artist would claim the top honor that they allowed the movie’s canine costar, Uggie, to wait in the wings in the arms of his trainer so he could be shooed out at just the right moment.
Streep, 62, wasn’t ready to wade into all that. Clutching a water bottle in one hand and her Oscar in the other, she took a private moment in that no-man’s-land between the end of the stage and the return of real life.
Colin Firth, who won Best Actor last year and presented the prize to Streep, played guardian angel beside her. As the stage lights came back up and Cruise began his presentation, the actress stood up and a faint smile returned to her face. When Cruise opened the envelope and confirmed the Best Picture winner everyone had already predicted — The Artist, which picked up a total of five awards for the night — Uggie’s trainer, Omar von Muller, unhooked his leash to set him running. As the scruffy Jack Russell terrier scampered past Streep’s feet, she leaned down, pumping her fist and saying, ”Go, baby! Go!” like a gambler who had money on him.
Whatever joy Streep felt for her win seemed tempered with a bit of melancholy over the fact that her friend, The Help‘s Viola Davis, had lost. ”I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of in my life,” she said in the pressroom afterward. ”I think there’s room for other people. Frankly, I understand Streep fatigue, and it shocked me that it didn’t override this tonight.”
As all the acting Oscar winners gathered for a portrait outside the theater, Streep gushed about Davis to Octavia Spencer, who won Best Supporting Actress for The Help. The actresses hugged, and when they drew apart and photographers swooped in, Streep smiled a little sadly. ”Well, aren’t we lucky?” she said, and clinked the head of her Oscar against Spencer’s as if they were toasting with champagne glasses.
Streep’s win over Davis was one of the few modest surprises during a ceremony where most winners were considered a fait accompli by Oscar prognosticators. Despite a lack of drama in the race, the return of nine-time host Billy Crystal lifted ratings slightly to 39.3 million viewers — up 1.4 million over last year’s poorly received show toplined by a manic Anne Hathaway and a listless James Franco. Even so, the ABC ceremony — typically the year’s second-most-watched broadcast after the Super Bowl — pulled in 600,000 fewer viewers than last month’s Grammy Awards. (That’s the first time the Grammys have lured more viewers than the Oscars since Nielsen launched its rating system in 1992, although the tragic death of Whitney Houston no doubt contributed to the uptick.) Crystal earned solid reviews, if not raves, for delivering the comedy version of comfort food to Oscar viewers still left with a bad taste from last year.
Every Oscar winner was happy, of course, but the actors in particular showed a wide range of emotions. The Artist star Jean Dujardin’s Best Actor victory set him off like a human fireworks show. After irrepressibly grinning his way through an acceptance speech that concluded with a burst of French obscenity, he started to walk off stage as the music swelled — then reconsidered. Mimicking a scene from The Artist where his silent-film star keeps milking his curtain call at a movie premiere, Dujardin strutted back to center stage and began a little soft-shoe tap dance. Viewers at home didn’t see all of this (the camera cut away to an overhead shot of the auditorium), but the crowd cheered him on, and the 39-year-old leaped and danced so exuberantly that he became tangled in the velvet curtains. Even when he burst through the drapes on the other side, Dujardin wasn’t finished. ”What an exit! What an EXIT!” he crowed, waving his Oscar in the air.
Moments later, Dujardin was smothered in kisses by a familiar Artist costar — but not Supporting Actress nominee Bérénice Bejo. ”Oh my God, the dog!” laughed Natalie Portman, who had presented Dujardin with his trophy. Uggie, held aloft by his trainer, von Muller, licked Dujardin’s face while the actor closed his eyes and pursed his lips in a thin smile. It was a bittersweet moment for von Muller, though Uggie was, quite literally, lapping it up. ”He is 10 years old, so this is all for him,” his keeper said. ”He is retiring. But what a way to go.”
Retirement, meanwhile, was the last thing on the mind of 39-year-old Octavia Spencer, who staggered away from the podium in a daze — only to be embraced by Sandra Bullock, her old friend from her first film, 1996’s A Time to Kill. Bullock, who had just presented Best Foreign Language Film to Iran’s A Separation, had been crouching like a baseball catcher at the edge of the stage and waiting to see if Spencer would win. When presenter Christian Bale read her name, Bullock let out a piercing ”Woooooooo!” that seemed to make every crew member grimace in her direction. ”Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Bullock whispered, pressing her hands to her cheeks.
As Spencer came off stage, Bullock approached her, saying, ”Boo-boo, you did it!” Spencer had tears streaming down her face and was frantic about the people she’d neglected to mention in her acceptance speech: ”I don’t even know what I said!” Bullock only hugged her tighter and stroked her hair: ”Boo-boo, you said it all…” Then she guided Spencer to the backstage thank-you cam, in case — you know — she hadn’t quite remembered everyone after all. Nominees are invited to use the camera to talk at length and send well-wishes to all the people in their lives via Oscar.com. But Spencer was still too raw, lasting only 22 seconds before tears welled up again and her voice broke. ”I can’t do this…I’m sorry,” she said, walking off.
As Christopher Plummer claimed his Supporting Actor Oscar for Beginners — becoming, at 82, the oldest person to ever receive the award — he joked, ”When I first emerged from my mother’s womb, I was already rehearsing my Academy thank-you speech.” What followed were perhaps the warmest, wittiest, and most poised remarks of the night, but when he passed through the wings afterward, even he showed signs of frazzled nerves. As crew workers congratulated him on his speech, Plummer confessed that he had done a very actorly thing in preparation for the moment — memorized his lines. ”I made it, thank goodness! Everything was going so fast tonight,” he said. Plummer had to trim only one line to stay ahead of the orchestra — and he managed to deliver his comments about his ”long-suffering” wife, Elaine Taylor, deserving the Nobel Peace Prize for putting up with him. ”I didn’t expect him to be quite so nice,” Taylor told EW later that night. ”Maybe he was worried that I wouldn’t feed him when we got home.”
Crystal, who was hosting the show for the first time in eight years, gave his all on stage but was a low-key presence in the wings. While past hosts such as Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and Alec Baldwin have come out in the minutes before the show to pump up the crew, Crystal slipped quietly onto the stage before coming alive as the show kicked off. He remained sequestered with his writers during much of the time he wasn’t on stage.
It wasn’t only winners who felt pressure. Presenters had their own share of jangled nerves. While waiting with her Bridesmaids costars to present the shorts categories, Ellie Kemper (who plays the buoyant receptionist Erin on The Office) told Oscar producer Brian Grazer that she kept getting messages from her mother, who was keeping a close eye on her from afar. ”She keeps texting me saying, ‘You need to sit up! Sit up straight!”’
”Is she really?” Grazer laughed.
”Well, she just discovered texting,” Kemper said.
Another star’s posture got far more attention. Angelina Jolie’s provocative, high-cut Atelier Versace gown revealed quite a lot of her right leg while she posed on the red carpet and later delivered two screenplay prizes. Not only did ”Angie’s Right Leg” become an Internet meme within 24 hours, but it soon had its own Twitter account. Jim Rash, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants (and is known as the bizarre dean on NBC’s Community), drew laughs for striking the same pose on stage as Jolie stood close by (see ”Burning Questions” on page 40).
As it happens, Brad Pitt was watching from behind the curtain — and chuckling. When Rash came off stage with co-writers Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon, Pitt was waiting for them. ”Congratulations,” he said, shaking each of their hands. ”Good on ya! Good on you, guys!”
Jolie joined Pitt after accepting the Best Original Screenplay award for Midnight in Paris on behalf of Woody Allen, who has won four Oscars out of 23 nominations but has never shown up to accept any of them. She offered the envelope with his name in it to Grazer and stage manager Dency Nelson. ”Do you want to send this to Woody?” Jolie asked. Grazer looked at Nelson, who just shrugged: ”Does he care?”
By the end of the night, most of the anxiety had morphed into a kind of dizzy glee. After claiming his Oscar for Best Animated Short for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, William Joyce (best known for his children’s books George Shrinks and Dinosaur Bob) roamed the backstage corridors with codirector Brandon Oldenburg, greeting fellow winners. ”It’s like being in Little League T-ball and then suddenly finding yourself in the World Series,” Oldenburg said.
The pair came face-to-face with Streep after the show ended and the bustling backstage area began to clear out. All three seemed to be possessed by a contrasting mix of emotions: They were happy, sad, jittery, calm, tired, and energized all at once. ”Wasn’t it fun?” Oldenburg said.
Streep smiled. ”It is,” she said. ”It is just so cool.”
Joyce tipped his black porkpie hat to her. ”It is dreamland cool,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Carrie Bell and Lynette Rice)
See the list of winners here.