Welcome to Oscar’s central nervous system. The corridors behind the Academy Awards stage are the control hub for what you see on the show—and the presenters and winners walking on and off the stage all carry their share of anxiety along with those envelopes and trophies.
Entertainment Weekly is one of the few outlets with free-roaming access to the wings of the Dolby Theatre’s stage. Here’s a real-time look at the drama going on just behind the curtain, posted in reverse chronological order. All times are PT.
9:10 p.m. Birdman‘s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ends Oscar night as many Best Picture winners do: by declaring at the top of his lungs, “WHERE ARE THE DRINKS?!!!”
He storms backstage with his fellow producers, climbing on top of his stars Michael Keaton and Edward Norton while whooping and hollering with an intoxication that doesn’t doesn’t come from any substance besides that golden statuette.
In the hallway, he throws his arms around Emma Stone as photographers snap their photo. “I want to be between beauty,” he says, raising his Oscar. “I look good, right?”
9:02 p.m. Julianne Moore shuffles backstage with her Best Actress award for Still Alice, smiling so wide her eyes are squinted shut. That’s why she stumbles over a snarl of cables leading to the camera tracking her. “I can’t believe this is happening!” she squeals. She looks very much like an avowed geek who’s just been elected prom queen—even though she’s been the clear frontrunner throughout award season, one of the ceremony’s few certainties.
Presenter Matthew McConaughey keeps reconnaissance on the trail of her gown while Moore lunges into the arms of Cate Blanchett. “Did I say everything?” Moore asks those around her. “Did I remember to say my kids’ names? It all happens so fast…”
8:45 p.m. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu doesn’t linger backstage. After his directing win for Birdman, he’s whisked back into the theater. His movie has big nominations coming up as the night draws to a close.
Best Actor Eddie Redmayne does the same thing, exchanging a hug and kiss with presenter Cate Blanchett, then accepting his winning envelope from her and racing back through the curtain, onto the darkened stage, and back to his seat.
8:37 p.m. Another brutally emotional moment as The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore, winner of the adapted screenplay prize, walks through the curtain. After revealing in his speech that as a teenager he tried to take his own life, he urged anyone considering the same to consider a brighter future instead.
Bewildered but joyous, he comes backstage literally trembling, and is hurrying to the “thank-you cam,” where winners can record greetings to anyone they forgot to thank onstage.
He moves a little too fast for presenter Oprah Winfrey, who chases after him with the envelope containing his name. This is another time-honored tradition behind the scenes of the Oscars—the envelope return.
After a cacophony of “Graham! Graham!” from the workers backstage—echoing Winfrey’s own cry—Moore turns around and spots the most powerful woman in media darting through the crowd.
It’s another baffling sight, perhaps. Moore seems taken aback at the kindness. “Aww, thank you … Oprah?” he says, breaking into a smile. “Oprah, it is so nice of you to think of this.”
8:21 p.m. After her Sound of Music performance, which concluded with Julie Andrews walking onstage with her, Lady Gaga is full-on bawling backstage. She tries to compose herself, raises her hands in twin peace symbols, then steps forward and… almost stumbles face first after tripping on her own dress.
Among those reaching to catch her—before she catches and steadies herself—is Eddie Murphy, who’s getting ready to present the original screenplay award.
A little self-concious, Gaga lifts her dress and says to her would-be rescuers: “I think I’m going to go have a drink now.”
8:08 p.m. “Thanksgiving!!” That’s what John Legend bellows as he and Common come backstage after winning Best Song for “Glory” from Selma.
Common hugs producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, and shakes his head as he repeats, “Oh my God, crazy …”
Legend wraps a bear hug around Octavia Spencer, a past supporting actress winner for The Help and the woman who introduced their live performance moments earlier. He holds up his Oscar. “We joined you at the club!” he says.
Spencer nods, closing her eyes. “You’re in the club …” she says.
That emotional performance of “Glory” left the audience (both in the house and backstage) in tears. If anything else had won the trophy… everything would not have been awesome.
As Menzel leaves the group after presenting the award, she thanks the writer of her “Glom Gazingo” line, while Travolta lingers with the producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, whom he knows from starring in their big screen version of Hairspray. He’s shaking his head, laughing, and trying to explain how he inexplicably bungled Menzel’s name last year.
“Well, you’ve come full circle,” Meron says
7:57 p.m. This was one of the most deeply held secrets of the show: John Travolta escorting Idina Menzel onstage, one year after butchering her name in his introduction of the Frozen singer before her performance of “Let It Go.” (In case you’d somehow forgotten: “Please welcome the wick-ed-ly talented, one and only … Adele Dazeem.”)
The two were secretly swept together backstage mid-show, and spent a long time huddled together in the presenter waiting room, flipping through pages of a script—and presumably getting to know one another on a first-name basis.
“It can’t go wrong, can it?” Menzel says as they walk to the wings of the stage.
“It can’t go wrong,” Travolta agrees.
“If I mess up your name, it doesn’t matter either,” she says.
And that’s how Adele Dazeem and Glom Gazingo became friends.
7:48 p.m. If you didn’t have Whiplash in your Oscar pool for Best Editing, you weren’t alone. Tom Cross, who won the award for that film, was also taken by surprise. As he walks backstage with his trophy, all he keeps saying to every congratulation was, “This was NOT expected … This was so NOT expected…”
6:58 p.m. Huge applause for Patricia Arquette’s supporting actress win for Boyhood, and even bigger cheers for her speech about equal pay for women. As presenter Jared Leto walks her backstage, he gives her an emphatic “great speech!”
Arquette’s response: “Oh my God—I might faint.”
Leto, who won supporting actor last year for Dallas Buyers Club, is playing the traditional role of previous winner, serving as a spiritual guide and mother figure for the new winner. Not only does he stick by her side throughout Arquette’s swooning period backstage, but as she walks to the microphone, he also stops to wipe off a gigantic smear of lipstick left on Arquette’s cheek—by a smacking kiss from Emma Stone.
Some of the backstage workers congratulate him on quick thinking. Leto smiles. “Thank you,” he says. “It was a moment, right?”
6:50 p.m. — Between this foot traffic and these many long, flowing gowns, it was bound to happen. Yep: Chrissy Teigen’s turquoise train got stomped.
“Hold up, oh no!” cries husband John Legend as she cringes to a halt.
“Did it rip?” she asks. Legend nods the bad news.
“Guys, I have to return this!” she says, although the perpetrator doesn’t step forward—this time. But someone from wardrobe rushes out from behind a white curtain to escort her to a quick fix.
6:40 p.m. Neil Patrick Harris bursts from his dressing room wearing only tighty-whites, but this parody of a similar scene in Birdman didn’t play out exactly as viewers saw it.
That was the actual Oscar backstage area, and Harris did pop out of his actual dressing room—but that entire sequence was pre-shot, right up until Harris clenched his fist to a furiously drum-playing Miles Teller and said, “Not my tempo.”
When Harris actually hustles out of his dressing room in his underwear, he stands just offstage watching the bit play out on screen, nervously jittering from foot to foot. As the gag comes to an end, he races through the curtain and is onstage. In the flesh.
6:23 p.m. Everyone still wants to see Will Arnett in full Batman regalia. His Arrested Development co-star Jason Bateman is presenting the live-action and documentary short awards with Kerry Washington, but before walking out, he asks, “Was that Arnett playing guitar as Batman? Which way is he coming? I’ve got to see him.” Alas, there was no time for Bateman to cross paths with Batman.
Moments later, Captain America star Chris Evans comes backstage to prepare for his presentation. Warned that Batman is nearby—and that there’s potential for a DC/Marvel throwdown—he put up his dukes. “Let me at him!” Evans said. “He’s going down!”
6:10 p.m. Questlove as Robin, Tegan & Sara, Will Arnett as Batman (with a LEGO logo), the Lonely Island boys in powder blue tuxes, Mark Mothersbaugh in a red LEGO Devo hat—everything is awesome as they assemble backstage for a performance of The LEGO Movie‘s Oscar-Nominated “Everything is Awesome!”
Who grabs the attention in this crowd? The Dark Knight of course—even if no one is sure who is inside the suit at first.
“Excuse us, Batman…” says Reese Witherspoon. “Oh, Will! I didn’t know if it was you right away!”
Arnett is deep in character—or tries to be. Stoic. Still. Quiet. But everybody wants to talk.
Someone suggests he could go out onto Hollywood Boulevard afterwards and pose for tourist photos. A grim nod from Batman. “Yes,” he growls. “I could really make some quick cash, for sure.”
5:43 p.m. There’s a crush backstage as the first award goes to J.K. Simmons for his supporting role in Whiplash. The veteran character anchor is low-key, and looks a little shell-shocked despite being favored throughout the season. The first person to grab him, shake him, and coax a smile is a man with a very particular set of skills: Liam Neeson, who’s about to head out as a presenter.
Simmons doesn’t say much—just nods “thank you” to everyone congratulating him. He doesn’t hear Jennifer Lopez say it from the mob as he makes his way from the wings to the dark space behind the stage that leads to the press room in the hotel next door. In the middle of that frenzy, he keeps his head down … because he accidentally stepped on his presenter Lupita Nyong’o pearl-sequined dress, and doesn’t want to repeat that move.
No rushing, although her gown was dragging.
5:24 p.m. NPH emerges! Neil Patrick Harris walks out of his dressing room singing, belting out nonsense warm-ups as he strolls to the stage. The only encounter: John Legend, who claps him with a handshake.
“Hey, break a leg tonight,” Legend says, headed toward his seat as the host makes his way to the spotlight.
As Harris walks beyond the curtain, he spots the PriceWaterhouseCoopers accountant, Brian Cullinan. Big smile. “How you doing, Bob?” Harris says.
“Doing great,” says not-Bob. Once Harris is gone, Cullinan says: “I hated to correct him, but I hope he gets it right later.” (The ballot storekeepers always get an introduction during the show.)
5:10 p.m. It’s getting a lot more crowded. Among the stars shooting through as the countdown begins are John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Patricia Arquette, Shirley MacLaine, and finally Jennifer Lopez—who cut a wide path through a narrow space. Her flowing gown filled nearly the entire backstage passageway as she made her way to the presenter waiting room. But Lopez and her entourage actually helped make way for a much more fearsome crew.
Behind her marched a legion of dancers for the opening number, “Moving Pictures,” written by Frozen songwriters (and Oscar winners) Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez: old-timey gangsters, Roman soldiers, sailors, and one other fighting Force: “Has anyone seen the Stormtroopers?” one of the crew members shouts as the clattering soldiers in familiar white Star Wars armor came marching up the stairs.
4:20 p.m. It’s about an hour to show time, and the guests of honor are here—exactly 50 brand new Oscar statuettes, wheeled backstage on a black cloth-covered tray and placed on a purple-satin lined shelf behind the stage.
Each one has a paper tag around its neck, each sporting a hand-written number. “Those are serial numbers,” says the Oscar-keeper, Jimmy Wright, one of the stagehands on the show. “So we know which one you stole.”
4:10 p.m. The secrets have arrived.
Two PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants, who are the only people on Earth who know tonight’s winners at this moment, have just walked backstage with their leather satchels full of envelopes.
As accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz walk back to their position, just at the edge of stage right, they run into Melanie Griffith, who’s attending the show with her daughter, Fifty Shades of Grey actress Dakota Johnson. She whispers, “Are those the ballots?” The accounts nod. “Are they locked?” she asks.
“They are. I can’t even let go,” says Cullinan, who has been teased by everyone throughout rehearsals for being a dead-ringer for Matt Damon. He’s a little older than the star—so maybe more like Matt Damon’s elder brother. (“My daughter says, ‘Maybe you could be his dad,'” he joked to EW during rehearsals.)
3:54 p.m. Neil Patrick Harris is backstage, but out of sight. His husband, David Burtka, paces the backstage corridors. The evening’s host is doing vocal warm-ups, he says. How are some of the crew staying in the zone during this downtime before the start of the show? They’re huddled around a laptop in the shadows directly behind the stage, watching a DVD of Guardians of the Galaxy.
3:34 p.m. The only sound in the Dolby Theatre right now is a vacuum cleaner, as a crew worker clears off the last bit of dust on the onyx black steps of the stage. After a week of hurried building and rehearsals, the theater has been cleared of those poster-board mugshots of celebrities (used to help camera operators practice shots in the audience) and now sits empty, awaiting guests who are now just beginning to fill the red carpet. Backstage is populated only by security guards, scenery crew, and cleaners—all of them dressed in tuxes, regardless of their duties. The halls are empty; even host Neil Patrick Harris is elsewhere. It’s two hours to showtime, and that can feel like an eternity, or a blink—depending on your state of mind.