Behind the scenes at Hollywood's ritziest, glitziest bash

If you looked closely at the red carpet leading into the new Kodak Theatre, you might have noticed something different this year. The red carpet wasn’t really red at all. Cordoned off by an army of security guards and trampled underfoot by an endless procession of diamond-festooned stilettos, the traditional fire-engine-hued runway had been replaced with a carpet that seemed almost burgundy or cranberry.

Granted, that may not seem like a seismic change — unless of course you’re the person who names the palette of rollnecks in the J. Crew catalog. But by the time the clock struck midnight on the East Coast, and the Oscars were winding down, it somehow felt symbolic of the more significant color breakthrough playing out inside Oscar’s new home.

In the dizzying and downright nasty weeks of campaigning leading up to this year’s Academy Awards, race had become both a cause for celebration and rebuke. At times it even threatened to overshadow the usual laundry list of trivial Oscar-night concerns: Who would forget to thank their spouse? How far into the preshow would Joan Rivers officially lose her mind? And what would Jennifer Lopez wear or not wear? But this year, with a record number of African-American acting nominees, an honorary Oscar being bestowed on Sidney Poitier, and the return of a black emcee for the evening’s telecast, the Oscars seemed poised to make history with the refreshing promise of diversity.

And by the end of the night — after the final goody bag was looted and the last crab cake canape was scarfed — as Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Halle Berry all headed home with statuettes, that long-overdue promise was finally realized. Or, as Washington cracked on stage after winning his Best Actor award, Oscar killed ”two birds with one night.”

Twenty-four hours before the Oscar ceremony, a who’s who of black Hollywood gathered at Mirabelle, a swank Sunset Boulevard boite in West Hollywood. The occasion: ”To Honor Halle.” Thrown by Lions Gate Films (the indie studio behind Monster’s Ball), Revlon, and Halle Berry’s longtime manager, Vincent Cirrincione, the soiree felt more like a coming-out party for the 35-year-old actress than the typical pre-Oscar throwdown. After her salty-floodgates acceptance speech at the SAG Awards, Berry had promised that she was all cried out and wouldn’t have any tears left for Oscar. Not only would that go down as the worst Oscar prediction ever, but Berry also had plenty of emotion left as one of her guests stopped by to wish her luck.

”My heart is beating for you, my heart is beating for you….” Oprah Winfrey repeated the line over and over like a mantra and a benediction rolled into one heartfelt plea. When Winfrey wasn’t giving her blessing, a receiving line of past Oscar nominees — Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, and Louis Gossett Jr. — offered Berry both support and solidarity. The following night, after Berry staggered to the stage to accept her Best Actress statuette — the first black woman to win the award in Oscar’s 74-year history — she thanked a litany of influences: Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll…and, naturally, Oprah.