By Anthony Breznican
February 26, 2012 at 11:00 AM EST
Jolie and Oscars co-producer Brian Grazer (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Billy … who?

In a place full of celebrity sightings, sometimes even the host can find himself camouflaged.

Tonight the 84th annual Oscars bring a close to Hollywood’s award season, but before that, EW takes you behind the scenes as stars gather to rehearse the big telecast.

Here’s what happened when Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Emma Stone, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks, and the ladies of Bridesmaids (among others) came together to put on a show. Even past Oscar-winners like Gwyneth Paltrow, pictured here, can have a “d’oh” moment.

Among the stories from backstage over the past two days is the hilariously bizarre account of what happened when the voice of Darth Vader met Miracle Max — and said he mistook him for “a hoodlum.”

It’s rehearsal time for the Academy Awards, and a woman striding offstage pretending to be a winner is holding an Oscar so fake it could be a child’s art project.

In the shadows beside a great velvet curtain, the stand-in for best actress comes face to face with none other than the real Tom Cruise, who has an envelope clasped in his hands and is waiting for his cue to walk out and practice presenting the next award.

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The Mission: Impossible star tips a slight bow and raises his eyebrows with a wry, mega-watt smile. “Congratulations!” he declares, like he really, really, means it. Really. He chuckles, and – after a beat – so does the stunned stand-in.

If sincerity is the goal, it is surely one of Cruise’s worst-ever performance. But he’s just goofing around.

That’s the great thing about being backstage in the final few days before the Academy Awards — guards are down, and a guy like Cruise can just kid around. Though the crew is working hard, the stars are literally going through the motions.

Tonight when the real show begins (8:30 p.m. Eastern and 5:30 Pacific, on ABC), the pressure returns for everyone with a vengeance.

MORE ON REHEARSALS:

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The thing you need to know about Oscar rehearsals is they are like some bubble where the usual rules of Hollywood behavior don’t apply.

Sandra Bullock (left) sports glasses that almost certainly won’t be a red-carpet fashion accessory, while Robert Downey Jr. (right) raised the plastic practice Oscar he was presenting like he had just won it himself.

Stunning actresses showed up looking like they’re ready for a yoga class, the most dignified actors clown around like schoolboys, everyone seems to be reuniting with old friends …

For a few days, a community usually known for jealousies, backbiting, and cynicism comes together in a great big embrace.

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It’s like the world’s most expensive and elaborate high school graduation.

“It seems like everybody who comes to the theater for rehearsals is in a good mood,” says Entertainment Weekly’s own managing editor Jess Cagle, who spent Saturday backstage in preparation for broadcasting from there as co-host of the Oscar’s pre-show (ABC, 7 p.m. ET, 4 PT.)

“I think it’s because they’re not there for themselves,” says Cagle. “There’s no pressure to promote something or themselves. They’re there for the Oscars and to support the nominees. It brings out the best in everybody.”

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One major reason for the smoothness of the show is the legion of shadow-dwelling crew workers, many of whom have been doing the show for decades.

The point man is stage manager Dency Nelson (pictured left), who for 24 Academy Award ceremonies has steered the stars where they need to go while protecting them from potentially crushing scenery that always seems to be rolling in around them.

He’s a genial presence — part diplomat, part coach — though at times he can be heard describing his job this way: “Like herding cats.”

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The corridors of the Oscar theater are a strange place: If you see someone who kind of looks like a particular celebrity, it probably is — even if at first you think, Nah.

This is a lesson the great James Earl Jones, an honorary Oscar recipient this year, learned a little too late — though it proved to be one of the funniest interactions of the day.

Jones was standing just outside the wings of the stage, near the hall leading to the dressing rooms, when producer Brian Grazer stopped him to chat. A short fellow in a black newsboy cap also joined the small group that had formed and reached out to shake Jones’ hand.

Jones’ brow furrowed, and his mouth opened slightly as a spark of recognition crossed his face.

The short man’s brow also furrowed. “I’m Billy Crystal,” he said.

Jones grabbed his chest and boomed, “Jesus, it’s you! I … I … With that cap on I thought you were some kind of hoodlum!”

A line like that can make even Billy Crystal laugh. If you’re already regarded as the greatest living Oscar host, maybe it’s okay if the voice of Darth Vader and CNN accidentally takes you down a peg. Humility is good for the soul.

They parted on friendly terms. “Have fun tonight,” Jones said, before adding the even more important: “And tomorrow night!”

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Tom Hanks, who has two Oscar wins and countless turns as a presenter, is such a veteran of the show he could probably help the crew arrange scenery if they needed an extra pair of hands.

There’s a lot of love for the Forrest Gump and Philadelphia actor — as you can tell from this picture of stage manager David Wader planting a great, big, wet smooch on the bewhiskered actor.

Emma Stone, on the other hand, is presenting for the first time — though she’s paired with longtime Oscar mainstay Ben Stiller (doing a very funny bit we can’t spoil here.)

Since they are planning something that may require some fast movement on her part, she was fretting over what she intended to wear to the show, among other details.

“These nerves are going to be — I guess — positive tomorrow?” she half-declared and half-asked Stiller, who seemed as relaxed as Kobe Bryant practicing layups or Michael Bay blowing up a city block.

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Chris Rock, who knows the Oscar show well from his 2005 stint as host, went off-script during his rehearsal to crack a few wilder jokes. “I won’t do that on the night, that’s just for the people out there …” he said, gesturing to the handful of stand-ins and crew workers scattered through the theater.

Most of the seats were occupied by poster boards featuring the names and pictures of nominees and guests (STEVEN SPIELBERG, GEORGE CLOONEY, BRAD PITT). That’s so camera operators know where to aim their lenses when director and co-producer Don Mischer calls for a shot in the crowd.

It’s a tough room for comedy, all those paper faces.

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When you win, it’s very difficult to take in the sights.

Presenting the next year is a good chance to take in what you missed.

Colin Firth, last year’s Best Actor winner, studied the mechanics of the elaborate Oscar stage like a little kid in a magic shop when he returned this year. “This whole thing goes up?” he said, raising his arms as a billboard-sized movie screen floated up on cables into the theater’s rafters, revealing him for his walk to the microphone.

Occasionally, Oscar producers have had a whole posse of stars emerge to laud the leading men and women of the Best Actor and Actress categories, Firth (and fellow Oscar 2011 alumni Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and Melissa Leo) will be following the older tradition of presenting the awards the next group of recipients.

Firth will present Best Actress, while Portman is now awarding Best Actor, and so on.

The King’s Speech star was determined to make his speeches to this year’s actress honorees — Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams — as natural as possible, hoping to memorize much of it and read only sparingly from the teleprompter.

“I think it’s attitude,” he told the telecast’s co-producer Brian Grazer. “It is a lot of words, but if you think it holds…”

“I was standing here watching and had no idea if you were using the prompter,” Grazer reassured him. “You seemed very comfortable with it.”

MORE ON REHEARSALS:

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Comfortable? Sometimes you can be too comfortable.

Sources say you should have seen Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog hanging around after practicing their intro from one of the theater balconies.

Rumor has it they were lolling about in an apparently unconscious state afterward — and had to be carried out of the theater by their handlers!

All I know is, their eyes do look a little glassy in this photo …

Fans have been eager for a Muppet presence at the Academy Awards ever since The Muppets film debuted in November, marking a resurgence for the late Jim Henson’s creations.

Now that it’s so close to actually happening, let’s all just hope these two pull it together for tonight’s show.

Maybe someone will give them a hand.*

*(Wocka, wocka.)

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For her rehearsal, Portman kicked off her casual shoes and strapped on the intimidating, sparkling gold stilettos she’ll be wearing for the show.

Walking across the shiny black stage must have been like tiptoeing across an ice skating rink, but along with her lines, the Black Swan actress got in some practice walking. Before you can look glamorous, you have to be graceful.

Bale was perhaps the most reflective of the previous year’s winners. Coming off stage after rehearsing his presentation, he shook his head and smiled. “Funny being out there again …”

After stand-in Sean Stewart delivered a litany of passionate thank-yous to the theater so the camera crews could rehearse their moves for when the real supporting-actress winner gives her speech, Bale stood off to the side savoring the faux-passion. “He’s good!” The Fighter star laughed.

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Angelina Jolie was trying not to cause a stir.

Trying.

She kept things low-key as she arrived for rehearsals — no big entourage, no Brad, no kids. Just Angie. Actually, she was a little tired. “I’m so jet-lagged. I’m kind of like …” said the actress, fluttering her eyes wearily.

For the past few weeks, she has been on a European tour with In the Land of Blood and Honey, the Bosnian War drama she wrote and directed, which just premiered in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where its story takes place nearly 20 years ago.

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“We went through the whole tour, from Sarajevo to Berlin and Paris. We finally got back on Wednesday,” she said.

Gesturing at the stage, and the towering Oscar statues looming overheard, she adds: “It’s a funny thing to end up here. It’s like… am I awake yet?” she laughs, shaking her head. “Is this happening?”

A friendly onstage hug to the two people accepting fake Oscars from her apparently made those actors wonder the same thing.

“You just blew the minds of two of our stand-ins who got a hug from you,” stage manager Dency Nelson tells her. Jolie laughs and waves him off. “Oh, you’re sweet …”

NEXT PAGE: Bridesmaids invoke wrath of God.

For more Oscar news tonight, follow @Breznican on Twitter.

Suzanne Hanover

No group of presenters stood taller than the cast of Bridesmaids — perhaps because their bawdy little blockbuster received two Oscar nominations, but more likely because the six women were wearing the highest high heels imaginable.

Kristen Wiig (who shares an original screenplay bid with co-writer Annie Mumolo) joined Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy (who’s up for Best Supporting Actress), Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, and Wendi McLendon-Covey to present Oscars in a handful of categories, but they’re strutting out onstage as a pack.

“Do you know what music will be playing?” Wiig asked some of the crew members while Kemper proposed walking forward while dramatically strumming air guitars and Rudolph demonstrated a more Broadway-esque jazz-hands kick-line.

Turns out it’s hard to do much with The Wedding March besides … march.

When Wiig and Rudolph were at the microphone, a booming voice filled the theater to give them some direction. Wiig looked worried. “Is that you… God?” (It was just director and co-producer Don Mischer, speaking via the auditorium sound system from the control room.)

Wiig taunted him to zoom in closer and closer, watching herself on an adjacent screen as a camera did an extreme close-up to one nostril. “No!” she cried, shielding her face. “I just got off a plane!”

Rudolph straightened her back and puckered her lips. “I didn’t,” she said. “Don’t I look fantastic?”

In just a few hours, everyone involved in the Oscars will be ready for their closeups.

For more Oscar news tonight, follow @Breznican on Twitter.

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