As the clock ticks down toward show time, the backstage corridors of the Academy Awards become like celebrity pinball.
It starts out quiet. One or two stars roll in while a whole galaxy of them circulates out on the red carpet. Among the first to grace the hushed wings of the stage is someone not typically associated with formality and decorum — Zach Galifianakis.
As part of its pre-show, ABC has situated Entertainment Weekly‘s own Managing Editor Jess Cagle in the backstage area to catch celebrities who have managed to steer clear of the massive, paparazzi-filled red carpet.
As Cagle and Galifianakis stand near center stage — at this point shadowy and otherwise empty except for the towering pieces of scenery and the camera crew and light guys flanking them — Cagle tells the comedian it was cool to talk to him because it gave his part of the pre-show a little bit of “exclusivity.”
The scruffy Galifianakis looks down and regards himself, saying sarcastically, “Congratulations.” Cagle laughs and shakes his head, reassuring the comedian, “No, it is a good one.”
Seconds later, the door leading to the backstage loading dock swings open and a gray, bearded Tom Hanks strides through, talking loudly with his companions about one of the Oscar show’s recent controversies: Sacha Baron Cohen‘s banning, then un-banning, after he revealed plans to attend plans to attend dressed as his character from the upcoming film The Dictator.
“How’s the red carpet going?” Hanks asks a security guard standing near a television showing arrivals.
“Smooth,” the man said.
Hanks nods and repeats, “Smooth! Good. Why would they say, ‘Don’t show up?'” Hanks asks, walking on and raising his hands in the air. “They don’t want any ratings? They don’t want any surprises?”
As he makes a beeline for the office of telecast co-producer Brian Grazer, a pair of stony-faced men from PricewaterhouseCoopers pass him going the other direction. Each is carrying a black leather valise — inside are the envelopes containing the names of all of tonight’s winners. They are guarding the satchels like they are nuclear footballs.
As Hanks disappears into Grazer’s office (as yet unoccupied by Grazer) he greets another friend — composer Marc Shaiman, who has written some joke songs for the telecast. “Vice Principal Hanks!” the composer says, greeting his old friend with an inscrutable in-joke.
Suddenly, a cart full of glistening statuettes is wheeled to the wings of the stage under heavy security. It is the collection of 49 Oscar statuettes that will be given out this evening.
Things are starting to heat up and get more crowded. The previously quiet hallway begins bustling with activity as dancers arrive, crew workers cluster in, and celebrity presenters pass through making last-minute checks and preparations.
Bradley Cooper stops by to do a pre-show interview with Cagle, while Uggie the now-famous dog from The Artist is accompanied by his trainer to his dressing room one floor below. While standing with the pooch and waiting for the elevator, stage manager Valdez Flagg announces in his headset: “Uggie has made contact.”
Flagg says these words with all the heaviness of “Houston, we have a problem.” It’s appropriate since Grazer, the producer of Apollo 13, is making his appearance backstage at this very moment — looking for the star of that movie. “Let’s go say hi to Tom,” he says.
With half an hour to go before the broadcast, Flagg finds Grazer to give him the latest countdown. “No need to stress,” the stage manager says.
Grazer shakes his head and tightens his jaw. “No stress at all,” he says. “It’s all peace and love here.”
It sounds like he’s trying to convince himself rather than state a fact.
The one name on this night that’s even bigger than Oscar hasn’t yet made an appearance: Telecast host Billy Crystal, who remains in his dressing room as makeup people and writers circulate in and out.
NEXT: Hanks shows Cagle the “Winners Walk,” Oprah appears, and Crystal emerges from his dressing room
Hanks separates from Grazer and heads to record his interview with Cagle, giving him — and the viewers at home — a tour of the “Winners Walk,” which is the network of passages leading from the wings of the stage in the theater to the press room and photographers in the adjacent Renaissance Hotel.
Everyone at the Oscars is required to dress in formal attire, whether they’re on camera or not. From security guards to crew workers and emergency personnel, everyone seems to be wearing a tuxedo.
Hanks spots the one guy who isn’t — a thin, young fellow wearing gym shorts, sneakers, and a pink T-shirt. “Hey, thanks for dressing up!” Hanks says, giving a salute as the young man darts by (it turns out he’s a dancer for Cirque du Soleil who hasn’t yet made his costume change).
That’s Vice Principal Hanks for you. As an elder statesman of the Academy Awards, the two-time Oscar winner and frequent presenter rules his roost with a sarcastic fist. No one is immune, not even Oprah. “Do good. Don’t screw up!” Hanks says, shaking a warning finger at the Honorary Oscar recipient as he heads off for his pre-show interview.
The clock is still ticking, show time is getting nearer, and still no sign of Crystal. Other past hosts — from Chris Rock to Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, and Jon Stewart — have tended to come out barking good wishes to the crew in an effort to build up confidence and excitement. Crystal prefers to lie low.
When his door finally does crack open, Crystal is sipping tea. He greets Grazer, who holds out his hands and says, “Thank you. Thank you for doing this.”
Crystal smiles and shrugs. “You’ve been doing all the work.”
Minutes later, Crystal quietly walks through the hall into the wings of the stage and out into the center spot, waiting as the last moments pass before show time.
Meanwhile, Vice Principal Hanks is keeping the energy alive, narrating for a group of crew workers the soundless video being broadcast backstage of his “Winners Walk” tour with Cagle.
“You see, this isn’t live,” Hanks says, raising his hands so the people around him can see — obviously — that he is real and not in the next-door hotel at that moment.
On screen, he and Cagle pass through a doorway into the photo room while the real-life Hanks narrates the silent footage: “You can’t hear this, but I introduce them as ‘Here’s the savage hordes!'” Hanks says.
The onscreen Hanks is gesticulating his arms wildly toward the photographers, who stand up and begin setting off their flash bulbs. “Here I am making them act,” Hanks says.
Minutes later, as Morgan Freeman prepares to kick off the show with a tribute to “the magic of movies,” he is asked by a crew worker if he would like a little makeup. “Good lord, no,” Freeman says, laughing.
It turns out, seeing overly made-up stars on awards shows is kind of a pet peeve for the actor.
Stage manager Dency Nelson tells the makeup worker, “And, per Mr. Freeman, don’t overdo it on everyone else, either.” Both then laugh as a stoic Crystal takes his spot.
The final countdown begins, the music starts to play, and the 84th Annual Academy Awards get underway.
Finally, the Billy Crystal we’ve been waiting for comes alive.
See live video from behind the scenes at the awards at Oscar.com.