Leave the fancy shoes at home — that’s the first lesson.
Sure, from the outside, the Academy Awards are all about gold and glamour, flash and finery, beautiful people in gorgeous clothes.
But when you’re away from the cameras, trying to keep on the move and observe as much as possible of what really goes on at Oscar’s ground zero, practical considerations come in to play. Those shiny Ferragamo loafers might look better with a tux, but they stay at the back of my closet; soft-soled Rockports are the kind of sartorial faux pas for which my feet thank me.
For close to a dozen years, I’ve been a fly on the wall come Oscar time. Prior to the 1993 Oscars, an unprecedented arrangement between Premiere magazine and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave me entree to production meetings and rehearsals, along with a backstage vantage point during the show. I’ve had similar access nearly every year since.
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During that time, the show grew bigger in scale, more expensive and longer, topping out with four-hour-plus marathons between 1999 and 2002, before the Academy made the 3½-hour show a priority. It has also coped with controversial awards (Elia Kazan, Michael Moore), with 9/11 and with a war in Iraq that began the week of the 2003 show.
It has seen easygoing hosts (Steve Martin), experienced hosts (Billy Crystal) and hosts who didn’t fit: One of my more indelible memories came midway through the 1995 show, when David Letterman walked offstage, went up to Clint Eastwood and said, “I feel like going home.” Through it all, I’ve tried to be observant, and I’ve learned what’s needed to understand the inside of this enormous show.
Locate the epicenter. The spot varies by year and venue.
At the Shrine Auditorium, often as not it was the smoking section just outside the artists entrance, which by midshow was often crowded with the likes of Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Winona Ryder. At the Kodak, it’s frequently the area just outside the only two restrooms near the green room. That’s where Hilary Swank, Diane Lane and Renee Zellweger were waiting when a door opened and Julie Andrews emerged to announce, “Yes, Mary Poppins really does go to the bathroom!”
Watch your feet.The problems created by a plethora of long gowns were aptly summed up one year by Zellweger, who pointed to the train of her red silk chiffon Caroline Herrera gown and told Diane Lane, “It feels like a leash — I’m connected to whoever happens to be standing on it.”
While many a star has found her forward progress jarringly halted by an errant foot, my only such encounter came the year I inadvertently parked myself atop Meryl Streep’s gown, and she hissed, “You’re standing on my dress!”
Of course, Streep is such the consummate actress that her delivery instantly made it clear that (1) she wasn’t really mad, she was just acting mad, and (2) I’d better move or that could change.
Stay out of the way.Winners will be too dazed to notice you, while presenters will be focused on walking across the stage and opening their mouths in front of that mythical billion viewers. The important people to avoid are the stage hands who move scenery in and out: They’ve got to work fast, remaking the Oscar set during each commercial break while dealing with enormous bandstands, panels and gold statuettes in the process. Get in Tom Cruise’s way, and he probably won’t care; get in the way of a crew member pushing a 15-foot-tall Oscar, and you’re just asking to be booted.
Remember that not all stars are created equal.While the green room and backstage areas are invariably crammed with luminaries, some turn heads more than others. The unexpected 2002 appearance of Woody Allen, for instance, caused Julia Roberts and her friends to excitedly whisper, “Woody’s here!” And when Paul McCartney chatted with Carrie Fisher before appearing on the same show, Kevin Spacey stood a few feet away, looking for all the world like a star-struck Beatles fan, not a two-time Oscar winner.
By following these rules –and a few others I’ll keep to myself — I’ve been witness to a host of indelible moments. I’ve watched from the wings as a giddy Roberts clutched her actress trophy while her presenter, Spacey, called for champagne. I’ve run up and down stairs with an Oscar-toting Bruce Springsteen in search of a TV monitor where we could watch Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech.
And so it goes in the world of Oscar, where stardom is relative, where every onstage highlight or lowlight has its backstage corollary and where the 77th Academy Awards will no doubt add to the lore. It’s a new year, with new stories … and the same old shoes.
Adapted from “The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards,” just out from Faber and Faber.