FEINBERG: Recapping My Night at the Oscars

THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg, who attended the Oscars last night, recounts memorable sights and sounds from before, during, and after the show.
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Last night, thanks to a very kind gesture on the part of my editor, I was able to realize a lifelong dream and sit in the audience at the Academy Awards. I covered the Oscars from the backstage press room three years ago, which was a thrill in and of itself, but, as someone who has spent a huge chunk of my life researching, writing, and talking about the Oscars, you can imagine how much more excited I was to have the chance to watch the ceremony unfold with my own two eyes. And, I'm pleased to report, the experience did not disappoint.

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At about 3:00pm, I hopped into my car and made my way from Century City to downtown Hollywood. After following directions from the Academy that guided me around closed-off streets, I arrived at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, where my car and others marked with an Academy-provided parking sticker were waved forward and into a line to be inspected by security. After clearing that, I drove a short distance further -- past tall fences on either side of the street through which hundreds of fans peered, hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity -- and pulled up just in front of the red carpet at about 3:45pm. There, a valet took my vehicle and directed me toward a mass of beautiful and well-dressed people who were snapping pics of each other in front of a tent emblazoned with the words "Welcome to the Academy Awards."

We were then ushered into that tent, where we had to check our cameras (but not our phones) for the evening and pass through a metal detector. A few steps beyond the screeners, there was a bit of traffic congestion, and as I eventually made my way around the corner I could see why: this was the beginning of the main part red carpet that we have all come to know over the years through pre-show broadcasts. As it turns out, it is divided into two lanes that are separated by little barricades. The left lane is for the people whom the media might care to interview (which is why the media are gathered behind the shrubs that line the left side of that corridor), and the right lane is for the people whom the media probably wouldn't care to interview, but who still get to experience what it's like to walk the red carpet (and to hear the hysterical shrieks of the fans who scored seats in the bleachers that line the right side of that corridor).

One thing that I never fully appreciated from TV was just how long the red carpet actually is -- it goes on for literally blocks (although those downtown Hollywood blocks are made up to look nothing like they do the other 51 weeks of each year, when they are populated by homeless people, drug dealers, and tourists). During my walk down the red carpet, I passed all of the following being interviewed by various media outlets and/or up on a pedestal by my pal Dave Karger of EW, the official Academy "greeter": Kristen Wiig (star of/best original screenplay nominee for Bridesmaids), Rooney Mara (best actress nominee for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Glenn Close (best actress nominee for Albert Nobbs), Janet McTeer (best supporting actress nominee for Albert Nobbs), Melissa McCarthy (best supporting actress nominee for Bridesmaids), Viola Davis (best actress nominee for The Help), George Clooney (best actor nominee for The Descendants and best original screenplay nominee for The Ides of March), Jason Segal (star of The Muppets), James Cromwell (star of The Artist), Maya Rudolph (star of Bridesmaids), Wendy McLendon-Covey (star of Bridesmaids), Judd Apatow (producer of Bridesmaids) and Leslie Mann (his actress/wife), and Wim Wenders (best doc feature nominee for Pina). I also caught the attention of my friend Marshall Curry (best doc feature nominee for If a Tree Falls), and was excited to be able to reach across the lane-barricade to shake his hand and wish him luck.

Eventually, the carpet stops going straight and cuts to the right, after which there are no more media outlets shouting for interviews, the two lanes merge, and the staircase that leads up to the Kodak Theatre -- or, at least, the theater formerly known as the Kodak -- comes into view just beyond a giant curtain hanging from the roof. It was there that I decided to discreetly hang out for a bit in order to people-watch and greet those who I knew as they made their way past.

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I watched as a few of the older folks -- James Earl Jones (one of this year's honorary Oscar recipients), John Williams (a best original score double-nominee for The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse), and Dolores Hart (the subject of the best doc short nominee God Is the Bigger Elvis) -- slowly made their way past me, and as a parade of others also strolled by, including: Brian Grazer (the producer of this year's Oscar show), Chris Dodd (my former U.S. Senator from Connecticut and the current head of the MPAA), Antonio Banderas (star of best animated feature nominee Puss in Boots) and Melanie Griffith (his actress/wife), Jessica Chastain (best supporting actress nominee for The Help), Nick Nolte (best supporting actor nominee for Warrior), Milla Jovovich (who hosted this year's Academy Sci-Tech Awards), Letty Aronson (best picture nominee for Midnight in Paris, which was written/directed by her brother Woody Allen), Tina Fey (a presenter this year), Aaron Sorkin (best original screenplay nominee for Moneyball), Emma Stone (star of The Help), Chris Columbus (a producer of The Help), Joe Letteri (best visual effects nominee for Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Meryl Streep (best actress nominee), Harvey Weinstein (whose studio distributed the nominated films The Artist, The Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn, Undefeated, and W.E), and Jennifer Lopez (accompanied by a guy holding her dress trail).

I chatted with my friend Melissa Leo (last year's best supporting actress winner and the presenter of best supporting actress this year), who was accompanied by her son). I was warmly thanked by writer/director J.C. Chandor (best original screenplay nominee for Margin Call) and his producer Neal Dodson, who (over)-credit me for shining a spotlight on their great little film, and who introduced me to their parents and their star/producer Zachary Quinto. I had a chance to hug and catch up a bit with one of my true favorites, Michelle Williams (best actress nominee for My Week with Marilyn), who was, as always, beautiful and accompanied by her best friend Busy Philipps. I chatted a bit with fellow film trivia buff Michael Barker (co-chief of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed three of the five best foreign language film nominees). And, upon spotting Sacha Baron Cohen -- moments after the Ryan Seacrest incident took place (unbeknownst to me) -- approaching in the full regalia of the Middle Eastern dictator that he will play in his next film, I couldn't help but call out with a smile, "General Aladeen!," for which I was rewarded with a friendly handshake.

I then decided to heed the warnings of a guy on the loudspeaker who urged us to make our way into the theater to try to find our seats. On my way to doing so, I was able to grab a copy of the official Oscar program -- but not a drink, since the bars located on each of the four levels temporarily shut down 15 minutes before the show begins in order to encourage people to make their way inside (as opposed to hanging out in the beautifully decorated lobbies, which were lined with pictures of great Oscar moments of yesteryear). Eventually, I made my way to Mezzanine 2 (two levels up from the ground floor), and found that I was seated in its first row, which provided a wonderful birds-eye view of the stage and the rows in which all of the nominees were seated. (Needless to say, I would have been perfectly happy to sit in even the worst seat in the house!)

As Billy Crystal took the stage and the show got underway, I felt like a kid in a candy store, and probably annoyed my THR friend/colleague who I sat with by pointing out all of the people who I recognized, explaining my predictions for each category, and Tweeting rather than drinking during commercial breaks. As you may have noticed if you were following me on Twitter during the show, I tried to document things that the TV cameras probably didn't capture but that might be of interest those watching the show at home. Among the more memorable examples:

  • The Help's Octavia Spencer was seated between her writer/director Tate Taylor and co-star Viola Davis, the former of whom had his arm around her shoulder and the latter of whom reached over to touch her arm just before she was announced as the winner of the best supporting actress Oscar. Taylor then escorted Spencer -- whom he has known for 15 years and even roomed with -- up the stairs to the Oscar stage, and sent her off to pick up her prize with what appeared to be a playful spank on the bum.
  • Hugo's Thelma Schoonmaker, who is not the world's most outgoing person, nevertheless shook the hands of the winners of all three categories that were presented during one segment of the show from her aisle seat: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who beat her to win the best film editing Oscar; and then her collaborators from Hugo who won best sound editing and best sound mixing, respectively.
  • Cirque du Soleil played phenomenally well in the theater (way better than I would have expected with this cynical crowd), whereas the silly banter between presenters Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller and Emma Stone did not (remember, they're a cynical crowd!).
  • The Artist's Ludovic Bource displayed some real class after winning best original score, not only in his eloquent acceptance speech, but even before, as he made his way to the stage. He stopped to shake the hand of the legendary John Williams, who accounted for two of the category's five nominations this year, and also acknowledged his fellow musicians in the orchestra as he climbed the stairs to the stage.
  • The Artist's lovable dog Uggie was rushed out of the theater pretty rapidly after completing his "What Are They Thinking?" segment with Billy Crystal. I guess they couldn't risk staining the carpet!
  • The elaborate set piece that rose out of the stage for the presentation of the best original score and best original song categories was very impressive in the theater. I wonder if that was captured on TV.
  • I really wondered if there was some sort of a joke that I was missing when presenter Angelina Jolie first got into her strange pose to show off her right leg. The Descendants' best adapted screenplay winner Jim Rash, a one-time member of the comedy group The Groundlings, zinged her for it... but I thank her for it!
  • In keeping with the Oscar telecast's producers' theme of "going to the movies," ushers passed out popcorn, candy, and breathmints to all of the people in the mezzanine level seats -- and, it's quite possible (although I did not see it myself), in the floor-level seats, as well.
  • When Billy Crystal suggested that Meryl Streep deserved a third Oscar just for having to sit and smile 14 other times when other people beat her, her best actress competitor Viola Davis cheered. (That was before Streep actually beat her, though.)
  • Just seconds before Natalie Portman announced the nominees for and winner of the best actor race, George Clooney leaned over, got the attention of, and whispered something to his best actor rival Jean Dujardin that made Dujardin laugh in his seat. Dujardin's Artist co-star Berenice Bejo then translated for Dujardin Portman's introduction of him. Then, after winning and completing his best actor acceptance speech, Dujardin broke into a little dance like the one he performed at the premiere in The Artist. As he danced his way off to stage-right, however, the curtain began to close, and he was forced to dodge/dance out of its way.
  • After Tom Cruise announced that the best picture winner was The Artist, producer Thomas Langmann convinced writer/director/film editor Michel Hazanavicius to join him on stage, and Hazanavicius then went to work on convincing Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin to do the same (which they only did very reluctantly). Supporting players James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and Missi Pyle also made their way up there, along with Uggie, whose leash Dujardin held while Langmann and Hazanavicius spoke.
  • As soon as the show ended, Tate Taylor, Jessica Chastain, and Steven Spielberg (a DreamWorks partner who helped to greenlight The Help) all surrounded Viola Davis, apparently trying to console her about her upset loss to Meryl Streep just moments earlier. Davis did not appear to be emotional, but had to be hurting.

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Next up for me was the Governors Ball, which is the Academy's official post-Oscars party. Held in the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is adjacent to the former Kodak Theatre, it accomodates roughly half of the people who attended the Oscars ceremony itself, all of whom make their way up a few escalators and past some more press stationed behind bushes on their way into the ballroom. Though I didn't sit inside the Oscars ceremony three years ago, I did cover it from the press room, and was subsequently asked to cover the Governors Ball, so I can tell you first hand that it is now a very different sort of affair than it was even that recently. This year, for the first time, it was not a dinner featuring seated tables, but rather a more relaxed, table-less gathering with lots of lounging areas (to encourage mingling, according to Academy president Tom Sherak) and even a band on a circularly-rotating stage.

I decided to take an initial lap of the place before heading back towards the entrance to pick the brains of some of the guests as they arrived. Along the way, I encountered Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps having a post-show drink together, and asked them if they enjoyed the evening. They said they did, but were bummed to have missed the show-stopping Cirque du Soleil number, having been on a bathroom break when it took place. Michelle asked me what the highlight of the night was for me, and when I told her it was The Artist winning best picture (because I'm a film history buff and was thrilled to see a black-and-white silent win in the 21st century) she and Busy both remarked that they still need to see it, and promptly made plans to do so this week. (I encouraged Michelle to bring along her young daughter, who loves old movies.)

I also bumped into my friend Greg P. Russell, the sound mixer for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, who unfortunately remains Oscar-less after 15 best sound mixing nominations. Greg acknowledged that it was "frustrating" to come up short again, but quickly emphasized how "blessed" he is to have a lovely wife, a terrific kid, a beautiful house, and a great job, and said that he will just use all of this as extra motivation to keep doing the best work that he can on every film.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd was nice enough to take a moment to tell his former constituent that the highlight of the night, for him, was seeing his favorite film of the year, The Descendants, win something -- namely, best adapted screenplay. He was very disappointed, however, that the film's young star, Shailene Woodley, wasn't even nominated, emphasizing his belief that she "was robbed!"

And, upon spotting the great director Norman Jewison, who I have interviewed before, I had to ask him what he made of the evening. He said he really admired the guts that it took to make The Artist in this day and age, and added, "You gotta give those Weinstein brothers credit -- they sure know how to promote a movie!"

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After arriving back at the entrance, I saw Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker who now serves as the Academy's governor of the doc branch, which has taken some heat recently for denying major films nominations and then changing its voting process in a way that left many confused. I asked him what he made of the best doc feature win for Undefeated, and he told me that he found that film -- and really all five of this year's nominees -- to be very "impressive." He also seemed to find it somewhat surprising when I reminded him that it was the first sports-themed doc to win the category in 15 years.

The great Alexander Payne, who directed my favorite film Sideways (2004), then passed by with his new best adapted screenplay Oscar for The Descendants. I had interviewed him and moderated a Q&A in which he participated this season, so he stopped to chat for a moment. When I asked him what he made of the night, he showed me his Oscar and chuckled, "All is well! The only award that Citizen Kane won, as well!" (He was referring to a screenplay Oscar, generally, as Kane won best original -- not adapted -- screenplay.)

Moments later, Kenneth Branagh (best supporting actor nominee for My Week with Marilyn) arrived and told me that the highlight of the show for him was the "pretty mind-blowing" Cirque du Soleil number. He laughed, "I found myself saying, 'Hold on tight!'"

Thelma Schoonmaker, meanwhile, seemed as happy as if she had won an Oscar herself, telling a friend that she was particularly thrilled by Hugo's wins for best cinematography and best visual effects, neither of which were assured, especially because rival awards campaigns apparently outspent theirs on below-the-line categories.

I was somewhat surprised when Viola Davis showed up to the party, since it would have been perfectly understandable if she had elected to just go home and not have to deal with a ton of strangers telling her that they voted for her and were sorry that she had lost. Though Davis did pretty much restrict her socializing to the table where she sat with her family and friends, you can't call her a sore loser.

I then decided to mill around the well-lit area outside of the entrance, where many guests were stopping to chat with each other before heading in to the darker Ball. Steven Spielberg paused to chat with another journalist and myself, and acknowledged that he had been rooting for Davis but was happy for Streep, who he feels still has a few more Oscars left in her! When Owen Wilson came over to join the conversation, Spielberg told him how much he'd loved Midnight in Paris, and noted that "[the film's writer/director] Woody [Allen]  must be really happy." I asked Wilson if he planned to speak with Allen after his Oscar win, he said absolutely. There was a rumor going around that Allen had opted to tune in to the NBA All-Star Game rather than the Oscars telecast, which Wilson did not dispute.

And then I saw the man of the hour -- the returning champion and savior of the Academy, in a way -- Billy Crystal, just as he was wrapping up his interviews on the press line, congratulated him, and convinced him to give one last post-mortem of the show before heading in to the party. The biggest surprise of the night for him? "The biggest surprise was Meryl [Streep] winning -- though it shouldn't be a surprise; I thought it was the best performance, and she's extraordinary, and it's an amazing movie." And the biggest highlight of the night for him personally? "I think just walking out there again and feeling like it was yesterday. I just felt really good. I thought the music was good. You know, you work really hard to make it look easy. And a lot of people helped me: [Oscars show musical director] Marc Shaiman wrote a great medley with me -- he's a genius at that. And the film, I thought, was really beautiful, and interesting, and funny -- and I got to have George [Clooney] come, and Tom [Cruise] come, and Mr. [Justin] Bieber come. And to get to do Sammy [Davis, Jr.] again? It was really fun." I then thanked him, shook his hand, and told him it was great to have him back -- because it was.

The Governors Ball came to a close -- for me, at least -- after James Earl Jones introduced one of the few people in the world with a voice as famous as his own, the great Tony Bennett, who sang a few musical numbers for the awestruck crowd. Even celebrities lined up rows deep to take pictures of the 85-year-old, who Frank Sinatra once called his favorite singer, and who made his big screen debut as an actor in a film called -- appropriately enough -- The Oscar (1966). Bennett closed with "a little tune that I wrote over 50 years ago" -- which turned out to be his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

After Bennett stepped off the stage, I headed back down the elevators to collect my camera and then my car, and noticed that the crews had already begun dismantling the red carpet and packaging away the giant Oscar statuettes for next year. I don't know if there will be a "next year" for me, in the sense that nothing is guaranteed in this life, least of all the opportunity to experience an Oscars ceremony from the audience. But I know this: If I get to attend the Oscars again, I will be very grateful... and if I don't, I will be very grateful, too, for having had the chance to do it once. I can honestly say that it was all that it was cracked up to be, and more.

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