LOS ANGELES – Before stars appear on camera at the Oscars, the scene just offstage is so very human.
True, the scene backstage is as impossibly A-list as it gets, with stunning stars dressed in designer duds, thousand-dollar updos and diamonds the size of marbles. But as the Academy Awards sped from act to act, USA TODAY had a bird’s-eye view in the wings of the show.
That’s where we saw Elton John collecting himself in the moments before his rendition of “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” was broadcast to billions of people around the world. It’s also where an emotional Joaquin Phoenix first took a steadying breath after claiming gold.
What else did we see? From Idina Menzel’s vocal warmups to producers refusing to play off the “Parasite” cast and filmmakers off, here are all the best moments that happened steps from the stage.
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Everyone hits the bathroom (and the bar) after the red carpet
Immediately following the red carpet, stars queue up for one of the two single bathrooms backstage. “Are you in line?” Steve Martin asks a woman waiting for the restroom, before striking up a conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is dutifully holding wife Vanessa Nadal’s purse. These stars seem well aware that Martin and Chris Rock are opening the show. “Break a leg out there!” Sandra Oh calls out to Martin as she walks by.
With five minutes to showtime, Margot Robbie and her husband Tom Ackerley, who’s holding a glass of Champagne, leave the hopping green room to catch the beginning of the show from their seats.
Before hitting the stage, Martin fishes ChapStick out his back pocket and reapplies. He paces the wings but looks calm. A one-minute warning sounds. Martin adjusts his tux in the mirror. “Have a great show, everyone,” you can hear crackle over walkie-talkies.
Brad Pitt wins!
The show starts smoothly. Oscars producer Stephanie Allain chair-dances watching Monae finish her opening number on the monitors. And after Martin and Rock finish their laugh-packed opening monologue, Oscars producer Lynette Howell Taylor marks another win. “That was good!” she says.
As Pitt accepts best supporting actor for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the star’s first-ever acting Oscar, a familiar “Ah ahhh ah ahhh” rises from the back of the wings. Of course, it’s Idina Menzel, practicing snippets of “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II.”
Then Pitt arrives in the wings fresh off his win. “Thank you, thank you,” he says as people congratulate him on his way to the green room.
Menzel gets a quick hair touch-up and continues running through her vocal warm-up. She looks in the mirror and carefully dabs a finger under each eye, checking for stray eyeshadow.
As the international Elsas take the stage, Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak are seen huddling outside of the green room, chatting. (Kristen Wiig stops by to say hi.) A few minutes later, while watching the Elsas on a monitor, Diane Keaton gets a last-minute hair comb under her hat from an assistant. She wipes lipstick from her front teeth and claps while watching Menzel’s big finish.
“OK, OK!” Howell Taylor exhales as the Elsas exit. “It was so good, you killed it,” she tells them.
Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph do a postmortem
Moments after Taika Waititi wins best adapted screenplay, presenters Timothee Chalamet and Natalie Portman join him backstage and drop any pretenses – it’s clear they were rooting for the “Jojo Rabbit” writer/director. “Yeahhhh!!!” says Portman, hugging Waititi as Chalamet cheers: “Oscar winner! Oscar winner!”
Then attention turns to Wiig and Rudolph before they hit the stage. The comedians practice harmonizing and chuckle trading last-minute notes. “Do good, girls!” says Shia LaBeouf, passing by with Zach Gottsagen, whom he just finished presenting with. “Thanks, you guys did great!” says Rudolph.
After their segment, Wiig and Rudolph leave the wings and can be heard dissecting which jokes hit, saying reception was quieter than expected. They’re reassured that all the directors were dying laughing. The two decamp into the green room.
Nearby, Salma Hayek and Oscar Isaac run into each other by the bathrooms and speak in Spanish. After they’re finished chatting, a stage assistant leads Isaac down the hallway. “I’m going to walk you to stage in about two minutes. Do you want a little touch-up?” she asks the star, leading him to a curtained-off makeup area.
Laura Dern is weepy
Despite Hollywood at large predicting Dern would win best supporting actress, Dern still seemed thrown backstage holding her Oscar. After receiving a hug from presenter Mahershala Ali, Dern hits the bonus thank-you cam in the wings to continue to recognize her team, including her publicist. “I hope you heard me thanking you on the thank-you cam. I was just in such shock (onstage),” she says, teary and sniffling.
A few minutes later, Julia Louis-Dreyfus arrives with Will Ferrell to prepare for their segment. “Do we need to steam this, or what do you think?” she asks her publicist, gesturing to the middle section of her navy Vera Wang silk dress, cognizant of light creasing that may have set in after sitting for half the telecast.
Later, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell finish their segment, they walk backstage mimicking the shock and awe of someone who has won gold. “Oh, my God! Thank you!” they call out, embracing in faux joy as photographers snap away.
About that Eminem Oscars surprise
No one was more stoked about Eminem’s surprise performance than the show’s own producers. As Eminem rose on a platform to stage level, both women say, “Yes!”
But there’s a moment of worry. Eminem’s audio seems spotty and Howell Taylor is on it: “Where’s his mic?” she frets. “It’s there,” an aide assures her. And as Eminem finishes, the producers cheer. “We (expletive) did it!” Howell Taylor yells. “Best kept secret!”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who introduced Eminem’s segment, comes back into the wings after the performance ends. “Thanks for letting me hang and have the best seat in the house,” he calls back to the producers.
Later, Howell Taylor says the idea to have Eminem perform “Lose Yourself” 17 years after he won best original song (but did not attend) came because “we made a show that was about impact and we wanted to do a segment on the impact of music. And we reached out to see if that was something he wanted to be involved in and we were just really lucky he said yes.”
The ‘Cats’ come back
No one could stop chuckling when James Corden and Rebel Wilson pranced through the wings dressed in giant furry cat costumes. “Do you know what’s funny is we’ve got to get glamorous after this,” Wilson says to Corden.
“This show is off the chain,” Allain grins, as she, Corden and Wilson snap a photo together. “Watch out, you’ll need a lint roller after this,” Corden cracks. Amusingly, even Wilson’s cat costume gets the VIP treatment, as a stylist combs the costume’s fur before the star hits the stage.
After the two hit it out of the park (though Howell Taylor says she didn’t know they were going to bat at the microphone stand like cats), it’s time to re-glam. “Now I’ve got to go get back into regular makeup,” Wilson says, parting ways with Corden.
Green room foibles
There were a few hiccups backstage. Halfway through the show, Hayek, who left her clutch backstage for safekeeping while presenting, now can’t find it. “It’s a gold little purse,” she says. (A half-hour later, she was still looking for it. “I want to go sit down but I’m really concerned about my purse,” she says.)
The green room remained a hotspot throughout the night. Ray Romano took a swing through, as did Penelope Cruz. Rita Wilson could be seen talking to Gal Gadot inside the no-media zone. And after she presented with Sigourney Weaver and Gadot, Brie Larson hit the green room until almost the end of the show (where Waititi was also hanging out). “How do I get back to my seat?” Larson asks, wanting to see the last big awards of the night.
A moment of calm for Elton John
Before making it to the stage to perform his song from “Rocketman,” John sat quietly in a chair in the wings – so quietly, in fact, that Oh completely missed the superstar while walking by. “What was that last award for?” John asks, having missed the makeup and hairstyling award. A minute later he belts out a vocal warm-up: “Ahh ooh oh.” Then John adjusts his bracelets, takes a deep breath, stands up and walks out to the stage.
Billie Eilish and Spike Lee miss each other
Eilish kept to herself as she made her way into the wings with her entourage ahead of singing “Yesterday” during in memoriam. Spike Lee, who had just congratulated Hildur Guðnadóttir on her original score win for “Joker,” seemed prepared for an Eilish interaction, should she meet his eye. But Eilish was in her own zone, adjusting her neon green hair with her long black nails and singing softly to herself while adjusting her earpiece and waiting to go on.
After she performs, Eilish returns backstage and takes photos with producers Allain and Howell Taylor. “Thank you guys so much,” she says.
Joaquin Phoenix is emotional with Jane Fonda
Fonda walks into the wings holding her red coat over her left shoulder. “Good for you Renee,” says Fonda, watching Zellweger accept her best actress Oscar on a monitor.
The two actresses share a moment backstage before Renee walks off. “If only I could stand up straight – I’m shaking so much. Oh, my word,” Zellweger says. She hits the thank-you cam, and heads toward the green room – but then returns at a clip. “I forgot (someone)!” she exclaims. “I’m coming back!”
It’s notable that almost no one’s speeches get cut off Sunday night under Allain and Howell’s watch. Allain bangs on the table in solidarity as Phoenix gives his impassioned speech, and both women applaud when he finishes.
Most stars walk directly into the wings following their acceptance speeches, but Phoenix takes a moment in the shadows behind a curtain before joining the fray. He looks emotional walking back, and Fonda puts a hand on his cheek, as Olivia Colman looks on. Collecting himself, Phoenix starts away walking with an escort. “OK, whose is this?” he asks, holding up the gold Oscar in his hand. “Yours,” says the stagehand, sounding surprised.
Bong Joon-ho is unstoppable
The “Parasite” director was clearly bowled as his Oscar wins began to snowball. “Wow. Amazing,” he repeated after winning best director.
Turning to his translator, who has been with him for the duration of awards season. Joon-ho extends the Oscar out to her, and she holds it, briefly, before grinning and returning it to its rightful owner.
A few acts later, the crowd backstage cheers when “Parasite” makes history as the first foreign-language film to win best picture. But as the show is running almost 30 minutes late, a choice is made to cut from “Parasite” producers to Fonda, who is supposed to close the show.
It’s an intense moment at the producers’ desk. They speak remotely with director Glenn Weiss, who appears to have made the call, and cameras quickly turn back to “Parasite.”
“It wasn’t going out like that, Glenn. Thank you,” says Howell Taylor a moment later.
After the show goes off the air, no one budges from the stage, as the “Parasite” cast and producers continue to celebrate while most auditorium guests jet to the Governors Ball (sans Tom Hanks and Charlize Theron, who keep talking at their seats).
Joon-ho sums up the night thusly walking backstage in a sea of gold Oscars: “It’s crazy. Totally crazy.”
The producers appear happy at the telecast’s close, rising from their desks and giving each other a hug. “I feel really happy,” says Howell Taylor, when asked about the show. “It’s an incredible group of winners and the performances killed it.”