I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is the Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get the Backstory in your inbox every Friday, sign up here.
Watching the Oscars red carpet, you’d have no idea the celebrities are walking into a shopping mall – in the rain. The show is all about escapism.
There was Janelle Monáe in a Ralph Lauren gown covered in more than 168,000 Swarovski crystals. And Elton John in a purple tux with crystals lining his black lapels. And so many capes and trains and royal trains (trains that start as capes), from Brie Larson to Mindy Kaling to Olivia Colman.
The show is at the Dolby Theatre, upstairs in an outdoor mall at the corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. Approaching the theater, limos must zigzag around concrete security barriers, and protesters line both sides of the street. At drop-off, the (very soggy) red carpet extends out to the pavement, so dresses never touch the road.
In the security tent, the crowd parts. Celebrities go to the left for photos in front of the Oscar backdrop. Guests go to the right so they don’t get in the way. There is a small draped alley down the middle for stylists and publicists who need to meet their celebs back on the red carpet. Both sides of the walkway are lined with shimmering gold curtains, street signs for Ghirardelli chocolates, a minimart and Hollywood tours peek out just above.
Most journalists have assigned spots on the carpet. Sandy Hooper has 18 inches for herself and the video camera, so she chooses a simple gown, with flip flops underneath.
Entertainment reporter Carly Mallenbaum stands directly in front of her, interviewing A-listers as they make their way down the carpet.
“The weather on Oscars night definitely threw us for a loop,” Hooper said. “Once the carpet locked down, the sky opened up. Everything was soaked from the back of my dress to the camera.”
“We had a pretty decent flow of interviews with celebrities such as Taika Waititi, ‘Parasite’ director Bong Joon Ho, Mindy Kaling and Lin-Manuel Miranda. We keep an eagle eye out for celebs coming down the carpet and time out our current interviews so we don’t miss an opportunity with the next potential person.”
Photographer Dan MacMedan stands in a fixed spot at the start of the carpet. Bert Hanashiro had the rare ability to roam. And inside the theater, Robert Deutsch was testing our photo transmission lines from his box seat to the nearby hotel where a team of photo editors handles the constant stream of images.
By the end of the night, we will have taken more than 15,000 images. Roughly a thousand will be edited, captioned and made available to USA TODAY and our 260 network news sites across the U.S.
They will be viewed millions of times.
Even with all the movie magic, things would get real. Performers called out the lack of diversity among nominees. Brad Pitt got political. And Jane Fonda had a moment with Joaquin Phoenix.
Entertainment reporter Andrea Mandell was in the wings, stage left, watching it all.
As the winners are escorted off the stage, they are offered a chance to thank more people with the “thank you cam.” Then they hit the green room before being shuttled to backstage interview rooms, where more journalists wait.
“As soon as the acceptance speech is over, they walk right off the stage and into the wings. There is no break,” Mandell said. “(Best-actor winner) Joaquin Phoenix had just read lyrics from his brother. He was obviously emotional. When he came back, he was trying to collect himself. It was a moment of grief, but also joy. Jane Fonda put her hand on his cheek. It was such a maternal moment.”
She also witnessed outright glee. The “Parasite” crew didn’t head to the wings right away. They stayed on the stage celebrating after winning best picture. “They were losing their minds,” she laughed.
As special as her spot is, Mandell says, it’s also a bit stressful. “You have to be invisible but present everywhere.”
Stage managers make it known that the moving cameras, set pieces and a smooth run of show have priority. “You have to be cognizant of the fact that they can throw you out at any moment.”
Still, she got the first glimpse of James Corden and Rebel Wilson as cats, and she watched as the producers “cringed” when they started batting the mic with their paws (it was funny, but it was not planned). She was trying to listen to Brad Pitt’s speech but Idina Menzel was warming up, loudly, 20 feet behind her.
And she was there when the sound went down on the “Parasite” cast’s best-picture acceptance speeches, and the audience started chanting to let them finish.
“I watched the producers duke it out with the director over what to do,” Mandell said. “They were already 30 minutes over a three-hour show. That was a hotly debated moment backstage. The producers won out.”
And so did we. “Parasite” was the emotional favorite going into the awards. Moviegoers agree this movie – its storytelling, its social commentary – is special.
“The most personal is the most creative,” said Ho, accepting the award for best director. He said that quote is from “our great Martin Scorsese.”
Scorsese was in tears, the audience was on its feet.
The celebrities, the dresses, the gossip – they’re all good forms of escape, says Life Managing Editor Alison Maxwell. “But when you strip those out, you get to the core of what the Oscars are all about: honoring creativity and hard work. And those are two things that resonate with our readers.”
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. She is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Benjamin C. Bradlee “Editor of the Year” and proud mom of three. Comments? Questions? Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here.