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{THE OSCARS}

Backstage, where the stars align

The view from the wings is truly extraordinary. From there, former winners head to the stage to present, returning with newly crowned Oscar winners.

March 06, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

MANY people left the 78th Academy Awards with Oscars, but Lauren Bacall was probably the only one who left with a penguin. The actress happened to be standing backstage right when "March of the Penguins" won documentary feature. As the filmmakers exited the stage, they were so thrilled to encounter Bacall they handed her one of the stuffed penguins they had brought on stage.

"It's very sweet," said the actress as she headed back to her seat looking strangely as if she'd just been to a carnival. "But I don't know exactly what I should do with it."

The view from backstage right is as good as it gets on Oscar night. Steps away from the lovely, lily-fragrant greenroom, it is the place from which most presenters are launched and the exit path of every winner.

The idea of Hollywood as a high-wattage social club is never clearer than in the shadows of backstage right. Surrounded by tuxedoed stagehands, bumping shoulders as they sidestep flying pieces of scenery, stars greet one another as if they were long-lost friends. Musicians fawn over actors, who fawn over musicians.

And at least for these three hours, there's an "Ohmigod, you look so beautiful" camaraderie that's contagious.

Here early winners George Clooney and Rachel Weisz passed, each looking dazed by what must have been a sudden onslaught of adrenaline -- hadn't they just been on the red carpet a few minutes ago?

Here Charlize Theron chatted with Bacall -- when they were briefly joined by famously mop-topped writer Bruce Vilanch it became a quintessentially Hollywood bevy of blonds.

In the dim blue glimmer of a large TV screen, Ben Stiller, in his green unitard, flirted deadpan with the trophy models, three lovely young women who sat in canvas chairs flung with bathrobes. Nearby shelves of Oscars gleamed, each one polished by a man in white cotton gloves.

A procession of famous profiles stood in the still-light backstage right. Jennifer Lopez waited patiently with Salma Hayek as Kathleen "Bird" York, nominated for best song, practiced in short, soft, gorgeous trills. "Hustle & Flow's" Terrence Howard debated whether he should wear his glasses.

Reese Witherspoon glided by in her "I'm about to win an Oscar" dress, and violinist Itzhak Perlman, preparing to perform pieces from the best score nominees, hoisted himself with the aid of crutches from his mobile chair to the seat made ready for him on a sliding platform.

When complimented on his grace, he said with a laugh, "Oh, I've just done this so many times."

Outside in the corridor that runs along the back of the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are held, every famous person in the world seemed to hurry past on their way to the greenroom, or in a few cases, the smoking area that had been created on the loading dock outside.

Jack Nicholson, dutifully followed by a horde of photographers, smoked and posed for pictures with great tolerance while a few steps away Russell Crowe looked at the ground and pretended he was one of the stagehands.

In the greenroom, the ratio of celebrities to cubic centimeters of oxygen was so high that nonfamous people found it difficult to breathe -- though maybe it was just the lilies.

Director Robert Altman, who received an honorary Oscar, held court with his wife on one pale couch -- Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman and Dustin Hoffman all bent their heads over him to pay tribute. John Travolta chatted with Clooney, then with Tom Hanks, while Watts and Kidman tested the chocolates.

Hoffman kept in sight of Samuel L. Jackson, asking if Jackson was returning to New York. "No," he said, "I'm going to Morocco to do a film." Hoffman said, laughing, "I don't want to jinx it, but the only time I went to Morocco we made 'Ishtar.' "

But even the glamorous calm of the greenroom was broken when "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" won best song. No award received a louder, more joyous response. Stagehands, musicians, reporters, publicists all literally jumped into the air when the announcement was made. And the winners themselves were shouting and crying when they came off stage -- a marked contrast to the more quiet joy of other winners.

"We're partying now," one winner said, hoisting his statue high. "Oscars will never be the same."

Backstage right is also where Hilary Swank threw a comforting arm around an emotional Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had just won best actor for "Capote." He was concerned that he had left people out of his acceptance speech.

"Oh, I know," Swank said. "No one forgot like I forgot," she said of the omission of her husband during her first Oscar speech for best actress in "Boys Don't Cry." "But people will understand; they really will."

Within 20 minutes of Jon Stewart saying "Thanks for coming," there were just a few people in their gowns walking around backstage. Most of the stagehands had ditched their tuxes and were back in their black jeans, Oscar sweatshirts and work shoes, dismantling the set.

The house was empty save for a few water bottles under the seats. There wasn't a movie star in sight.

The only thing that was left was the smell of the lilies.

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