ELLEN DEGENERES set a relaxed tone backstage, as well as in the house, this year. Which was a good thing, because it was cheek-by-jowl behind the scenes. Squished in with the trophy models and the movie stars were the new "thank you cam" and the show announcers; for the first time, the backstage area was also dressed with a mini red carpet and an Oscar.
Historically a dark, busy place filled with stagehands in tuxedos, lots of heavy equipment and a silent stream of famous faces recognizable only in profile created by spill light from the stage, backstage this year was part of the show.
Chris Connelly, the preshow host, strode through several times tallying the wins and cracking jokes. Winners walked back to extend their thanks on Oscar.com, and DeGeneres came back for a visit or two.
She was revving up early -- an hour before the show, as young women with Marie Antoinette hair, bathrobes and Ugg boots were still prowling the backstage halls of the Kodak Theatre and the lone male trophy model, in requisite iPod and skullcap, had his feet up reading "The Alchemist."
DeGeneres bounced nervously on her heels, resplendent in a wine velvet tux. "Nap?" she said to the stage manager. "Of course I didn't nap. If I were a rocket, I would be in the" -- here she shook her entire body like a vibrating Titan -- "stage. Now I'm just going to go make a few changes to the opening monologue," she said to the general panicked merriment of those standing around her. "Just a few changes. Get out your pens."
The backstage celebrity quotient was high half an hour till showtime, with a near collision between Jennifer Lopez and Nicole Kidman, Kidman hopping slightly because of a footwear malfunction -- her foot kept slipping out of her shoe. "OK, you two are the best. You guys look beautiful," said the show's producer, Laura Ziskin, as she passed.
Lopez continued past DeGeneres' dressing room, where the host stood in her doorway, a much more marked presence than hosts in previous years. "What are you doing?" DeGeneres called to Lopez. "You just passed here five minutes ago. Are you trying to get my attention?" Other stars engaged in similar banter. Robert Downey Jr., after asking his wife if she needed to use the restroom, shouted to DeGeneres, "You're gonna handle it, honey."
"Oh yes, I'm gonna handle it," she returned.
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, tiny and as gold as the Oscar itself, laughed with the host as they passed. And Melissa Etheridge yelled, "You're funny."
"You're funny and sweet and a great singer too," came the reply.
As presenters and receivers began to move on- and offstage, the setup put everyone in physical proximity, with a lot more bumping of shoulders -- literally. Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly stood laughing together (so loudly, in fact, that they threatened to disrupt the backstage bit DeGeneres was doing with a stagehand). And a few minutes later, there were Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell, hanging around after their moment onstage, waiting to greet Alan Arkin, who'd just won a best supporting actor Oscar for "Little Miss Sunshine," the film in which they all starred.
"Wow," Carell said, putting his hands around the statue. Arkin, truly amazed, was emotional as he embraced the two. But then he said with a laugh, "Now I can talk to people about subjects I know nothing about, because now I know I'll get asked."
Perhaps the most striking "only at the Oscars" moment was the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore rehearsing their "Oscar goes green" routine. (Interestingly, Gore looked much more at ease than DiCaprio, who seemed rather nervous.) As they left, Tom Hanks walked by, punching DiCaprio in the shoulder with a "Hey Leo, you looked good out there." The parade continued. Helen Mirren walked by, with Ben Affleck just behind her.
A riot of costumes
Sherry Lansing panicked a bit just before receiving her award from Tom Cruise. For one thing, she was unused to being on the performing side of the entertainment business. For another, some 50 people in full costume stood between her and the stage -- one of the most colorful moments backstage was watching the Chinese emperor followed by the French queen followed by the pop star and the corgis filing past on their way to celebrate costume design.
A crew member soothed the former Paramount chief, saying: "Watch what's unfolding on the screen. This is all about you." To which Lansing snapped, "I've seen it already, I want a moment to myself." And that's the difference between an ex-studio executive and a first-time nominee.
The photo op of the evening, from backstage anyway, was Lansing and Cruise coming offstage, embracing, as he and show writer Bruce Vilanch assured her that she had been gorgeous. "It was fabulous. It was completely 'Hello, this is Mrs. Norman Maine,' " Vilanch enthused. It never hurts to quote "A Star Is Born."