Backstage at the Oscars: My First Time

RT's Jen Yamato gives her first-hand account of what it was like to cover the Academy Awards.

by | February 24, 2009 | Comments

In the movie world there is no event greater, no red carpet glitzier, no awards show more meaningful, than that of the Academy Awards. While millions watch the biggest night in Hollywood via television and thousands post show commentaries on their blogs (or, in the case of this year, on Twitter), Rotten Tomatoes was on the ground, right smack dab in the middle of it all. Read on as RT’s Jen Yamato recounts this year’s Oscars show, from the best parts of the musical-laden telecast to the quiet moments backstage with the night’s triumphant winners.

Jen here! After weeks of anticipation and months of populating Rotten Tomatoes’ Awards Tour with major awards show news, galleries, trivia, and interviews with this year’s Oscar nominees and winners, the day finally came to cover the Superbowl of movies: The 81st Annual Academy Awards! So on Sunday afternoon, I gussied myself up (left) — formal wear mandatory, even for the backstage press room — and headed to the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel to camp out for the next eight hours. It was just like my Senior Prom, only instead of a tuxedoed date (he’d worn white a la Mickey Rourke this year, incidentally) I’d be cozied up with my laptop, watching glamorous A-listers traipse up and down the red carpet practicing their best “It was an honor just to be nominated” faces.

Would Kate Winslet break the Susan Lucci curse and wrestle the Best Actress trophy from Meryl Streep‘s greedy paws? Could any film other than Slumdog Millionaire really contend for the Best Picture prize? Would Hugh Jackman usher in a new era of song-and-dance hosting, or make us long for the days of a Billy Crystal wisecrack? And would Beyonce please change out of that black and gold mermaid dress, which someone apparently made from her grandma’s drapery??

“This Slumdog Millionaire just needs some Milk!”

— Oscar host Hugh Jackman, before launching into the opening musical sequence


Oscar watchers had known for a while that this year’s show would be different; ratings in recent years had dipped so low that some wondered if the Academy could ever get America watching again. (ABC’s early numbers show that ratings were up six percent from last year’s all time low of 32 million viewers.) But who knew it would be this different?

Filmmakers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark (the writer/director and producer of 2006’s Oscar-winning Dreamgirls, respectively) were tapped to produce the show, no doubt in hopes that they would jazz up the proceedings. As they’d done to the film musical genre (with Dreamgirls and Chicago, which Condon wrote), the duo injected the Oscar show with a healthy smattering of shuffle-ball-changes and jazz hands, employing Aussie stage star-turned-Wolverine Hugh Jackman to lead two huge musical numbers; the first one, lampooning the Best Picture nominees, worked (thanks in large part to singing starlet Anne Hathaway, plucked from the crowd to duet with Jackman in the spirit of Frost/Nixon).

The second number, featuring guest stars Beyonce, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Zac Efron, and Vanessa Hudgens…not so much. Even with help from Baz Luhrmann — the king of the overdone, sentimental spectacle — the ode to music in movies from Jackman and Co. had many viewers wondering when the Oscars had become the Tony Awards. That is, those viewers who knew what the Tonys are to begin with. Others (read: the under-40 crowd) just squirmed in their seats until the singing and dancing were over.

Fun fact: The Oscars provide an “Academy Librarian” in the press room to answer your nerdiest, most obscure Oscar-related questions. When did Oscar last feature an all-star musical number?

It was back in 1990, two years after the infamous Alan Carr-produced spectacle-debacle featuring Snow White and Rob Lowe. My personal favorite is the sequence from the year before, with “stars of the future” like Ricki Lake, Patrick Dempsey, and Corey Feldman.

Next: Backstage with Kate Winslet, Best Actress winner

“My mum won a pickled onion competition in the local pub just before Christmas, and you know, that was a big deal. And the Reading Evening Post sent me a picture of her holding up her jar. Well, Reading Evening Post, there’s your next Winslet picture.”

Kate Winslet, after winning the Oscar for Best Actress


Being backstage in the press room amounts to a lot of waiting around. You can tune in to the telecast on a headset when the winners, ushered to us after receiving their Oscars, are not at the podium taking questions. Even then, it becomes tedious; I hate to say it, but even journalists don’t much care what a production designer or technical Oscar-winner has to say. So you look forward to the big stars coming through, for the moments of true giddiness and jubilance that can only be delivered by an actor or actress who’s been waiting years for their moment to shine.

Kate Winslet gave us one of those big emotional moments. At the end of a three hour plus telecast, her speech onstage revealed a bundle of nerves — a seasoned actress who, despite numerous accolades this year alone, was obviously still blown away by her first Academy Award win.

Backstage minutes later, she was still visibly overwhelmed. Clutching her Oscar with both hands, shock still on her face, Winslet still had tears of joy in her eyes. After answering a few minutes of questions, she paused. “It’s sort of dawning on me now that I just won an Oscar,” she mumbled, looking down at the statuette. “It’s only starting to sink in right now actually. Oh, my God.”

When a familiar voice took the microphone to ask the next question, she ran off the stage to greet him. “Baz, where are you?” After greeting Daily Mail columnist Baz Bamigboye with a hug — he’s been interviewing her for almost two decades — she returned.

On the controversy surrounding her film The Reader, for which she won Best Actress: “I don’t have any concerns, you know. I mean, I can’t be responsible for the emotional response that an audience has to any film,” she said. “I don’t think any actor really can, and I think going into it, I was very aware that if an audience did feel any level of sympathy for Hanna, and they felt morally compromised as a consequence, that would be an interesting emotion for them to then deal with. It certainly wasn’t my intention to make people sympathize with an SS guard.”

Next: Best Actor Sean Penn gets political in the press room

“To anybody who believes in equal rights for human beings, it’s pretty simple. And, certainly, what I mentioned from the stage earlier tonight, to see this culture of ignorance, that breeds this kind of hateful expression, that these people have their signs outside essentially telling you that you’re less than human…There’s nothing more important than the themes of [Milk]. There’s nothing more important, and so being part of something like that is a privilege. And when you see something like what you saw outside today, it enhances that.”

Sean Penn, after winning the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk


In stark contrast to the highly emotional Winslet, Best Actor winner Sean Penn strode into the press room as if entering a post office; there to run an errand, to do a job required of him: to talk to the press. His Oscar was nowhere to be seen. He stood, hands in pockets, and answered a line of questioning prompted by his politically-charged acceptance speech.

“I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect,” Penn had said during the telecast, “and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support.” It was poetic justice of sorts for the man who’d portrayed slain gay activist Harvey Milk to receive the night’s top acting honor while outside, anti-gay demonstrators surrounded the Oscar perimeter with signs. In the press room, Penn continued to shame those detractors. What would he say if he should come face to face with them?

“I’d tell them to turn in their hate card and find their better self,” he answered. “I think that these are largely taught limitations and ignorances…it’s very sad in a way, because it’s a demonstration of such emotional cowardice to be so afraid to be extending the same rights to a fellow man as you would want for yourself.”

After a string of politically-themed questioning (What does Penn think of Barack Obama’s stance on gay marriage? He hopes it’s not a “future one or a felt one”), Penn was ready for lighter talk. Could he describe his friendship with fellow nominee Mickey Rourke, who many felt might steal the Oscar from underneath Penn’s nose?

“I’ve been making movies for over 25 years and I can’t speak for his consistent sense of me. He’s an excellent bridge burner at times, but we’ve had for the most part a very close friendship,” Penn shared. “And he’s somebody that I alternatively looked up to and advised and directed, I’ve wanted to work with and admired and quite literally had me, almost throughout The Wrestler, weeping.”

“He’s one of our most talented actors; he always was. Comebacks are funny, and we talk about it with him, but everyone in this room has to make a comeback every day. Life is tough. And I think what’s sensational about him is always what’s been sensational about him; he’s one of the great poetic talents in acting that we have.”

Next: Montages, skits, and everything in between — did the telecast work?

“Suck on that, Anthony Dod Mantle!”

— Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski


Of course, while winners are addressing the press backstage, there’s still a show going on. This year’s production introduced new concepts and experiments; what would hold audiences’ attention, or help the Academy get past its popular reputation as an elitist night of self congratulation?

The answer: montages and skits, and lots of them. The Academy worked closely with Hollywood’s major studios to trade on-air exposure for content that could engage the minds of American viewers. Space Chimps, for example, would never have been mentioned in a previous year’s show, but it made an appearance in the night’s Animation reel. Step Brothers, a Will Ferrell comic flop, showed up briefly in the Comedy tribute. Even the show’s closing credits featured a montage highlighting upcoming films, most of which (Sherlock Holmes, Old Dogs, Terminator Salvation) aren’t exactly Oscar material and in all honesty won’t be nominated at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards.

In one skit, Pineapple Express stars Seth Rogen and James Franco watched the “Oscars” in character as their stoner counterparts, a funny bit (for a bit) that included the random appearance of Oscar-winning DP Janusz Kaminski: “Suck on that, Anthony Dod Mantle!” Mantle did, in fact, suck on that, later winning the Academy Award for Cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire.

Zeitgeist-capturing catch phrases were as plentiful as if in any Shrek film, from Ben Stiller‘s post-postmodern Joaquin Phoenix shtick to Will Smith‘s ad-lib following a teleprompter flub: “Boom goes the dynamite!” Even the old fogies on ABC’s pre-show red carpet coverage had learned to reference Twitter, which was the new media forum du jour for the night.

Next: Heath Ledger’s family remembers their son backstage

“When he came home for Christmas a year ago, he had been sending me shots and bits and pieces from the film. And he hadn’t seen it, I hadn’t seen it. No one had really seen it, but he knew. And I said to him, I have a feeling this is it for you. You’re going to get a nomination for this. And he just looked at me and smiled. So he knew.”

— Kate Ledger on her late brother and Best Supporting Actor winner, Heath Ledger


When asked if we had questions for the Ledger family, the entire room answered together in one shout: “YES!” And so the family of the late Heath Ledger — father Kim, mother Sally, and sister Kate — came in to discuss his posthumous Oscar win for portraying The Joker in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Gingerly but with quiet strength, the trio answered inquiries on a range of topics.

Would they take the Oscar home to Australia? (By Academy rule, it belongs to Heath’s daughter Matilda, who can claim it when she turns 18.)

How would Heath have reacted to his win? (“I think he would be really quietly pleased,” said mother Sally Bell.)

How close is the family to Matilda’s mother, actress Michelle Williams? (“Very close,” answered Kate Ledger. “She’s doing an amazing job with Matilda, and we speak all the time so we’re in constant contact and always will be.”)

Lastly, Ledger’s sister shared what she’d seen of Heath’s unfinished film, Terry Gilliam‘s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. “We have seen a little bit of footage,” she said. “He only completed about a third of the film. And we’ve had some incredible actors — Johnny Depp and Jude Law and Colin Farrell — step in to complete it. And I think it’s going to be…amazing.”

“Terry is amazing and Heath always had such enthusiasm and interest in whatever Terry was doing,” she concluded.

Next: Best Supporting Actress Penelope Cruz thanks Woody Allen

“I’m going to go call Woody right now. He sent me flowers last week when I went to BAFTA, and we’ve been speaking sometimes during the week. But I call Woody sometimes to just say hello and I adore him. I think he’s so funny and charming and so peculiar and unique. And of course, today I have to talk to Woody to thank him.”

Penelope Cruz, after winning Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona


Spanish actress Penelope Cruz kicked off the night with one of the first major awards — Best Supporting Actress, for her fiery performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona — which marked her first Oscar win. (I personally think she was robbed in 2006 in the Best Actress race, which she lost to Helen Mirren.) After threatening to faint onstage in her acceptance speech, she made her way to the press room, where she stood serenely, cradling her Academy Award in the crook of one arm as if it were a bouquet of roses and she’d just been crowned Miss Universe.

Cruz explained that while filming Vicky Cristina Barcelona she was quite insecure in her performance, and only learned that the film was a comedy at its Cannes premiere.

“When you’re working with Woody Allen you know that you can trust the person that you’re working with and if he doesn’t like something he will tell you,” she explained. “If he likes it, he will tell you. He’s not a man of too many words, but he’s honest and that’s what counts for me. We just trusted him. We did the whole movie in four weeks — four and a half weeks, so I had no idea what it was to be.

With the Oscars this year and last going largely to foreign winners (including Cruz’s real-life boyfriend and Vicky Cristina Barcelona co-star, Javier Bardem), is Hollywood opening itself up to honor international filmmakers? Cruz thought so.

“Could you work in America if you have an accent? Yes, you can. And that has been changing in the last 10 or 15 years. It was much harder before, but movies represent life, movies represent what happens in the streets. Then we are all in this together.”

After doing her duty, Cruz left the room to return to her seat and watch the Oscars, as she’d said she’d done as a child growing up in the Spanish town of Alcobendas.

Next: Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle shouts out to Rotten Tomatoes

“Rotten Tom-ah-toes? We love Rotten Tom-ah-toes! It’s got a 95!”

Slumdog Millionaire producer Christian Colson, backstage after his Best Picture win


In the Oscars press room, you sit in an assigned seat amongst a sea of journalists from around the globe, every one of them decked out in tuxes and gowns, for formality’s sake; the official, scan-able press badge must also be worn at all times, no matter how it clashes with your outfit. Lucky ones get to park their laptops and recording devices at a table, from which they write and file reports throughout the night. Food and non-alcoholic beverages are kindly catered in the hallway (try the shrimp!), and you’re free to roam, headset in ear tuned to ABC’s official telecast, around a guarded 50-foot perimeter. It’s a strange combination of traditional etiquette and voluntary imprisonment, and the tightest-run ship in movie journalism.

At every seat there is an assigned number card, which you must hold up to be called on during each press conference. If your number is called, you’ll get the microphone to ask a winner one of ten or so questions before they’re shuffled offstage, to escape back into the safety of the Kodak Theater and rejoin the show. Rotten Tomatoes’ number was 141, and it was called once — at the end of the night, while the night’s biggest winner, Slumdog director Danny Boyle, was taking questions.

“Rotten Tom-ah-toes? We love Rotten Tom-ah-toes!” shouted Slumdog producer Christian Colson, who along with Boyle received an Oscar for the film. “It’s got a 95!”

(Slumdog Millionaire actually has a 94 percent Tomatometer rating. For a second I thought about it, then politely declined to correct Colson; he was only off by one point.)

Boyle, whose naturally jubilant demeanor was especially cheerful after eight Slumdog wins on the night, stood with his Oscar in his left hand and a glass of champagne in his right. “My other film, Millions, also did really well on Rotten Tom-ah-toes!” (He was right — Millions scored an 88 percent Tomatometer and won the Golden Tomato Award for best-reviewed family film.)

After the shout out, Boyle answered my question: even with all of its Oscars and accolades, does he still think Slumdog is and should be an imperfect film? He used the opportunity to reiterate his onstage mention of choreographer Longinus, who directed Slumdog‘s end-credits dance sequence. At his side, Colson jumped in to praise Boyle for having the humility to note his error while onstage accepting his Academy Award. “I don’t want to embarrass Danny, and this would embarrass him,” Colson began, “but it’s a measure of the man that in his Oscar acceptance speech, the last thing he addresses is forgetting someone off the credits, and I think that is awesome.”

Boyle and Colson also juxtaposed their tiny Slumdog — which nearly didn’t get a theatrical release — to the big studio flick The Dark Knight. “It was wonderful to see Heath Ledger’s work acknowledged in The Dark Knight,” Boyle said. “And it is extraordinary work. But like virtually, I am sure, everybody, Heath started small as well. He started [in] small films, you know. Everybody does and we’ve got to protect them.”

“And the studios have got to protect them as well,” he continued. “Because that’s where everybody starts, and they go on. Some people go on to some things and some don’t. But that’s where everybody begins, in those small independent movies. And you learn the business, you learn your craft, you learn what you are doing, you know. So, it’s very, very, very important. The first film I made [cost] a million pounds. The whole film cost a million pounds. That’s where you learn your craft.”

In the end, Boyle himself summed up his entire Slumdog experience. “This amazing British poet called WJ Jordan talks about Americans putting jukeboxes on the moon. Soon you will be putting jukeboxes on the moon. I love that expression, and that’s what tonight feels like. Just amazing like that. The bringing together of things that are just so unlikely and yet wonderful and about entertainment and pleasure and exploring things and changing things.”

Next: More of our favorite backstage snippets from Oscar’s big winners

More of our favorite backstage moments with this year’s Oscar winners:

“I’ve said this before, but WALL-E really was the most unique personal film I could have made, and I really expected it to speak to a minority, not a majority, because I felt I had gotten away with that with Finding Nemo. So, to get this kind of response — it just really gives you a lot of confidence to listen to that little voice inside you again the next time.”

Wall-E director Andrew Stanton, Best Animated Film


“For me, the whole thing was always just sort of, you know, pay it forward. Harvey gave me his story. [Pause] Harvey gave me his story and it saved my life. I just thought it’s time to pass it on. So the only thing I really knew I wanted to say is to tell those kids out there they are going to be all right.”

Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (pictured below)


“The slums were obviously extraordinary because we’re encroaching on people’s lives. At the same time we have got carte blanche and the green light to go in there and basically destroy their daily lives. You open a cupboard and a family of 15 falls out. And that’s not something you can control.”

— Best Cinematography winner Anthony Dod Mantle, on filming Slumdog Millionaire in the heart of Mumbai


“I think there were much more important things in her life –having a baby, and that was good, actually. She took care of the baby. I wished her well.”

A.R. Rahman, composer of Slumdog Millionaire, on the absence of “O Saya” co-nominee M.I.A from the telecast (pictured below)


“In our tradition, we believe that Om is a word that encompasses the whole experience of the universe. Indians can just listen, can just close your eyes and listen to the pains of living just by the sound of Om. That relates to me on a very personal level, being a sound person. That’s why I live for that.”

— Best Sound Mixing winner Resul Pookutty, the first Indian technician to earn a nomination


“I have a secret, but if you are going to keep a secret, that will be fine. I am going to work in New York City in the fall, in a high wire walk to a library. I won’t tell you which one and it will be the beginning of a series of walks for literacy around the country to inspire the kids to read.”

Philippe Petit, subject of Best Documentary Winner Man on Wire (pictured below balancing an Oscar on his chin)


“Meeting Mr. Jack Black was the most exciting thing for him. He always wanted to be funny as he is.”

— Best Animated Short director Kunio Kato (via translator) on his “Mr. Roboto” acceptance speech


Still have Oscar fever? See the full list of winners from the 81st Annual Academy Awards, and browse our Oscars red carpet gallery. To find out where Slumdog Millionaire‘s 94 percent Tomatometer ranks among every Best Picture Oscar winner ever, check out our updated Best of the Best Pictures.

For award season interviews with Oscar nominees and winners, plus winners lists of every major award show and more, check out our Awards Tour.

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