LOS ANGELES – On Hollywood’s biggest night, all the best action happens off camera.
USA TODAY has a bird’s-eye view at the 91st Academy Awards inside the Dolby Theatre, where we’re stationed in the wings. It’s the A-list hub of Oscars action, where everyone from Julia Roberts to Jennifer Lopez pass through on their way to and from the stage.
It’s also where the real emotions fly.
After “A Star Is Born” co-stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sing a heartfelt rendition of “Shallow,” Gaga swoops backstage. “Did I nail it?” Gaga asks her crew twice as she drinks quickly from a glass of celebratory champagne. Mother Monster proves to be a harsh critic, worrying that she didn’t hit the famous song’s ah-ah aha-aaaa wail hard enough. “There was a little scratch in my voice,” she says.
Then she turns to Cooper. “I’m so (expletive) proud of you,” she tells him. “You (expletive) did that (expletive) just like before!”
And with that, producers quickly yank her mic from the back of her dress so the duo can quickly retake their seats.
What other drama happened backstage Sunday night at the Oscars? Here’s how it all unfolded:
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The calm before the storm
Octavia Spencer takes her front-row seat early with a friend, as scattered production staffers mill about. Just outside the doors, the masses wait in the bar area. Then Spencer realizes there are other places to be hanging pre-show. “We’ll be back, guys,” she tells security staff. “Snacks and what not.”
Presenters Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler emerge from the Oscar green room. Poehler walks down a sloped hallway carefully while holding on to a rail, ensuring she doesn’t fall in her sky-high heels.
A playful Frances McDormand – last year’s best actress winner – climbs on top of a giant golden statue and wraps her arms around him, prom photo-style, with a big grin. She appears to be wearing neon Birkenstocks under her gown.
Everybody needs a bathroom break
Chris Evans bends over to look at something on his publicist’s phone. He lets Rachel Weisz (up for best supporting actress for “The Favourite”) cut in front of him in the bathroom line after learning “somebody” needs to use it.
“Somebody,” Evans cracks, seeing Weisz walk up in her latex red gown. She laughs as she walks in past him. “Somebody!”
Spike Lee, up for three Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman,” is giving hugs backstage. “Congratulations!” Jennifer Lopez tells him, checking out his purple suit. “I like the outfit.”
Jason Momoa chugs water while wife Lisa Bonet goes in search of a free bathroom.
“There’s one open right here!” he calls, but she’s already halfway down the hall. He sees a second restroom door open. “Hey, man,” Momoa says as Evans exits, and the two superhero actors swap places.
Once Alex Rodriguez emerges from the bathroom, he and J. Lo walk to their seats holding hands.
‘We’re live in 15 seconds’
Brian May of Queen poses with Adam Lambert backstage. As photos snap, a publicist gets nervous. “Can I take him? I want them to be able to get their instruments because we’re live.”
Tensions heighten as the show’s opening approaches. Rudolph reads her script on a small iPad as she, Poehler and Fey practice one more time. A minute later in the wings, a producer hands Rudolph a script. “That one’s old,” she says, and picks back up the iPad. The three practice landing a Chadwick Boseman line.
Suddenly, they erupt into laughter. “Will you take a picture of all three of us? For me?” Rudolph asks her publicist as an announcer tells the crowd, “We’re live in 15 seconds.”
Rudolph starts dancing to “We Are the Champions” backstage and mouthing along. All three clap backstage as Queen finishes the song
The drum kit crashes into a wall, emitting a bang. Everyone jumps. May claps his hands together in a prayer of thanks as the production team cheers and Lambert gives out a relieved “Woo-hoo!”
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Melissa McCarthy and the look that launched a thousand memes
It takes seven people to carry best actress nominee Melissa McCarthy’s mock-royal train (a spoof of “The Favourite,” dotted with stuffed animal bunnies) into the wings, as the “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” star prepares to go onstage and launch into her soon-to-be-viral bit.
Backstage, Fey, Poehler and Rudolph de-mic and decompress. “Want to get a drink?” Rudolph asks.
Helen Mirren waits for Momoa, who is caught in the scrum, to catch up with her. “Thank you, darling,” she says, kissing him on the cheek. He grabs her in a bear hug, then introduces her to the “Free Solo” filmmakers. “Enjoy the party!” Helen says.
Lopez does a last hair check in a lit makeup mirror backstage. She carefully pulls one side forward and smoothes it down. “What’s happening?” she says to her co-presenter Evans as he walks up. The two run through their lines. Though she and A-Rod have homes in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, “We’re in Miami now,” she tells him. “It’s too hot!” he replies. “You’re not a sun god?” she teases.
Spotted: Jennifer Hudson sheds her slippers for stilettos
Jennifer Hudson jumps up and down backstage. Someone requests a director’s chair for her. They find a stool and she sits. “Congratulations!” Jennifer calls to “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E Carter as she comes offstage holding her Oscar. McCarthy comes off stage next and J. Hud looks at her with a grin. “You!” she says. Is McCarthy hot in that cape? “No!” McCarthy says.
J. Hud switches out of blue fuzzy slippers into Louboutins as an aide works on arranging her crazy long train. Her sparkly nails grip a golden microphone. Jennifer asks for a tissue. “Where are the tissues back here?” asks a production manager. “Got it!” a voice calls.
Everyone’s hungry. J. Lo and Evans walk offstage, as everyone tells them they did a great job. “Oh, my cheese!” Lopez exclaims, smiling and doubling back to grab a small plate loaded with cheese slices that she’d left on the counter of the makeup touch-up area.
“Should we grab that harp to play?” James McAvoy playfully asks Danai Gurira, pointing to the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra setup backstage as the presenters walk into the wings.
“That Queen thing was amazing,” Javier Bardem says to Angela Bassett as they wait for their cue to walk up.
“Is there a napkin anywhere?” Bassett asks before she goes onstage. Someone hands her a tissue and she stops by the makeup mirror to quickly dab shine from her cheeks. Then she and Bardem go over their lines together.
Bette Midler’s performance prep: Two lozenges and touch-ups
Fun fact: Bette Midler’s mic pack is wrapped in the same fabric as her floral dress. “Good to see you, too!” she says to Bassett, who comes to say hello.
Midler looks for a place to put her lozenge. “Just put it right here, go ahead,” her assistant insists and she places it in his palm. Her stylist fluffs her sleeves and a makeup artists dabs her forehead with a sponge.
“Bette, we’re ready for you,” a stage manager calls. She takes out her second lozenge, looks for a place to put it, and spots the folded tissue Bassett left behind moments before by the makeup mirror. Kismet.
“Knock em out!” Queen Latifah says as she passes Midler.
“We have a problem. We’ve run out of toilet paper” in one of the bathrooms, an aide says.
That’s ‘B’ as in Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand makes her way into the green room, briefly stopping to say hello to Sarah Paulson on the way in. She stays in the room for exactly six minutes before exiting. For die-hard Babs fans, please note: An assistant trails her holding a water bottle in a huggie personalized with a large “B.”
“I forgot my purse!” says Paulson, who has been in the green room prior to presenting. As Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga began singing, Paulson and Paul Rudd perch on a bench, taking in the performance. With her pink hard-case clutch recovered, the two are off. Meanwhile, Kiki Layne and Krysten Ritter remain glued to monitors watching the performance, and both clap as soon as it’s over.
“Yes! Yes!” says “Green Book” director Peter Farrelly, who enters backstage holding his best screenplay Oscar high.
As Lee says, “Don’t turn that (expletive) clock on” as he accepts his first Oscar (for adapted screenplay), stagehands wheel out the entire instrument setup for the Philharmonic.
He comes backstage triumphant. “Sam!” he calls out for Samuel L Jackson, who presented the award. “Where are you?” “I’m right here!” Jackson says, catching up with the new Oscar winner. The “BlacKkKlansman” group stops for a photo with their Oscars, and Jackson pulls Brie Larson up front with them. “No, I’m in the back! I’m in the back!” she insists, moving behind Spike.
Then the crew walks out. “Oh, my God!” Larson says as she exits, still clearly delighted by the “BlacKkKlansman” win.
Shock, then joy, for Lady Gaga, Rami Malek and Olivia Colman
Gaga is overcome after winning her first Oscar for best original song (“Shallow”). “I need a drink,” she says as a makeup artist wiped tears from under her eyes. “Is there champagne or anything?”
A flute is quickly found. “Don’t get me drinking the champagne,” she kids to the waiting photographers. Gaga and her co-writers Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt crouch down for a group photo. As she’s led away, an overwhelmed Gaga asks, “Where do I go now?”
Best actor winner Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” walks into the wings looking dazed. Does he want to do the thank-you cam, producers ask? “I can’t think right now,” he says, overwhelmed by what just happened. They promise they’ll bring him back to talk to the media after the show closes, so he goes back to his seat. (The star took a tumble off the stage at the end of the ceremony.)
As Olivia Colman, a stunned best actress winner for “The Favourite,” comes backstage, her eyes are full of tears. “White wine for the woman, white wine!” calls out Frances McDormand, who is guiding her back into the wings. “She needs white wine!” Sam Rockwell echoes.
Colman briefly poses for photographers before returning to her seat for the awarding of best picture. “I think my nose is running, sorry,” she tells the pack of photographers.
‘This is nuts! It’s absolutely bananas!’
A pink-clad Julia Roberts is standing in the wings as Alfonso Cuaron accepts his best director Oscar, getting last-minute hair touch-ups. “As soon as this award is over, we’re going to swoop you in,” the stage manager tells her.
She kisses her celebrity hair stylist, Serge Normant, on the cheek before following the stage manager out to the stage to announce best picture. When the audience catches sight of her, cheers erupt.
After a crazy night of all-over-the-place wins, no one has any idea what will win best picture. When “Green Book” is announced, Spencer, a producer on the film, says, “This is nuts! It’s absolutely bananas!” as she huddles for a picture with her “Green Book” crew. And as the famous faces fades into the night, there’s just one hiccup.
“Mahershala, do you want to get your wife?” a stage manager calls out to Mahershala Ali, who won best supporting actor. “Got her!” Ali calls back. He certainly does: Amatus Sami-Karim walked backstage just moments later.