Anthony Breznican
February 26, 2012 AT 12:00 PM EST

As the clock ticks down toward show time, the backstage corridors of the Academy Awards become like celebrity pinball.

It starts out quiet. One or two stars roll in while a whole galaxy of them circulates out on the red carpet. Among the first to grace the hushed wings of the stage is someone not typically associated with formality and decorum — Zach Galifianakis.

As part of its pre-show, ABC has situated Entertainment Weekly‘s own Managing Editor Jess Cagle in the backstage area to catch celebrities who have managed to steer clear of the massive, paparazzi-filled red carpet.

As Cagle and Galifianakis stand near center stage — at this point shadowy and otherwise empty except for the towering pieces of scenery and the camera crew and light guys flanking them — Cagle tells the comedian it was cool to talk to him because it gave his part of the pre-show a little bit of “exclusivity.”

The scruffy Galifianakis looks down and regards himself, saying sarcastically, “Congratulations.” Cagle laughs and shakes his head, reassuring the comedian, “No, it is a good one.”

Seconds later, the door leading to the backstage loading dock swings open and a gray, bearded Tom Hanks strides through, talking loudly with his companions about one of the Oscar show’s recent controversies: Sacha Baron Cohen‘s banning, then un-banning, after he revealed plans to attend plans to attend dressed as his character from the upcoming film The Dictator.

“How’s the red carpet going?” Hanks asks a security guard standing near a television showing arrivals.

“Smooth,” the man said.

Hanks nods and repeats, “Smooth! Good. Why would they say, ‘Don’t show up?'” Hanks asks, walking on and raising his hands in the air. “They don’t want any ratings? They don’t want any surprises?”

As he makes a beeline for the office of telecast co-producer Brian Grazer, a pair of stony-faced men from PricewaterhouseCoopers pass him going the other direction. Each is carrying a black leather valise — inside are the envelopes containing the names of all of tonight’s winners. They are guarding the satchels like they are nuclear footballs.

As Hanks disappears into Grazer’s office (as yet unoccupied by Grazer) he greets another friend — composer Marc Shaiman, who has written some joke songs for the telecast. “Vice Principal Hanks!” the composer says, greeting his old friend with an inscrutable in-joke.

Suddenly, a cart full of glistening statuettes is wheeled to the wings of the stage under heavy security. It is the collection of 49 Oscar statuettes that will be given out this evening.

Things are starting to heat up and get more crowded. The previously quiet hallway begins bustling with activity as dancers arrive, crew workers cluster in, and celebrity presenters pass through making last-minute checks and preparations.

Bradley Cooper stops by to do a pre-show interview with Cagle, while Uggie the now-famous dog from The Artist is accompanied by his trainer to his dressing room one floor below. While standing with the pooch and waiting for the elevator, stage manager Valdez Flagg announces in his headset: “Uggie has made contact.”

Flagg says these words with all the heaviness of “Houston, we have a problem.” It’s appropriate since Grazer, the producer of Apollo 13, is making his appearance backstage at this very moment — looking for the star of that movie. “Let’s go say hi to Tom,” he says.

With half an hour to go before the broadcast, Flagg finds Grazer to give him the latest countdown. “No need to stress,” the stage manager says.

Grazer shakes his head and tightens his jaw. “No stress at all,” he says. “It’s all peace and love here.”

It sounds like he’s trying to convince himself rather than state a fact.

The one name on this night that’s even bigger than Oscar hasn’t yet made an appearance: Telecast host Billy Crystal, who remains in his dressing room as makeup people and writers circulate in and out.

NEXT: Hanks shows Cagle the “Winners Walk,” Oprah appears, and Crystal emerges from his dressing room

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