No one is ever calm backstage at the Oscars, except maybe Brad Pitt. On March 2, the makers of 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, then rushed into the wings amid a frenzy of well-wishers. The film’s British director, Steve McQueen, looked delirious and elated but also a little lost in the chaos. Pitt, who acted in the movie and served as a producer, was happily tipping back a silver flask. He handed it to McQueen, who took a long, deep draft. Then Pitt reached out, grabbed the director’s face in both hands, and planted a Bugs Bunny-style smackeroo full on his mouth. ”I promised you that if we got here,” Pitt said, grinning, and then downed another gulp from the flask.
That kiss wasn’t exactly the sailor tilting back the nurse on V-J Day, but it did mark the end of a long, hard-fought battle between two formidable survivor tales: 12 Years, the true account of one man’s escape from bondage in the antebellum South, and Gravity, the technological marvel about an astronaut trapped in orbit while enduring a harrowing storm of debris. In the tightest Best Picture race in years, Gravity took home the most gold, racking up awards in seven categories, including Directing for Alfonso Cuarón, but it was 12 Years that nabbed the top honor.
For months, Oscar prognosticators (including EW) had speculated that 12 Years might be this year’s Brokeback Mountain — a challenging film that some Academy members would find too agonizing to watch. Brokeback lost to the more crowd-friendly Crash in 2006, but this year the fates were reversed and the so-called difficult film won. Appropriately, its journey ended with two dudes and a kiss.
It was a good year for the Academy Awards all the way around. Ratings for the telecast jumped 6 percent over last year, when producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan first oversaw the show. This time, the program had its third year-over-year boost, and was the highest-rated entertainment broadcast in more than a decade. Maybe it was the appeal of host Ellen DeGeneres, or the who-will-win tension of the Best Picture race, or the high wattage of nominees such as Jennifer Lawrence and Matthew McConaughey. It couldn’t have hurt that the ubiquity of social media made this a year that we could all share the Oscars in every sense of the word: Stars posted Instagram photos, DeGeneres broke the Internet with her star-studded selfie, and according to Twitter, there were 17.1 million Oscar-related tweets between the red carpet and the first hours after the show.
All of which served as a fresh reminder that stars are fans too. As obvious as that was on television, it was even more apparent behind the scenes. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emma Watson finished their presentation of the Visual Effects award, the actor asked the Harry Potter actress to pose for a selfie with him (”Now one with funny faces”). And while waiting in line for the bathroom, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis got buttonholed by Zac Efron. ”Your work inspires like no one else,” Efron said as his idol nodded appreciatively. When the bathroom door finally opened, Day-Lewis used the opportunity to politely remove himself. ”If you’ll excuse me,” he said, ”I’m going to get into there before someone else does.”
Day-Lewis seemed to be making Oscar winners swoon as well. As Cuarón finished his Directing acceptance speech, he stepped backstage through black curtains and was unexpectedly greeted by the open arms of Day-Lewis, who was preparing to present the Best Actress award. The director gasped. ”Oh, señor…!” Cuarón said, then started chortling. ”What an amazing thing to come walking off and to see you!” Minutes later, Day-Lewis presented Cate Blanchett her award for Blue Jasmine, and they threaded their way backstage. The crew applauded for Blanchett, who waved her Oscar in the air in response. ”Do I have to do some sort of [dance]?” she said, smiling and swiveling her hips. A crew member directed the actress to the ”thank-you cam,” where winners could record additional messages for the online world. ”No, thank you, I’ve said enough,” she quipped, then added, ”Is that the ‘regret cam’ for all the things you didn’t say out there?”
During the Academy Awards, there’s always such a flurry of activity in the wings that sometimes the grandest moments — and gaffes — that the world sees on television go unnoticed backstage. Not too many people were talking about John Travolta’s garbled introduction of Frozen songstress Idina Menzel (a.k.a. ”Adela Dazeem”), even if it instantly lit up social media. Menzel certainly didn’t seem perturbed. After husband-and-wife composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez won Best Original Song for the Frozen hit ”Let It Go” — the former completing his EGOT with the all-important O — Menzel came rushing toward them. ”Idina!” Anderson-Lopez said, with tears in her eyes. ”Oh my God, you rocked it, girl. You sang the hardest song to sing of all of them.”
”Let me hold it for a sec,” Menzel said, meaning the Oscar, of course, and Anderson-Lopez placed it in her hands.
”Oh, that’s nice,” Menzel said. ”But this feels weird. You better take it back.”
U2 had a fan waiting for them too. The band exited the stage after singing ”Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and immediately found themselves being teased by Pitt: ”Is it over? I wanted to come do backup!” Bono had the presence of mind to call the actor’s bluff. ”There’s a tambourine waiting for you anytime,” he said.
By far the biggest emotional reaction of the night, on camera or off, was for Lupita Nyong’o, whose Supporting Actress win for 12 Years came with a tearful, inspiring speech that left few dry eyes backstage. The Kenyan actress, who had turned 31 the day before, was escorted back by last year’s Supporting Actor winner, Christoph Waltz. They pushed open the doors to a corridor where DeGeneres was in the midst of orchestrating her elaborate pizza stunt with an actual, unsuspecting deliveryman. ”Does he know he’s going on?” she called out to a crew worker. ”Grab him before he gets too far!”