The Academy Awards came a month early this year, but ''Lord of the Rings'' director Peter Jackson looked as if he couldn't wait another minute. Backstage after the show, he gushed: ''I feel like I could do it all over again. It nearly killed me, but right now I feel fine. This may well be the culmination of my career, and I don't really mind. From now on, the challenge is not to make films that are bigger and better than 'Lord of the Rings,' just to make entertaining movies.'' Still, the thrill of winning didn't help the usually barefoot director forget the agony of the feet: ''I'm wearing shoes, and they're as uncomfortable as hell.''
Well, not as uncomfortable as finishing three epics in a row. Annie Lennox, who shared honors for Best Original Song with Fran Walsh and Howard Shore for ''Into the West'' from ''Return of the King,'' recalled watching Jackson and his crew struggle to edit the film down from four hours to just over three: ''It was 16-hour days, every day. [Jackson]'s pallor went from pink to gray in a matter of months.''
Charlize Theron, who won Best Actress for ''Monster,'' may have looked calm but wasn't feeling that way when accepting her award: ''I love Adrien [Brody] for cracking the joke with the Binaca, because that relieved a lot of pressure. It didn't feel like there was a drumroll in the back.'' For her, winning felt ''kind of like a wedding. I've never been married, but it's such a strange sensation. I felt very lucky because I had my mom and my boy next to me, so I just grabbed onto them for a while until I dragged myself on stage.''
Best Supporting Actor winner Tim Robbins is known for his outspoken political views, but he kept a lid on his opinions -- onstage and off. While he urged everyone to vote and worried that computer polls would end ballot recounts in the future, he said that the five-second delay in the broadcast isn't why he kept politics out of his acceptance speech: ''I would have said it up there. I'm not afraid of delays, come on...'' Not that he's a fan of the new system. For one thing, he suspects that favorite spontaneous moments of Oscars past aren't likely to be seen again: ''I'll never forget that streaker. I'm hoping for a little streaking tonight. Will Ferrell is in the house, so...''
Best Actor winner Sean Penn (''Mystic River'') shared some of Robbins' reluctance to make a political statement, despite the ''WMD'' (weapons of mass destruction) joke in his acceptance speech. ''With things going on in the world right now, I think I would have felt very embarrassed to have been perceived as taking some kind of a stand in a negative way here.'' He's been conspicuous in his absence at past Oscar ceremonies and has had an acrimonious relationship with the media in the past, but Penn credits his new sense of peace to his wife, Robin Wright Penn (''White Oleander''). ''Some of us are just lucky to have such a singular, genuine heart in our lives.''
One winner more than eager to get political backstage was Errol Morris, whose ''Fog of War'' won Best Documentary Feature for its searing interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When asked if he would be willing to send copies of his film, in which McNamara expresses regret for some of America's previous military actions, to the current presidential administration, he said, ''If they are willing to watch it, they can have it any time they want. I find our foreign policy atrocious, appalling, and if this movie contributes to the debate of what's going on in the world, I am immensely pleased... People often say, 'Can films make a difference?' [His 1988 film] 'The Thin Blue Line' secured a man's release from prison. My only hope is this movie can make a difference as well.''
Best Supporting Actress winner Ren[a e]e Zellweger won for her frumpy ''Cold Mountain'' character, and admitted she'd gladly trade in her glam Oscar dress and vintage Cartier diamonds for an equally uglifying (but meaty) role. Noting that fellow winner Charlize Theron had also played down her natural good looks for her role, Zellweger said, ''The more you can change yourself, the more removed the character is from your own experiences, the more rewarding it is, I find, creatively. It's a wonderful thing in a film when you can get lost, forget who the person is and just follow the character.''
Honorary Award recipient Blake Edwards may have received high praise at the Oscars, but he still claims that he hasn't been consulted by Sean Levy, the director remaking Edwards' 1963 classic ''The Pink Panther.'' ''I'm not advising anybody where the 'Panther''s concerned. Nobody has really been that interested whether I have any opinions about it.''
On the other hand, Edwards, who convinced his wife Julie Andrews to expose her breasts for the comedy ''S.O.B.'' does have an opinion about the recent Super Bowl brouhaha. ''When you mention Janet Jackson, I think it's such hypocrisy. My wife did it in a film for God's sake, and that was when it wasn't thought of with movie stars. I never got any complaints... It may not have been great taste or great art, but to raise this kind of a fuss? It's all money in the end. As a result, she may have really done something wonderful for things down the road.'' We don't think he's referring to nipple-piercing parlors.