Picture this: You're standing on a stage. You're the center of attention in an auditorium filled with over 3,000 people. Roughly 40 million more are watching you on TV.
No, this isn't a nightmare — it's the Academy Awards. Every year, the standout members of the film industry are presented with Hollywood's highest honor: an Oscar.
But what happens after you've won the coveted gold statue? What does it feel like to walk away from the flashbulbs and fans, and step into the quiet darkness behind the curtains?
Anthony Breznican knows. The senior writer for Entertainment Weekly has covered the Oscars for 14 years. He roams backstage for the night, witnessing film greats in the surreal and abrupt comedown after a career-defining moment. Breznican tells NPR's Arun Rath it's the best seat in the house.
"If you're back there, you're up close and personal with everyone who normally would be at arm's length, so you get to see some really human moments," he says.
After Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook (with that famous stumble up to the podium), she came backstage nervous and unsure of how her speech had been received.
"I remember all she wanted was a doughnut," Breznican says. She eyed a box of Krispy Kremes on a card table, but red carpet-caliber gowns and frosted donuts don't really mix, so after a brief inner struggle, she abstained and made her way to a photo op out front.
There is an Oscar tradition to help winners with their nerves: For the more prestigious awards, last year's recipient presents the statue to this year's winner.
"They're sort of like the spirit guide for whoever the winners are. And it's reversed: The Best Actress last year presents Best Actor this year," Breznican says. "I think that's the most moving thing that I get to witness backstage."
When Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for La Vie En Rose, Forest Whitaker presented the Oscar. As they walked offstage together, Cotillard began to cry, completely overwhelmed.
"I just remember her saying, 'I feel so disoriented and lost,' " Breznican says. Whitaker "was saying, 'Yeah, that's what's magic about it. That's what you're supposed to feel.' "
Of all the moments behind the scenes, perhaps the most important one for Breznican had nothing to do with the awards. In 2008, he ran into Philip Seymour Hoffman on a loading dock behind the theater. They talked about having kids; Breznican and his wife were thinking about taking the plunge.
"You just have to commit," Hoffman said adamantly. "Your priorities will clarify."
Breznican took the advice. He and his wife have a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
The Oscars are covered from pretty much every angle imaginable. There are over three hours of red carpet interviews before the ceremony even starts. For those of you who like a healthy dose of snark, Joan Rivers is already on the fashion beat, and the live blogging has already begun. But there's an amazing perspective on the action that gets missed. There's a brief moment backstage - after a performer has won an award and before they step in front of more photographers - that's seen by almost nobody but stagehands and our next guest.
Anthony Breznican is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. He's been covering the Oscars for 14 years, and he's been in that spot backstage. We asked him on the show to peel back the curtain for us.
ANTHONY BREZNICAN: Everybody says they're backstage if they're not in the audience. But this is literally where the scenery is moving on and coming off. It's the nexus point for everything that's happening on stage.
RATH: And is it just incredibly busy as things are cueing up for the next award, the next presenters?
BREZNICAN: It is, because people come back to hang out and greet the host. You know, you'll see Jack Nicholson floating around back there having a cigarette with a bunch of crew guys.
RATH: Are you sure that was a cigarette?
BREZNICAN: Yeah, it was. I'm sure. But it's - if you're back there, you're, like, up close and personal with everyone who normally would be, you know, at arm's length. And so you get to see some really human moments.
RATH: So what have been some of the more memorable backstage moments for you? This is after the people have got their awards and they come backstage and you see some of the real reaction.
BREZNICAN: Oh, absolutely. I remember last year Jennifer Lawrence won for "Silver Linings Playbook," and she kind of famously stumbled up the stairs and gave this very charming speech, telling everybody, oh, you're standing up because I fell. She was really nervous and unsure of how that played when she came backstage.
And I remember all she wanted was a doughnut. They had these Krispy Kreme doughnuts on a little card table back there for the crew. And, like, I remember she's walking with her Oscar, she's in the least glamorous place in the world in this beautiful gown, these, you know, these kind of like stone walls and dank shadows, and she just lunges for this box and is like flipping it open.
And the only remaining doughnuts have, like, the chocolate icing on them. And I think she looked at those, and she went, I'm not getting that all over me before I go to the photo room before 100 photographers. And she ditched it. But she really wanted that doughnut. I just remember thinking that was really kind of sweet.
RATH: That's willpower.
RATH: Now, what happens with the bigger awards, it's the recipient from the past year presents to whoever's winning the current year, right?
BREZNICAN: Yeah. They're sort of like the spirit guide for whoever the winners are, the ones who won last year. And it's reverse. The Best Actress last year presents Best Actor this year.
RATH: OK. And so do you get to see what the interaction is like between these two people, these Hollywood stars?
BREZNICAN: I think that's the most moving thing that I get to witness backstage. A few years ago when Marion Cotillard won for "La Vie En Rose," she's this tiny, birdlike person. She's very small. Forrest Whitaker had won the year before, Best Actor for "The Last King of Scotland."
RATH: Not birdlike.
BREZNICAN: He is not birdlike. He is huge. He is tall. He is big. He has hands that are like baseball mitts. And as they walk offstage, she just begins crying, she's shaking. She just seizes onto him, just latches on and hugs him. And he's very gently, like, patting her head, patting her back. And I just remember her saying, like, I feel so disoriented and lost. And he was saying, yeah, that's what magic about it. That's what you're supposed to feel.
And I've seen that time and again, you know? Jeff Bridges, when he won, you think, you know, the dude, he's pretty laidback. Kate Winslet presented to him, and she came back like a stage mom, like Mama Rose. She's like, OK, he needs to get to the thank you cam to thank all the people he forgot to thank on stage. And he's like, I don't even know what a thank you cam is. And she was directing him back there.
RATH: Are there some that are better spirit guides than others, some that maybe not so great at guiding?
BREZNICAN: Yes. That's definitely true. I remember when Sandra Bullock won for "The Blind Side." And she does the same thing they all do - walks offstage and is plunged into darkness after being in probably the brightest spot on the planet at that moment. And she turns to Sean Penn, who had just given her the trophy, and she goes, well, what do I do? Where do I go now? And he kind of put his hands in his pocket and shrugs and goes: I don't know. Then he walks away. She's just sort of standing there, like, you know, what now? And you know who came to her rescue?
BREZNICAN: Forrest Whitaker happened to be back there presenting. And Sandra Bullock says, you know, what I want is a cheeseburger. And Forrest Whitaker says, OK, well, just off of Orange outside the theater, you head down past Hollywood Boulevard, there's an In-N-Out Burger. He's - I mean, this guy, if you win an Oscar, you want Forrest Whitaker there.
RATH: They should just station Forrest Whitaker backstage (unintelligible) there to help people out.
BREZNICAN: Exactly. Exactly. Paging Forrest Whitaker. We have a runner, so.
RATH: Finally, you had kind of a wonderful backstage moment with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
BREZNICAN: Yeah. Shortly before the Oscars, I encountered him at Sundance, and we had a - part of like a meet-and-greet dinner for the movie "The Savages." My wife and I sat and talked to him. It was one of those moments where you're no longer an interviewer and a subject where you just end up having just kind of a friendly conversation. And we were thinking about having kids, and he already had a child of his own. And we were asking, like, you know, things you ask people who have young children when you're planning to. How do you manage it?
And he was just, like, eager to, like, tell us what he thought we should do with our personal life. He had lots of parenting advice. Like, no, just do it, you know, don't talk yourself out of it. It was really great advice. And I saw him at the Oscars. And I'm out on the sort of grimy loading dock phoning in my story. And he sees me, and he kind of comes over. He's smoking a cigarette, and he's reading little scraps of paper that have his introductory speech to present the award.
He kind of points at me, and he's like: I know you, I know you. Where do I know you from? And I told him: Well, we had this little conversation. And he's like: Oh, right, right, right. Well, what have you decided? Are you having the kids or not?
It was one of those surreal moments where I was like, well, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we're still thinking about it. And he kind of shook his head. He just looked like so contemptuous of this. He's like: No, no. You just have to commit. Your priorities will clarify.
RATH: And I know you're a parent now, so I know you took that advice.
BREZNICAN: I did. My daughter, who was first in line, is 4 1/2.
RATH: Anthony Breznican is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. Anthony, thank you.
BREZNICAN: Glad to be here.
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RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. Follow me while you're at it. That's A-R-U-N-R-A-T-H. Tune in tomorrow. We'll take you to China where powerful men pay young women to be their mistresses. For men, it's a status symbol. For women, it can be a ticket to prosperity.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's not pure empowerment. And it's not pure victimization or exploitation. It's somewhere in between.
RATH: The murky world of Chinese mistresses, tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.