Here's what one writer was seeing from his vantage point inside the Kodak Theatre at the 81st Academy Awards, balcony box 6.
While the mood is vibrant outside on the red carpet, it's eerily calm inside the theater nearly two hours before the start of the show. About a dozen ushers are guarding _ silently, in an almost militaristic fashion _ the empty blue orchestra seats where nominees and other assorted A-listers are expected to sit for the ceremony. Light jazz wafts into the theater from the lobby.
"Winner's Walk," the direct backstage path from the stage to the press room at the Kodak Theatre, has been accessorized with curtains and orchid bouquets. The special hallway is lined with large portraits of past Oscar winners, such as Sally "You like me!" Field, that were snapped during their acceptance speeches. Also along the way: an open bar.
As more audience members continue to trickle into the theater, a house band just off stage is performing such tunes as "Cool" from "West Side Story," adding to this year's nightclub vibe. Two curtains are encasing the stage before the start of the show. One is a shiny blue curtain. The other is an awning blanketed with over 90,000 Swarovski crystals.
Among the nominees assigned to sit in the front row: Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Taraji P. Henson, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Mickey Rourke and Penelope Cruz. Jerry Lewis, who is being bestowed with a prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and his family have their own box on the orchestra level.
Jumbo monitors are blasting the supposedly live red carpet pre-show inside the Kodak Theatre. On screen, Entertainment Weekly editor Jess Cagle is interviewing Rourke, but "The Wrestler" actor has already taken his seat next to co-star Marisa Tomei. Rourke notices himself on screen and points up to it.
Pitt can't stay seated. While Jolie and Tajari P. Henson hold court in their front-row seats before the show, Pitt keeps hopping up to mingle with people, such as fellow best actor nominee Frank Langella. On the other side of the theater, Josh Brolin leads wife Diane Lane through a crowd to their seats. He jokingly checks the zipper on his tuxedo pants before sitting down.
Among the last to arrive before the show starts: The cast of "Slumdog Millionaire."
Hugh Jackman's prop-happy opening musical number seemingly wins over the entire crowd. Winslet and Dev Patel are laughing throughout the routine while Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are among the first attendees in the audience to rise for a standing ovation.
During the first commercial break, Jackman comes out and tells a story about his father flying from Australia just to see him perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. While the concert wasn't black tie, Jackman said his dad dressed up, anyway. "Well, dad, tonight it's black tie," Jackman said before motioning to his dad, who was sitting in the audience.
What do the winners see after they accept their trophy? A large monitor that immediately begins counting down from 45 seconds with a black background and large white numbers. At the 10-second mark, the background changes to yellow and the numbers become black. Once the countdown has finished, the background goes red and the screen flashes "PLEASE WRAP UP."
During a commercial break, Jackman introduces a montage created by "Capote" director Bennett Miller featuring everyday folks _ sprinkled with a few celebrities like Hugh Hefner, Michael Stipe and Sarah Silverman _ discussing the best picture nominees. Jackman said the video was cut from the live show because of time.
Pitt was just cast in a new role! Jackman selected him to toss him a cane during an upcoming musical number.
Winslet is chatting with Meryl Streep on the other side of the theater during another commercial break. "Ten seconds back," a stage director yells overhead. Uh oh. Winslet rushes back to her seat next to her husband, director Sam Mendes, which is occupied by a seat filler. The blonde substitute lunges up and switches places with "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road" actress.
Those fancy-schmancy chandeliers? They keep lowering and rising throughout the show.
Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix impression while presenting the cinematography award leaves the room divided. Some laugh. Others seem uncomfortable. Frank Langella is despondent for an entirely different reason. He tries sneaking back to his seat while the show is still happening but encounters a seat filler. The "Frost/Nixon" star kneels in the aisle until they can swap.
What an arm! An eager Pitt effortlessly tosses Jackman his cane.
The mood is expectedly somber when Heath Ledger is announced as the best supporting actor. Just like the previous award recipients, there's a countdown on a monitor when the Ledger family take the stage to accept the Oscar on the late actor's behalf, but _ unlike the previous winners _ there's no "PLEASE WRAP UP" flashing on the screen when the 45 seconds are over.
Brangelina break! Pitt takes Jolie by the hand and duo scoot out of the theater after the post-production trophies are dispensed. The couple aren't back by the time Eddie Murphy arrives to present Jerry Lewis with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. They've been replaced by two young female seat fillers.
Jackman again comes out to work the crowd during a commercial break. This time he reads a note he said he just received from his wife: "Baby, you're doing great, and I'm hungry." The host then takes a plate of cookies into the crowd and hands one to his wife _ and anyone else in the audience feeling famished. "Revolutionary Road" director Sam Mendes takes a chocolate cookie.
"Slumdog Millionaire" star Patel is perhaps the most excited person in the room. The 18-year-old actor has been giggling and cheering throughout the show. He even launched into a group hug with Danny Boyle's children when Boyle won for best director. After Boyle's acceptance speech, Patel shot a thumb's up to co-star Anil Kapoor, who's sitting several rows behind him.
Besides shiny new Oscars, what do Boyle, Winslet, Sean Penn and "Slumdog Millionaire" producer Christian Colson have in common? They didn't have that dreaded countdown clock staring back at them as they were accepting their trophies.
That's a wrap. The ceremony may be over on TV, but several stars are lingering and mingling in the Kodak Theatre as the band continues to play on. But balcony box 6 is officially closed.
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