Kate Winslet got unapologetically Kate Winslet-y. Sean Penn held his fire. Heath Ledger's family kept it together. Penélope Cruz lost it. The Slumdog Millionaire winners raised a glass. And Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston? Well, they sucked the air right out of the room.
The night's backstage doings—and sayings—at the 81st Annual Academy Awards:
5:51 p.m. PT: Well, I snagged a choice seat assignment. It just so happens I'm next to a Spanish radio reporter who translated the end of Cruz's speech for me. Cruz, she said, dedicated her Oscar to her fellow actors and citizens in Spain and thanked them for sharing in her happiness.
• I kinda wish I was sitting next to a burly longshoreman, too, on the off-chance I need a Mickey Rourke acceptance speech translated.
• I just put a call into Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight.com guy who called the 2008 presidential election with unerring accuracy and last week said his computer told him Taraji P. Henson had the best shot at winning Best Supporting Actress. Haven't heard back from him yet. Maybe he's arguing with a spreadsheet.
• I have never, ever heard as big a gasp in the press room as when the TV telecast cut to a reaction shot of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt during Jennifer Aniston's presenting gig. At first, I thought Aniston fell out of her dress. Or Jack Black fell into it.
• Silver called back. "I can't say I'm surprised," he says of Cruz's win, which was expected by most people—and things—save for his computer. "I kinda had an asterisk on it. We had Penélope as a pretty good shot ." As for the art of calling the Oscars? Silver admits it's no electoral college: "We're still working out the kinks."
• Dustin Lance Black, the Original Screenplay winner for Milk, was emotional on stage, so I'm not going to flatter myself and say he choked up back here because I'm the all-new Barbara Walters. All I asked him was whether he knew what he was going to say if and when he got to make an acceptance speech. "I had an idea. For me the whole thing was always to pay it forward. Harvey [Milk] gave me his story," Black says, before pausing and tearing up. "Harvey gave me his story, and it saved my life…I just wanted to tell those kids out there it'll be all right."
• Is there a Japanese speaker in the house? This request goes out from an Academy flack who tells us the winner of Animated Short, Kunio Kato, has lost his translator.
• I better start looking for that longshoreman pronto…
• I'm sitting so far in the back of the room that I can't tell if Penélope Cruz or Sophia Loren is with us now.
• OK, it's Cruz, projecting some serious old-school glamour, and talking about Loren, with whom she appears in the upcoming musical, Nine: "Sophia is incredible…She's a woman with a gold of heart. What did I just say?"
• Did I mention Cruz seems to be having a slight out-of-body experience?
• I tell Cruz that all the actresses in her category looked like emotional wrecks when, per the telecast's new format, former winners paid personal tribute to each of the nominees. She didn't disagree. "It was amazing to see all those women up there, and [hear] the beautiful things they said up there...And when it happens [when you win], it was a magical moment, and I [didn't] know if I was going to survive it."
• Count Cruz among the actresses who've fallen under the spell of the wily Woody Allen. "I call Woody sometimes just to say hello," she say of her Vicky Cristina Barcelona writer-director. "I adore him. I think he's so funny."
6:45 p.m.: If the pinchably cute kids from Slumdog Millionaire look like they're having a blast at the show, it's because they are. "It was absolutely the right thing to bring them over [from India] because they're having a lot of fun," Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog's Adapted Screenplay winner tells us.
• WALL-E writer-director Andrew Stanton, winner for Animated Feature, is outlining his theories on disconnectiveness and technology. No offense to Stanton or his film, but Bolt was way easier to follow.
• Hearing people congratulate Heath Ledger's eerily composed family is eerie in itself.
• Heath's sister Kate Ledger expands on her telecast anecdote about how the family knew an Oscar was in the star's future: "When he came home from Christmas a year ago, he had been sending me shots and bits and pieces from [The Dark Knight]…And I said to him, I have the feeling this is it for you, you're going to get a nomination from the Academy."
• On the telecast, the Ledger clan said the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was for Matilda, Heath Ledger's 3-year-old daughter with Michelle Williams, but it's actually not as simple as handing the trophy over to the girl. Since 1951, an Academy rep tells me, winners have been obliged to sign to so-called winners' agreements. The agreements say if they or their heirs ever decide to part ways with their Oscars, they must offer to sell the awards back to the Academy for $1 each. Because she's a minor, Matilda can't legally sign this agreement. So, until she reaches 18, the Academy says, echoing what Ledger's father, Kim Ledger, told us, the award will be placed in a trust with Williams.
• The Ledger family has nothing but praise for Williams, with whom they said they had not yet spoken tonight. "Michelle keeps Matilda closeted in a nice way," Kim Ledger says. "I don't think she'll know much of the fuss [of tonight's show], which I think is a good thing." Sister Kate Ledger confirms: "We're very close with Michelle. She is doing an amazing job with Matilida."
• Mother Sally Bell says she thinks her son, who died in January 2008 at age 28, would have been "quietly pleased" with his win. "He enjoyed the performance, he did. He was very proud of what he did. Heath was never one to be over the top with anything," she says in her own understated way.
• Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient Jerry Lewis, who has never been accused of being shy, will not be doing a press conference, an Academy flack announces. In other news, pigs have been spotted flying over the Kodak Theatre.
8:34 p.m.: You can't believe Waltz With Bashir didn't win Foreign Language Film. Your Oscar pool card can't believe it. Yojiro Takita, who won for Japan's Departures, can't either. In fact, he said so. "I don't believe it," Takita said. (Told you so.)
• At the exact moment Kate Winslet's film, The Reader, was going down to Best Picture defeat to Slumdog Millionaire, the Best Actress winner was being blinded by a million flashing camera lights next door in the photography room. She had no idea.
• There are no flashbulbs in the interview room, but the dazed Winslet still has no idea. Awaiting the first question, she takes deep, supposedly soothing breaths. "It's only starting to dawn on me now," she says a bit later, looking down at her Oscar. "Oh. My. God."
• Considering Winslet's won many, many awards this award season, can she really be so unnerved she won tonight? Yup. You see, Winslet, Winslet reminds, has lost at the Oscars many, many times. "Winning is really a lot better than losing," she reveals. "Really a lot better."
• A reporter informs Winslet she's been criticized in her native Britain for being a hyperventilating, crying, perspiring mess at recent award shows. "I really don't care," she says, her wind now restored. "Quite honestly, it makes me sad the country can't be happy for success of their own kind."
• A second reporter informs Winslet that email reaction from Britain is currently running in her favor. "Thank God for that!" she cries.
• A third reporter stands, and now Winslet gets really Winslet-y. She runs from the stage, and wraps the reporter—a reporter!—in a hug. U.K.-based gossip columnist Baz Bamigboye later tells me that while he and Winslet aren't what you'd call chums, he has had a professional relationship with the actress since she was an up-and-comer of 17. "We get on well," he says.
• Sensible Britain will be happy to know Winslet had a very sensible reason for choosing her "gunmetal gray" Yves Saint Laurent gown: "I thought my mom would think it's really pretty."
• Now Sean Penn—Sean Penn!—is acting all Winslet-y, walking over to the offstage Winslet to offer her a congratulatory hug and kiss.
• Penn's Winslet moment has passed, and he again is "Mr. Penn," as the Oscar flack calls him. I have no idea if Mr. Penn is happy, sad or vaguely disinterested to have won the Best Actor Oscar for Milk. Clint Eastwood's onscreen squint has nothing on Mr. Penn's offscreen one.
• About those protest signs Penn mentioned in his Oscar speech: It sounds as if they were the handiwork of the infamously antigay Westboro Baptist Church, which announced plans on its website to picket the show. Backstage, Penn has no response to one of the Kansas-based group's more hateful signs, "Heath in Hell," which it debuted at the 2008 Screen Actors Guild Awards just days after Ledger's death. Says Penn: "It's just meaningless jibberish."
• If Penn's not going to engage the protesters tonight, then he's not going to criticize President Obama tonight, either, for not embracing gay marriage (even as Obama denounced California's Proposition 8). "The day is going to come," Penn says of gay marriage, "and it's going to come quickly."
• I'll give Penn this: He admits to having known, admired and liked Mickey Rourke for more than 25 years. "He's an excellent bridge-burner at times," Penn says of Rourke without a bit of self-reverential humor.
• Slumdog's Danny Boyle won the Best Director Oscar, but all he's got in his hand right now is a champagne glass. When you're the night's big winner, I guess, you don't have to flaunt it.
• Boyle says the Slumdog team debated long and hard whether to include the film's young Indian actors in the show's awards-season run. "We were very concerned about it distorting their lives," he tells us. "They're young. They should stay in school…But then somebody said to us, look, they will put it in their own memory bank…and they will find a place for it in their own memory bank, and you should not deny it to them."
• Boyle has no idea what the Slumdog kids are inputting in their memory banks right now, as he has no idea where the Slumdog kids are right now. "I guess they've gone to the Governors Ball," he says, and I trust that's a good guess, and we won't need to issue an Amber Alert.
• A reporter identifies herself to Boyle as a correspondent for Rotten Tomatoes. Shouts the excited Boyle: "95!" (A fact check suggests Boyle really must be an dedicated follower of the review site. Slumdog's Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer reading is 94 percent.)
• Slumdog was lyrical, and so is Boyle, who resorts to citing a poem about "putting jukeboxes on the moon" to help sum up his film's Oscar triumph. "That's what tonight feels like," Boyle says. "Just amazing."