The day started with a fake Oprah Winfrey and a real Tom Hanks.
Stars and star stand-ins rehearsed walking, talking and smiling on Thursday amid the massive sliding walls and glimmering staircases of the Academy Awards stage in the Kodak Theatre.
Cameras swooped around the venue, lights rose and fell, and a gargantuan viewing screen occasionally descended from the rafters like some sort of heavenly host as director Louis J. Horvitz orchestrated his crew for Sunday’s live broadcast.
The segments were practiced out of order, so Hanks started the day even though his appearance comes three acts into the show. Hanks was followed by the stand-in for Winfrey, who will walk onstage four acts later.
In the afternoon, Hollywood’s most powerful director — Steven Spielberg — arrived at the theater to take some of his own medicine.
Horvitz came out of the production booth to explain his plan, and soon Spielberg was standing in the wings, staring out at the glossy black stage surface. “It’s like you’re stepping out into the abyss there,” he said.
A bystander observed the similarity to a scene in Spielberg’s last “Indiana Jones” movie, where the hero jumps into a canyon and lands on a camouflaged bridge.
“That’s easy to write,” Spielberg responded. “Not so easy to do.”
Then the recorded music swelled and he walked out to the microphone for a mock presentation in front of dozens of seats filled with poster-pictures of stars such as Will Smith, John Cusack and a rather intimidating Charlize Theron as she appeared in her Oscar-nominated “Monster” role.
After reading the list of nominees, Spielberg couldn’t help offering his own two cents.
“Where do the presenters fall back to?” he asked Oscar producer Joe Roth, saying he wanted to get out of the winners’ way quickly and quietly. If he went to the left, as he was supposed to, how would he get back to where he entered from the right?
“You do what you feel comfortable doing,” was Roth’s diplomatic advice.
Spielberg went back to try it again, flanked by Berglind Olafsdottir and Pamela Green, the so-called “trophy girls” who follow presenters and hand the golden figurines to winners.
Besides beauty and glamour, what qualifications do you need for the trophy job?
“When you audition for this, it’s a little weird. They have you walk out and smile and they read a speech ... You just have to act as if you’re interested in the speech,” Green said, demonstrating her polite smile and subtle head-nodding.
Nervous anticipation for ZellwegerLater that afternoon, Renee Zellweger arrived backstage to prepare for a real daredevil act — descending a glowing, center-stage staircase in high heels and a gown.
She’s nominated in the supporting actress category for “Cold Mountain,” but she seemed more nervous about possibly tripping down the steps in front of tens of millions of people while presenting another award.
Earlier in the week, Roth confided to another presenter, Julianne Moore, that no other actress would agree to do the stairs. “I asked Jamie Lee Curtis,” Roth said. “She said, ’No. Dress. Women. Heels. Stairs. No.”’
Zellweger giggled as she took her place backstage. No gown, just slacks — for now.
She asked if she could lean against one side of the staircase for support, then pretended she might hop onto the railing and slide down on her backside.
“It’s more ’Oscar’ to come down the center,” a stagehand deadpanned.
She raised her hands in the air and crossed her fingers, then fretted that her “Chicago” director, who had coached her through the Oscar-winning film’s fancy footwork, would scold her if she appeared awkward.
“Rob Marshall is going to be watching this, and if I look down he’s going to kill me,” Zellweger said. “And if I don’t then I might kill myself!”
Step by step, as rehearsals for the 76th annual Academy Awards continue through the weekend, lots of other stars will practice the fine art of not falling down.