UP CLOSE:

A first-timer shares what it’s like to be in­side the Academy Awards

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Jaleesa M. Jones @JaleesaMJones USA TO­DAY

It’s a long road to LOS AN­GE­LES the Oscars.

And call­ing a Lyft 90 min­utes ahead of the 5:30 p.m. PT (8:30 ET) pro­gram won’t spare you from traf­fic, which con­stricts the area around the lux­ury Loews Hol­ly­wood Ho­tel, the scene of the cer­e­mony long seen as the zenith of the awards sea­son. IT TAKES MORE THAN AN HOUR TO GET THROUGH. Af­ter be­ing forced to reroute from your ho­tel that’s five min­utes away, you man­age to snake up a cou­ple of blocks be­fore se­cu­rity sig­nals for your driver to stop. An of­fi­cer asks to in­spect the trunk while two other of­fi­cers check the un­der­side.

You can’t help but no­tice peo­ple press­ing up against the metal fences bar­ri­cad­ing the street. Their cam­eras are raised, ready to cap­ture a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio or per­haps Taraji P. Hen­son only to be greeted by tinted win­dows.

That ques­tion — along with the oc­ca­sional eye tag with pa­parazzi won­der­ing who you are — oc­cu­pies you long enough to get through the snarl to the of­fi­cial en­trance.

Once you ar­rive, at­ten­dants whisk you out of the car and hand you a ticket for your “limou­sine” to re­trieve you at the end of the night. YOU GET A SNEAK PEEK AT THE RED CAR­PET. The red car­pet is sup­posed to be re­stricted to cre­den­tial hold­ers cov­er­ing celebrity ar­rivals, but the path to the Dolby Theatre leads you through a maze of black rope, cum­brous cur­tains and metal detectors straight to the car­pet’s pe­riph­ery. If you wanted, you could reach out and touch the stars. But it is safer and more so­cially ac­cept­able to take photos, which dozens of ticket hold­ers do de­spite at­ten­dants re­peat­edly re­quest­ing that you move along.

You are among the lin­ger­ers, steal­ing glimpses of La La Land’s Ryan Gosling, I Am Not Your Ne­gro’s Sa­muel L. Jack­son and Moon­light’s Ma­her­shala Ali. WHILE THE SET MAY BE LARGER THAN LIFE, THE THE­ATER ISN’T. Though it seems to house all of Hol­ly­wood on TV, the Dolby Theatre is smaller than you would ex­pect, but its size aligns with the in­ti­macy of the cer­e­mony. There’s a dis­tinct feel­ing of com­mu­nion, at least in the lower level, where celebri­ties move ef­fort­lessly among one an­other and un­abashedly stand, sway and clap along with per­form­ers like Justin Tim­ber­lake.

It takes time for the spirit of Tim­ber­lake’s Can’t Stop the Feel

ing to catch on in the up­per lev­els. With the ex­cep­tion of com­mer­cial breaks — where guests use the two-minute win­dow to squeeze in bath­room runs, in­hale wasabi peas and snack wraps and hit the up­per-level cash bar (an area skipped by celebri­ties) — peo­ple mostly re­main seated.

Yet when John Le­gend takes the stage to per­form La La Land’s

City of Stars and Au­di­tion ( The

Fools Who Dream), it’s as if guests are re­minded that they are in a room of dream­ers. Peo­ple be­gin shift­ing in their seats. There are au­di­ble “whoas.” THE AC­CEP­TANCE SPEECHES HELP BRING EV­ERY­ONE INTO THE MO­MENT. You join the crowd in blink­ing back tears as Fences star Vi­ola Davis ac­cepts the award for best sup­port­ing ac­tress. “Peo­ple ask me all the time, ‘What kind of sto­ries do you want to tell, Vi­ola?’ ” she says. “And I say, ex­hume those bod­ies, ex­hume those sto­ries, the sto­ries of the peo­ple who dreamed.”

While ac­cept­ing the award for best adapted screen­play, Moon

light di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins and play­wright Tarell Alvin McCraney ac­knowl­edge the im­por­tance of in­clu­sion.

“All you peo­ple out there who feel like there’s no mir­ror out there, that your life is not re­flected, the academy has your back,” Jenk­ins af­firmed. “The ACLU has your back. We have your back.”

“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gen­der-con­form­ing who don’t see them­selves,” McCraney added. “We’re try­ing to show you, you and us.” BUT IT’S NOT ALL SOMBER. Host Jimmy Kim­mel makes sure of that, es­pe­cially af­ter the night’s big­gest flub, when pre­sen­ters an­nounce the best-pic­ture win­ner as La La Land when it was ac­tu­ally Moon­light.

Riff­ing off the 2015 Miss Uni­verse fi­asco, Kim­mel says, “I blame Steve Har­vey!”

The joke is a hit. THE AF­TER-PARTY IM­ME­DI­ATELY FOL­LOWS THE OSCARS, AND IT IS STAR-STUD­DED. The bash is staged on the fourth floor of the ho­tel, where invit­ing tents, plush white fur­ni­ture and real food — in­clud­ing steak tartare, short ribs, lob­ster, crab legs and shrimp — await you. It’s a wel­come change, es­pe­cially from the evening ’s ear­lier of­fer­ings.

13th di­rec­tor Ava Du­Ver­nay shuf­fles in with her mother and greets you with a hug. She tells you she hopes the best-pic­ture mix-up doesn’t over­shadow the sig­nif­i­cance of a film cen­ter­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of a poor, black, gay man win­ning an Os­car.

That point cer­tainly isn’t lost on Moon­light star Naomie Har­ris, who ac­knowl­edges she’s still pro­cess­ing the win.

For their part, Moon­light’s Alex R. Hib­bert and Jhar­rel Jerome do their pro­cess­ing on the dance floor, groov­ing to Su­garhill Gang’s

Apache (Jump On It) and Pit­bull’s I Know You Want Me (Calle

Ocho). And, at one point, co-star Ash­ton San­ders slips out of the room, his cell­phone to his ear and a smile on his face, say­ing, “Un­be­liev­able.”

It’s a fit­ting word for the night.

MARK RAL­STON, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Fences’ Vi­ola Davis gives a spir­ited speech as she ac­cepts her best-sup­port­ing-ac­tress award.

MATT WINKELMEYER, GETTY IMAGES

Naomie Har­ris and Dwayne John­son ex­change greet­ings out­side the Dolby Theatre Sun­day.

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