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Average sales tax rate lowest in 45 years

States and cities are being forced to keep their belts tight because sales tax collections rose only 1.2% last year even though consumer spending climbed 4.7%.

Governments have jacked up sales tax rates in recent years to get more money. But consumers are a step ahead, buying less of what’s taxed and using the Internet to save money. The result: higher tax rates covering a shrinking share of purchases.

Americans paid an average 4.27% sales tax rate on purchases in 2011, down from 4.63% five years ago and far below the peak of 5.18% in 1973, according to an analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

The Internet isn’t the biggest reason for the sales tax decline. The primary cause is a long-term shift to buying tax-exempt services rather than taxable goods. Americans today spend more money than ever on medical care, college tuition, health clubs, pet grooming, house cleaning and other services that are rarely covered by the sales tax.

Cars, televisions, books and other taxable items account for just one-third of spending today, down from half in 1970. And much of what’s bought — prescription drugs, hearing aids, clothing, food — is taxed at reduced rates or not at all.

Only two states — Florida and Massachusetts — have tried to expand the sales tax to cover most services, says Ronald Alt, head of research at the Federation of Tax Administrators. Both states repealed the law almost immediately after a tax rebellion. No state has dared try since, he says. “Legislators don’t want to sit in the barber chair and get an earful on the new haircut sales tax,” Alt says.

States want Congress to require Internet retailers such as amazon.com to collect their sales taxes. Now, only businesses that have a physical presence in the state — such as Walmart.com — must collect that state’s sales taxes for online purchases.

But opposition to expanding the sales tax to all Internet purchases remains strong. “Let’s focus on what’s best for the consumer, especially in a high tax state, rather than on protecting antiquated business practices,” says Minnesota state Sen. Warren Limmer, a Republican on the tax-writing committee.

Shrinking the sales tax further:

•High rates. As local charges rise, consumers go online and to low-tax states. New Hampshire (no sales tax) has bustling shopping malls along its border with Massachusetts (7% sales tax). Amazon is opening a new 850-employee distribution center in Delaware (no sales tax).

•Deflation. The prices of many taxable goods have plummeted because of imports and technology. Lamps costs 44% less than a decade ago, the BEA reports. Dishes are 30% less.

•Exemptions. California has a 50-page book of exemptions. New Jersey is phasing out the tax on cosmetic surgery. Connecticut taxes clothing, shoes and non-prescription drugs at 6.35% but exempts child car seats, college textbooks, caskets, energy efficient light bulbs and flags.

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3 doomsaying experts who foresee economic devastation ahead

Harry Dent, author of the new book The Great Crash Ahead, says another stock market crash is coming due to a bad ending to the global debt bubble. He has pulled back on his earlier prediction of a crash in 2012, as central banks around the world have been flooding markets with money, giving stocks an artificial short-term boost. But a crash is coming in 2013 or 2014, he warns. “This will be a repeat of 2008-09, only bigger, when it finally hits,” Dent told USA TODAY.

Gerald Celente, a trend forecaster at the Trends Research Institute, says Americans should brace themselves for an “economic 9/11″ due to policymakers’ inability to solve the world’s financial and economic woes. The coming meltdown, he predicts, will lead to growing social unrest and anti-government sentiment, a U.S. dollar with far less purchasing power and more people out of work.

Celente won’t rule out another financial panic that could spark enough fear to cause a run on the nation’s banks by depositors. That risk could cause the government to invoke “economic martial law” and call a “bank holiday” and close banks as it did during the Great Depression.

“We see some kind of threat of that magnitude,” Celente, publisher of The Trends Journal newsletter, warned in an interview.

Robert Prechter, author of Conquer the Crash, first published in 2002 and updated in 2009, is still bearish. He says today’s economy has similarities to the Great Depression and warns that 1930s-style deflation is still poised to cause financial havoc. Prechter predicts that the major U.S. stock indexes, such as the Dow Jones industrials and Standard Poor’s 500, will plunge below their bear market lows hit in March 2009 during the last financial crisis. The brief recovery will fail as it did in the 1930s, he says.

2 very different viewpoints

If he’s right, stocks would lose more than half of their value. “The economic recovery has been weak, so the next downturn should generate bad news in a big way,” Prechter said in an e-mail interview. “For the third time in a dozen years, the stock market is in a very bearish position.”

These dire forecasts differ sharply with the brighter outlooks being espoused by the bulls, or optimists, on Wall Street. Recent stock performance and fresh readings on the economy also suggest a future that is less gloomy than the doomsayers predict.

The Dow, for instance, is in rebound mode and has climbed back to levels not seen since the early days of the financial crisis in May 2008. Tech stocks in the Nasdaq composite are trading at levels last seen in 2000. Data on auto sales, manufacturing and consumer confidence have been firming. Job creation is also on the rise. The unemployment rate dipped to 8.3% in January, its lowest level in three years.

As a result, stock market strategists such as Rod Smyth of RiverFront Investment have been raising their outlooks for 2012. Smyth raised his target range for the SP 500 to 1250-1500. If the market hits the top of the range, stocks would have risen 10%. Similarly, Brian Belski, strategist at Oppenheimer, recently said he remains comfortable with his year-end 2012 target of 1400. That’s up 2.5% from here. Bespoke Investment Group published research that shows the market, which is closing in on a new bull market high, has done well in the past once it breaks through old highs.

Name: Harry Dent, Author of ‘The Great Crash Ahead’

Bulls are betting that Europe’s banking system will be stabilized, minimizing the risk of a severe credit crisis. Bulls are also encouraged by recent data from around the world that show modest growth and a pickup in economic momentum.

The causes of economic calamity

So what has the super-bears so worried?

Dent says the combination of aging Baby Boomers exiting their big spending years and a shift toward debt reduction and austerity around the world will cause the economy to suffer another severe leg down, making it more difficult for the government and Federal Reserve to avert a new meltdown. He has not always been bearish. In 1993 he wrote The Great Boom Ahead.

Name: Robert Prechter, author of ‘Conquer the Crash’

Celente, who as far back as 2008 has been warning of economic calamity, argues that the ballooning debt and the growing divide between the haves and have-nots has put the U.S. in a weakened state.

As a result, he says, the nation is more vulnerable to potential shocks. He worries about potential chaos caused by people all trying to yank their money out of financial markets at the same time. He also sees risk in the event there is a loss of confidence in elected leaders.

Societal unrest in the form of street protests and increased crime are possible, too, he adds. Markets could also be spooked by an oil price shock due to a military conflict between Israel and Iran, or a bad outcome to Europe’s debt crisis.

“2012 is when many of the long-simmering socioeconomic and political trends that we have been forecasting and tracking will climax,” Celente noted in his Top 12 Trends 2012 newsletter. In an interview he added: “When money stops flowing to the man on the street, blood starts flowing in the street.”

While bulls are urging investors to get back into stocks, the doomsayers are advising a far different strategy. Dent’s investment advice is simple: “Get out of the way.” He recommends buying short-term U.S. Treasury bills and the U.S. dollar, which will benefit from safe-haven cash flows. He says stocks will fall sharply in value.

Celente’s advice centers on survival. He says buy gold so you don’t lose purchasing power when the value of the dollar plummets. He says buy a gun to protect your family against desperate people in search of food and money. He says plan a getaway to places with more stable finances and governments.

Prechter says to keep your powder dry and buy when things get really bad: “When things get really scary, as in early 2009, I get bullish.”

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Workers, politicians in fight to stem American Airlines layoffs

There has been limited success while the airline’s parent, AMR Corp., works its way through bankruptcy court after losing $11 billion since 2001. The fear is the cutbacks could cost Tulsa more than 10% of workers in the region’s aviation sector.

Tulsa Metro Chamber CEO Mike Neal his office has received calls from companies that said they needed employees.

A chamber spokeswoman says it’s too soon to say which ones may absorb American Airlines losses, but they include energy and aviation fields.

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Oscar parties: Winners flock to Governors Ball after show

Happy winners such as best supporting actress Octavia Spencer, who changed into a pair of flats to go with her Tadashi Shoji dress, were ready to party. “Oh yes!” said The Help actress, walking into the bash, which was already in full swing by 10 p.m.

My Week With Marilyn best-actress nominee Michelle Williams and pal Busy Philipps were there along with Jessica Chastain, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Pharrell Williams, Emma Stone, Owen Wilson (who brought his mom as a date), Gary Oldman, Melissa Leo, best-supporting-actor winner Christopher Plummer, Morgan Freeman, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Viola Davis, Sandra Bullock and Oscar show host Billy Crystal.

The mood was jazz age with a Rat Pack vibe. Low tables were scattered throughout the dimly lit space, and guests dined on offerings by Governors Ball veteran chef Wolfgang Puck, including crab cakes, pork belly dumplings, lobster tacos, potato latkes, slow-braised short ribs with polenta, macaroni and cheese, and golden candy apples. The Iron Lady star and best-actress winner Meryl Streep, who sat at a table with her husband, tucked into a chicken pot pie.

A happy Alexander Payne hit the party with his Oscar in hand, and said he thought Crystal did a “terrific” job as host. “The films he did were good,” said The Descendants director, who picked up a trophy for best adapted screenplay for the film along with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. “The show was good and zippy, as it should be. It was a lean show.”


84th Annual Academy Awards

The Artist‘s Penelope Ann Miller agreed: “(Crystal is) so graceful and funny. He has an ease about him,” hosting. But the show was a home run for her across the board. “Of course, we won, so it makes it all more exciting,” she said.

About 10:05, Oscar special honoree James Earl Jones took to a rotating circular stage and introduced “American classic” Tony Bennett. “He’s an ideal choice for this evening,” said Jones into a microphone. “Not only because he’s known as Frank Sinatra‘s favorite singer, but because he made his silver-screen debut in a movie called The Oscar.”

While guests like Bridesmaids director Paul Feig inched closer to the stage, Bennett sang a 15-minute set, performing songs including Watch What Happens, Maybe This Time and I Left My Heart in San Francisco.

One of the hottest spots at the party was in a small room in the back, where Oscar winners queued up to have their statues engraved. At 10:20 Streep arrived. She was balancing a glass of Champagne with her Oscar. Where will her statue go? “On the shelf with the other old ones!” she said. Just then, Spencer arrived behind her, and while Streep wasn’t looking, Spencer mouthed, “I love you, Meryl,” at the back of her head. The two then grinned with their personalized Oscars for a photo together.

Next, it was The Artist‘s Academy Award-winning director Michel Hazanavicius‘ turn to get his gold guy engraved. While waiting, he high-fived Spencer. “I will find a good spot,” for Oscar, he promised. His plans after hitting the early (think 4 a.m. PT) news shows on Monday? “Back to Paris!” he said.

When The Artist‘s winning leading man Jean Dujardin arrived, he carefully inspected the gold label created for his Oscar, nodded that it was correct and then had a Champagne toast with his wife, Alexandra Lamy. When Dujardin was handed his engraved Oscar, he kissed it on the head. Where will he put it? “I don’t know, I don’t know. In my bed, tonight,” he said, grinning.

It was a popular sentiment. Nearby, The Descendants screenwriters Faxon and Rash were debating where their Oscars would go. “In my office on a shelf next to my Writers Guild award,” mused Rash. “Above my fireplace?” wondered Faxon, and then changed his mind: “The first two weeks: in my bed.”

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Winners at the 84th annual Academy Awards

Best picture:
WINNER: The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Actress:
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
WINNER: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Actor:
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
WINNER: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball


84th Annual Academy Awards

Director:
WINNER: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Animated short:
Dimanche/Sunday
WINNER: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
La Luna
A Morning Stroll
Wild Life

Documentary, short:
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement
God Is the Bigger Elvis
Incident in New Baghdad
WINNER: Saving Face
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Short film, live action:
Pentecost
Raju
WINNER: The Shore
Time Freak
Tuba Atlantic

Original screenplay:
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Bridesmaids (Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
WINNER: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

Adapted screenplay:
WINNER: The Descendants (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon; Jim Rash)
Hugo (John Logan)
The Ides of March (George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon)
Moneyball (Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin; story by Stan Chervin)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan)

Original song:
WINNER: Man or Muppet from The Muppets (music and lyrics by Bret McKenzie)
Real in Rio from Rio (music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; lyrics by Siedah Garrett

Original score:
The Adventures of Tintin (John Williams)
WINNER: The Artist (Ludovic Bource)
Hugo (Howard Shore)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alberto Iglesias)
War Horse (John Williams)

Supporting actor:
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
WINNER: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Visual effects:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler, John Richardson)
WINNER: Hugo (Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman, Alex Henning)
Real Steel (Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor, Swen Gillberg)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White, Daniel Barrett)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler, John Frazier)

Animated film:
A Cat in Paris
Chico Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots
WINNER: Rango

Documentary, feature:
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Pina
WINNER: Undefeated

Sound mixing:
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson)
WINNER: Hugo (Tom Fleischman, John Midgley)
Moneyball (Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, Dave Giammarco, Ed Novick)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Peter J. Devlin)
War Horse (Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson)

Sound editing:
Drive (Lon Bender, Victor Ray Ennis)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Ren Klyce)
WINNER: Hugo (Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl)
War Horse (Richard Hymns, Gary Rydstrom)

Supporting actress:
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
WINNER: Octavia Spencer, The Help

Foreign language film:
Bullhead (Belgium)
Footnote (Israel)
In Darkness (Poland)
Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
WINNER: A Separation (Iran)

Makeup:
Albert Nobbs (Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnston, Matthew W. Mungle)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Nick Dudman, Amanda Knight, Lisa Tomblin)
WINNER: The Iron Lady (Mark Coulier, J. Roy Helland)

Costume design:
Anonymous (Lisy Christl)
WINNER: The Artist (Mark Bridges)
Hugo (Sandy Powell)
Jane Eyre (Michael O’Connor)
W.E. (Arianne Phillips)

Art direction:
The Artist (production design: Laurence Bennett; set decoration: Robert Gould)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (production design: Stuart Craig; set decoration: Stephenie McMillan)
WINNER: Hugo (production design: Dante Ferretti; set decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo)
Midnight in Paris (production design: Anne Seibel; set decoration: Hélène Dubreuil)
War Horse (production design: Rick Carter; set decoration: Lee Sandales)

Cinematography:
Guillaume Schiffman, The Artist
Jeff Cronenweth, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
WINNER: Robert Richardson, Hugo
Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life
Janusz Kaminski, War Horse

Film editing:
The Artist (Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius)
The Descendants (Kevin Tent)
WINNER: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall)
Hugo (Thelma Schoonmaker)
Moneyball (Christopher Tellefsen)

USA TODAY’s Claudio Puig correctly predicted 6 of 7 top categories.

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FAQ: What’s in the ‘Privacy Bill of Rights?’

Individual Control: In a nutshell, people should have the right to control their own data. Companies should write clear, easy-to-understand privacy policies, and give consumers a way to limit consent or opt out of data collection that is as easy as opting in.

Transparency: Companies should be clear about what data they collect, why they need it, how they use it, who they share it with and when they will delete it.

Respect for Context: This section of the privacy bill of rights points to special treatment for information gathered from children and teens. Essentially, this “right” declares the consumers should be able to expect that any data companies collect will be used in a way consistent with the way it was provided. So, if a company collects information for one purpose, it can’t then decide that it wants to use that data for another purpose.

Security: Consumers have a right to expect their data will be stored and transmitted securely.

Access and Accuracy: Consumers should be able to access their own, accurate personal data and be able to easily correct any personal data companies handle.

Focused Collection: Companies shouldn’t collect more data than they need, and consumers should have the right to say what those limits are, within reason. Companies should also delete any data they don’t need, if they can do so without breaking the law.

Accountability: Companies should hold their employees responsible for adhering to these rights, and consumers should be able to expect that they do. This measure calls for full audits, when appropriate, and special training for employees.

Who can enforce these? Is this a mandate? These are the White House’s recommendations for the way to proceed on privacy, but they are still voluntary guidelines. The Federal Trade Commission can police companies that agree to follow the guidelines.

“The Administration expects that a company’s public commitment to adhere to a code of conduct will be enforceable under existing FTC authority, just as a company is bound today to follow its privacy commitments,” the White House said in a fact sheet on the proposal.

Will there be a law? The administration has said that it will use this privacy framework as a guide for future comprehensive legislation, and to work with state attorneys general on getting the authority to enforce the bill of rights.

But there are some doubts about whether comprehensive legislation will make it through Congress — particularly in an election year.

There are a handful of privacy bills that have been introduced in this session of Congress, but they have failed to gain much traction.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has worked with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on a draft for comprehensive legislation for nearly two years, reissued a call to move forward on privacy legislation Thursday.

“Senator McCain and I have been building support for our bipartisan approach for almost two years and I welcome the Administration’s call for a baseline code of conduct wholly consistent with what we’ve been promoting,” he said in a statement. “Now let’s get something done.”

What’s this “do not track” button I’m hearing about? In conjunction with the White House’s announcement Thursday, several of the largest online advertising industry groups said they will implement “do not track” technology in Web browsers. There is no “do not track” provision in the bill of rights; this is a voluntary decision from the industry.

“Do not track” has been around for a while, but they’ve been a mixed bag in the past because while they have let advertisers know that users don’t want to be followed across the Web, not all advertisers had agreed to abide by the request.

The 400 companies in the Digital Advertising Alliance have agreed not to use data from consumers who don’t want to be tracked to customize ads or to use the data for certain purposes such as employment, health care or insurance.

They will, however, still use information from these consumers for market research. The “do not track” button will not apply to all things: Companies will still be able to track, for example, things users do when signed in to services or things they choose to “Like” through Facebook’s plug-ins.

Related stories:

Voluntary guidelines for Web privacy backed by Obama administration


‘Privacy bill of rights’: Advocacy groups, industry weigh in

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Presenting the golden moments of the 84th Oscars

A ‘wow’ moment for Streep

One of the night’s most emotional moments arrives when Meryl Streep takes best actress for The Iron Lady, topping favored Viola Davis (for The Help) and collecting her third Oscar in 17 nominations. She’s so flustered heading backstage that she simply gasps, “I can’t even believe it.”

A stage manager asks if she needs to sit down to collect her thoughts before she’s whisked to the media room. As the best-picture nominees roll, Streep sips bottled water and occasionally exclaims “Wow!” and “I’m just so shocked!”

Finally, she walks with a flushed face to the thank-you cam, which allows winners to express gratitude to all the people they couldn’t fit into their onstage speeches. At the end, she promises, “I’m going to drink a lot.”


84th Annual Academy Awards

Presenter Colin Firth hands her the gold envelope that signals her win. “You don’t want forget this,” he says. “Do you want me to hold onto it?”

She replies emphatically: “Yes, I do.”

A ‘bowwow’ moment for Dujardin

Before Streep’s upset, best-actor winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) strides backstage, pumping his fist in the air, Oscar in hand. He’s greeted i by canine co-star Uggie (and Uggie’s handler) and allows the Jack Russell terrier to lick his face. “Thank you, Uggie. Thank you, boy,” he says.

When The Artist wins best picture, a celebration of the entire cast convenes backstage. After Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller welcome Tom Cruise, who presented the award, Miller tells him, “We’re going all night tonight.”

“You guys enjoy. Congratulations!” he says.

Bullock approves

Sandra Bullock watches the Academy Awards’ supporting-actress presentation on the backstage monitor, holding her hands almost prayer-like below her chin as the names are read off. She laughs especially hard as a clip of Bridesmaids‘ Melissa McCarthy rolls.

But when Octavia Spencer‘s name is announced, she gives a shriek of delight and claps madly. As soon as Spencer walks off the stage, Bullock squeezes her in a big hug.

Spencer heads somewhat unsteadily toward the thank-you cam.

“Oh, God,” the first-time Oscar winner says out loud, as if the moment is just starting to hit, as Bullock reassures her, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your (gown’s) train.”

She calmly thanks her agent and her family, then loses her composure and has to walk away, overwhelmed. “I don’t want to cry, I want to look pretty,” Spencer says.

Presenting is quite a ‘feet’

After presenting the award for best documentary, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. huddle backstage. “Oh, my feet,” Paltrow moans, sitting in the first director’s chair she finds. “Nice shoes,” Downey says.

Speaking with Melissa Leo, last year’s supporting-actress winner, Downey asks, “How do you feel about relinquishing your title?” Leo explains that she gets to keep her Oscar. “I’m just not sure how this all works,” Downey jokes.

Pressure? What pressure?

Two hours before the live broadcast, host Billy Crystal walks backstage with a content look on his face, wearing jeans and a neat blue sweater. Leaning against the doorjamb of his dressing room, he cracks jokes with a number of tuxedoed onlookers.

“I just tweeted that the opening number has changed. War Horse broke his leg, and we had to put him down,” Crystal declares with a grin, causing bystanders to break into laughter.

Don’t drop the trophies!

A sea of gold Oscar statuettes roll by on a humble two-level cart, pushed by three tuxedo-clad workers up a slight wooden incline to the backstage. As the trophies wobble slightly, one Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences onlooker shivers and says, “Oooh, that makes me nervous.”

But the Oscars arrive unharmed and are lovingly polished to meet their new owners.

Even Oprah gets nervous

Oprah Winfrey walks through the hallway backstage, clutching longtime partner Stedman Graham‘s hand, a tight expression on her face.

The couple runs into Tom Hanks, who pumps Graham’s hand and greets Winfrey with a hug and a “Hello, darling.”

“You had such a look of worry on your face — you’ll be fine,” Hanks tells Winfrey, who’s receiving the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, previously bestowed upon Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul Newman.

Graham asks where Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, is. Hanks responds: “She’s at home with her hand in a bucket of ribs and enjoying herself.”

Hustle and bustle

At 12 minutes until airtime, a bevy of celebrities goes by, with Prince Albert of Monaco helpfully preventing a rogue TV camera from veering off into a line of stars. Martin Scorsese, Bradley Cooper, Winfrey and Graham head for their seats.

With five minutes to go, Crystal emerges with a blue coffee cup in his right hand and makes his way to the stage.

After presenting the awards for cinematography and art direction (to Hugo), Hanks follows the winners backstage, proudly proclaiming, “Congratulations, you Hugonites!”

Before stepping out onstage, presenters Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez go over their lines quickly while nervously adjusting their fitted cream-colored gowns. The two share a bottled water, sipping out of the same green straw.

“I’ll do that, but even better,” Lopez vows after their run-through.

“Good luck!” a well-wisher tells Diaz, who flashes a smile and a thumbs-up.

A successful turn

“That was genius!” Bullock yells out when Diaz and Lopez return backstage, reacting to their decision to turn their backsides to the crowd as the camera panned back to them. “That’s what makes the Academy Awards great!”

Afterward, the two huddle with producer Brian Grazer, who tells them, “I thought it was really great, really sexy.” J. Lo responds, “Yes, but it seems like a really tame crowd this year.”

What now?

Emma Stone follows Ben Stiller offstage, but as Stiller departs, Stone suddenly seems confused. She looks about for a good five seconds before someone approaches her and asks, “Can I help you?”

“Where do I go?” Stone asks.

“We can take you to your seat or we can take you to the lobby bar,” the academy member says. Stone says conspiratorially, “I’m just going to go to the bar!”

On the way out, she runs into Grazer, who tells her that the Bridesmaids cast has been watching her from a side room and laughing hysterically.

“They were just digging you,” Grazer says. “Thank you,” she replies. “That was seriously one of the greatest moments ever.”

Tying up loose thank-yous

When Christopher Plummer walks offstage after winning his much-awaited supporting-actor award (for Beginners), he immediately walks to the thank-you cam to finish his speech.

“I left out my last sentence,” he says, and then thanks the rest of the cast, including Goran Visjnic and a Jack Russell terrier named Cosmo.

“I’m just sorry I didn’t mention it,” he says.

Always by her side

Brad Pitt waits backstage like a nervous spouse, watching Angelina Jolie present the awards for adapted and original screenplay.

When Jolie returns, the couple congratulate producer Grazer on the show, Pitt’s arm around her waist. He holds out his hand for Jolie to grab, and the two walk arm in arm into the greenroom.

See you next year?

As the night winds down, Spencer trudges by, complaining that her feet hurt, though she’s switched to flat sandals under her gown. But carrying her Oscar and her purse in her right hand, she’s still beaming.

“That was the best Oscars ever,” she tells Grazer outside his office.

After the show, a beaming Crystal poses for pictures and hugs production staffers. As he walks off, stage manager Dency Nelson, who came out of retirement to manage the show, tells him, “I don’t want you to go.”

Crystal smiles and says, “I never said this was going to be my last year.”

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