Putting It Together
The 66th Academy Awards
"THE PELLET with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon," Chuck Warn muttered to nobody in particular as he walked down a long central hallway in the Academy Awards production office. "The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true." Dressed all in black and cutting an imposing figure at well over six feet and three hundred pounds, the bearded, longhaired publicist for the show's producer paused, then picked up the pace. "The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon, the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true ..."
The lines, first uttered by actor/comic Danny Kaye in the 1956 comedy The Court Jester, had nothing to do with the 66th Academy Awards, which would take place in six weeks. Most of those weeks would be filled with steady, sometimes frantic activity: yet to come was flash and furor and spectacle beyond anyone's control, the Oscar carnival in all its finery and silliness. For the moment, though, on the third floor of a nondescript high-rise office building on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles, things werecalm enough that staffers who wanted to spend a few minutes declaiming Danny Kaye dialogue could do so.
Inside the largest of the offices that lined the hallway Warn was pacing, Gilbert Cates sat behind his desk and looked out the window, across Westwood Village and toward the UCLA campus. "I've always been a fan of the circus," he announced. "And this is the greatest circus." He returned his gaze to the room, where pages of schedules, notes, and numbers sat on the desk. Behind him, over his right shoulder, a shiny metal gong hung within reach so that he could notify staffers of each new booking with an appropriately dramatic flourish. Across the room, a bulletin board, protected from unauthorized eyes by a set of white miniblinds, broke down the show and sported the names of presenters and performers, some already booked and others merely coveted. "This show presents great opportunities, great highs and great lows," he said. "It requires a tremendous effort, but it's a lot of fun." Cates paused, allowing a small grin to crease the corners of his mouth. "And I use that word fun carefully."
The spectacle was a familiar one to Cates, who had produced every Oscar show since Allan Carr's momentous mess of five years earlier. "I think Gil totally saved the Oscar show," said Chuck Workman. "It was moribund. And he was the perfect man at the perfect time. He was able to make it a much more modern show, keep it very much about Hollywood but also catch up with the rest of entertainment."
A member of the Academy's board of governors for eight years, as well as a two-term past president of the Directors Guild of America, the fifty-nine-year-old Cates had started his career in 1955, after graduating from Syracuse University. Originally a premed student at Syracuse, Cates became fascinated with the theater almost by accident: a member of the school's fencing team, he'd been drafted to teach the actors in a campus production of Richard III how to wield swords. He switched his major to theater, stage-managed on Broadway after graduation, and then worked on a string of largely forgotten TV game shows (Haggis Baggis, Picture This, Camouflage) during the 1950s and early '60s. Cates broke into the movie business in his midthirties with the circus-themed 1966 film Rings Around the World. He continued to move between theater, television, and film; in that last arena, his most notable successes were a pair of Oscar-nominatedearly '70s dramas, I Never Sang for My Father and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.
Cates's film career cooled off after those movies, and he turned largely to television, where he was allowed to make the kind of socially themed movies in which he was most interested. While directing TV movies about mental illness, domestic abuse, and the like, he remained active in Academy affairs. In 1989, after six years on the board of governors, he was asked to head the Awards Presentation Review Committee formed to scrutinize Allan Carr's show.
Cates's committee recommended using a single host whenever possible, relying more on film clip packages than on production numbers, and booking single presenters to prevent awkward chit-chat. In many ways the most dramatic suggestion, though, was to pay the producer of the Oscar show. "The idea that we didn't need to pay because the producer's job was a great honor was a double-edged sword," said Bruce Davis, who assumed the executive director position the year after the Carr show. "It is a great honor, and only the top directors and producers in town had ever been asked to do it--but if you ask a guy to put that kind of time into a project and don't pay him, you almost lose your ability to rein him in. We would frequently get the reaction, 'Look, I'm doing this for free and now you guys are gonna nickel-dime me?' To pay the producer put the show on more of a business footing."
The first year, the job carried an honorarium of $150,000. New Academy president Karl Malden, also a member of the review committee, figured that the man who chaired the panel ought to do the job (and pocket the paycheck) himself. Cates took his share of ribbing as both the man who recommended the producer be paid, and the man to benefit from that recommendation--but four years later, with four Oscar shows under his belt, he was still the only man who'd ever been paid to produce the Academy Awards. "It's embarrassing, being the first producer to be paid," Cates said at his first board of governors meeting after taking the job. "I can only say that had I known it was going to be me, I would have said the pay should be much higher."
As a producer, Cates had certain tendencies: he felt that each show should open with a film clip, but he also loved staging those oft-maligned dance numbers (though he subscribed to the theory that each individual elementshould last no longer than three minutes). He liked to give themes to his Oscar shows, and he was fond of surprise appearances by both people and animals. But despite his penchant for dogs and horses and Debbie Allen, Cates was also a steadying, calming influence--particularly when compared with the likes of Carr. As befitted a college dean and an occasional teacher, Cates had a professorial manner. But when the mood struck him, the generally soft-spoken producer delighted in sprinkling his speech with expletives.
On the slow Monday morning in early February, Cates conferred briefly with Chuck Warn, then walked back down the hall toward his own office. Outside the door, he stopped to look over the schedule kept by his assistant, Debbie Olchick.
"Oh, this is a very important meeting that demands all my attention," he said as he ducked back into his office. "It's hard work, figuring out if the fucking jackets and hats should be red or black."
THE PAST FOUR YEARS had been a smooth stretch for the Academy Awards. When he took over on the heels of Allan Carr's show, Cates tried to streamline the operation and unify the staff. Where previous producers had often worked in separate offices from much of the production staff, he brought everyone together in one office.
He also had a different sensibility, one formed by a background that included theater, film, and live television. "Gil had produced television and produced motion pictures and directed television and directed motion pictures, and he had some Broadway experience as a producer and director," said Jeff Margolis, who returned to direct his second show. "He also had a whole different philosophy from Allan. He wanted to do it bigger and better, but he knew the limitations of television. He knew we weren't making a movie, we were doing a television show, and that was a whole different way of approaching the show."
His first year on the job, Cates took the crucial step of lining up Billy Crystal to host. Crystal's brief routine had been one of the best-liked moments of the Carr show; the comic had a stand-up background, but movies like When Harry Met Sally had also given him a cachet in the movie business.
Initially, Crystal had been enamored by the gig, but reluctant to commit. To make his pitch, Cates took Crystal to lunch at the Friar's Club in Beverly Hills--where the producer received an unexpected assist from the eighty-one-year-old comedian Milton Berle, who dropped by their booth to say hello and, when he learned why the men were meeting, launched into an enthusiastic monologue about why Crystal simply had to take the job.
Although Cates had heard from some naysayers who felt that Crystal's humor might be too ethnic for Middle America, the comic immediately found the right tone. At his first show, in 1990, his monologue was filled with Hollywood jokes that were inside enough for the audience at the Chandler, but broad enough for the millions at home. His first line, though, alluded directly to the previous year. "Is that for me," he said as the audience applauded, "or are you just glad I'm not Snow White?"
In fact, Ms. White had already made an appearance on the show, which had opened with a breakneck montage of famous movie clips put together by Chuck Workman. Among the more than three hundred scenes crammed into five minutes was an entirely deliberate shot of the Disney heroine. "I asked, 'Do you think this will offend anybody?'" said Workman, "and Gil said, 'Fuck 'em, it's good.'"
Cates was determined to make his Oscars a classy one--and since the Cold War had essentially ended in 1989 and the Iron Curtain had come down across Europe, an international event as well. He sent crews to London, Moscow, Sydney, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires, enormously complicating the technical side of the production.
"Nothing like that had ever really been attempted before, and we went on the air not knowing if we were ever going to have any sound coming from Russia," said Margolis. "During all the setup and all the rehearsals, we never got the audio and video together at the same time. I thought, poor Jack Lemmon. We've shipped him all the way to Moscow, and now nobody will be able to hear him. But it worked. I loved it."
Cates's initial show was well received, both within the Academy and outside it. "We could do no wrong that year, because we were following Allan Carr," said Roy Christopher, the production designer for the show in 1990. "It was much more what the Academy, and the public, seemed to want." The show was nominated for five Emmy Awards, with Christopherwinning; over the next three years, Cates's shows would secure twenty-six nominations and six more wins.
During those years, the producer continued to trot out variations on his Oscar formula. Each year he gave the show a theme ("100 Years at the Movies" in 1991, "The Pure Joy of the Movies" the following year, "Women and the Movies" in 1993), and each year he used Crystal as host, relied heavily on film montages, but also threw in dance numbers, often as not choreographed by Debbie Allen.
Some of those numbers were gruesome (including a 1991 opening that purported to trace the history of film and involved lots of people jumping back and forth through screens), and sometimes the real world intruded on the relatively smooth machine Cates was running. In 1991, the recent Gulf War caused security to be far tighter than usual, as for the first time Oscar guests (with the exception of Bob Hope) were run through metal detectors on their way to the red carpet.
Cates initially figured he'd produce no more than three shows, but by 1994 he was on something of a roll. "It's very hard to conceive of a producer agreeing to do it again while he's in the throes of it, or within a month or two afterwards," said Bruce Davis. "But when they calm down and relax, you can sometimes talk them into doing it again. And considering that Gil had done the show before and done it well, that he'd actually succeeded in cranking up the ratings little bit, and that ABC embraced him, the talk within the Academy was along the lines of, 'Do you think we can talk him into doing it again?'"
ABOUT FOUR MILES EAST of the production office, it looked as if a hurricane had hit the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In fact, the disarray--missing ceiling panels, soiled carpeting, dented furniture--had come from a 6.7 magnitude earthquake that hit Los Angeles just after 4 a.m. on Martin Luther King Day, January 17, 1994. Throughout the seven-story building, bookcases had been toppled and the emergency sprinkler system had drenched desks. In subsequent days, the closet in Bruce Davis's office filled with Oscar statuettes that werereturned to the Academy for repair (or, more often, replacement) after the quake: Oliver Stone's Oscar for Platoon was bent at the base, while Jack Nicholson's for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had been dented when it fell on its head.
Amid fallout from the temblor, bookcases and tables were piled high with boxes of publicity photographs, slides, bios, and press kits. In preparation for the next morning's announcement of Oscar nominations, studios had sent over promotional materials for all who had a shot at a nomination, and some who didn't: near a stack of bios of Holly Hunter, considered a lock for a best-actress nomination for The Piano, was a box that Touchstone Pictures had supplied in the unlikely event that Kathy Najimy won a supporting-actress nod for Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
For most of the day, a team from the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse had locked itself in the sixth-floor copy room, where they compiled lists of the nominees, copied those lists, and double-checked spellings and punctuation with Academy staffers. Of course, they couldn't just come out and ask, "How do you spell Spielberg?" So they'd pass Academy officials a list of several names to be checked; one name would belong to a true nominee, while the others would be decoys.
Just after 6 p.m., the building was cleared of all but essential personnel, and the switchboard was shut down. At the same time, the Price Waterhouse reps came into Davis's office and officially presented him with the list of nominees. In a ceremony whose formality was at least partly tongue in cheek, the executive director thanked the accountants for doing another meticulous job of counting, whereupon his staff descended upon the lists of nominees and tore through them.
The list contained the names of thirty-seven feature films and thirteen shorts, eighteen different actors and actresses, and close to 150 other nominees. To the surprise of no one, the film with the most nominations was Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, the Holocaust-themed drama that had been considered the Oscar front-runner since its December release.
Spielberg had a troubled history with the Academy, which sometimes seemed mistrustful of the kind of zestful popular entertainment in which the director specialized. In 1975, his film Jaws became the top-grossing movieever made, and the twenty-nine-year-old wunderkind was considered such a strong candidate for a best-director nomination that a TV crew went to Spielberg's home to record his reaction when the nominations were announced. But there is often a discrepancy between the five films nominated for best picture by the Academy's entire membership and the five directors nominated by the smaller directors' branch--and more often than not, that discrepancy manifests itself when a director responsible for a successful popcorn movie is bypassed in favor of an artier auteur. Such was Spielberg's fate: as the film crew watched, he found that Jaws was up for best picture, but he had been left out in favor of Italian legend Federico Fellini, whose autobiographical Amarcord had won the Oscar for best foreign film the previous year but was eligible in other categories in 1975. "I can't believe it," said Spielberg, head in hands. "They went for Fellini instead of me."
Spielberg had other reasons to complain in subsequent years. He was nominated for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., but lost to Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Warren Beatty (Reds), and Richard Attenborough (Gandhi); his 1985 film The Color Purple won eleven nominations, including best picture, but was passed over in the best-director race. The following year, the board of governors' decision to give Spielberg the Irving Thalberg Award carried the unmistakable air of an apology.
But with Schindler's List, the feeling was that Spielberg had finally made a movie the Academy could not help but embrace wholeheartedly, whatever reservations it may have had about the director's youth, commercial success, and populist instincts. Competing with Schindler for best picture was director Jane Campion's austere but erotic The Piano; The Remains of the Day, from the high-toned Merchant Ivory team; In the Name of the Father, director Jim Sheridan's fact-based story about a young Belfast man falsely accused of being a terrorist; and the action film The Fugitive, adapted from the '60s TV series. Campion became only the second woman to receive a nomination for best director (following the Italian director Lina Wertmuller in 1976), while eleven-year-old supporting-actress nominee Anna Paquin was the youngest performer to be nominated since eight-year-old Justin Henry fourteen years earlier.
Final voting for the Academy Awards was conducted in a simple, straightforward manner. But the nominations were arrived at in a far morecomplex way, through a method known most commonly as the preferential system.
The system had been recommended to the Academy by Price Waterhouse in the 1940s, after the accounting firm had studied the pitfalls of alternatives. Academy members were asked to vote for five nominees, in order of preference, in each of their branch's categories, plus the best-picture category. Initially, a small group of Price Waterhouse employees, working at a location the firm kept secret, separated the ballots into stacks based on the film listed first. Nominations automatically went to films receiving first-place votes on one-sixth of the ballots, plus one; with five nominations in a category, it would be impossible for five other films to receive more votes.
Films that received no first-place votes were eliminated from contention, while the ballots of voters whose first-place choices received the smallest number of votes were redistributed into the remaining piles based on their second choices. (If a voter's second choice was no longer in the running, the third, fourth, or fifth pick would be used.) The process was repeated, with the films drawing the least support eliminated in each subsequent round, until only five piles remained.
To complicate matters, if a film received far more first-place votes than it needed to secure a nomination, all of the ballots in its pile were redistributed into the other piles, with the second choices listed on those ballots given a fractional value based on the percentage of that member's vote required to ensure the first choice a nomination. (For instance, if Schindler's List received twice as many first-place votes as it needed, it earned a nomination and the second choice of all Schindler voters counted as half a vote.)
The idea was to allow each member to vote for favorite films without second-guessing or worrying about electability. "The problem with the usual weighted system," said Davis, "is that the two points you give to a guy lower on your ballot might be just enough to push him past the guy you really want at the top of your ballot. It leads to a certain amount of game playing, because if you're afraid of other candidates you might put them way down." Under the preferential system, a member didn't have to worry about a third or fourth choice hurting a film listed higher on the ballot--because the third choice can't be counted unless the voter's first choice is either out of the running or already assured a nomination. "I don't think a very highpercentage of members could describe exactly how it works," conceded Davis. "When I hear them talking about it, I can tell that they don't understand."
ON FEBRUARY 17, the week after the nominations were announced and five weeks before the Oscar show, Cates convened a production meeting in a conference room across the hall from his office. Sitting around the long table were the core members of the Oscar team. Director Jeff Margolis was a barrel-chested veteran of five Oscar shows and dozens of variety telecasts. Danette Herman, the show's executive in charge of talent and in Cates's words "the heart and conscience of the show," was a soft-spoken woman who nonetheless was known to quietly exercise steely control over her province, which ranged from booking performers and presenters to making sure that the stars on the show were well treated. Associate producer Michael Seligman, short and sharp, was the money man. Production designer Roy Christopher had designed three of the past five Oscar sets, between his day job as the art director of TV series like Frasier and Murphy Brown. Composer and conductor Bill Conti, Cates's usual choice to head the Oscar orchestra and an Oscar winner himself, was a slight, sardonic man who invariably played his best-known composition, "Gonna Fly Now (The Theme from Rocky)," at least once during every show. Chuck Workman was the master of fast-paced montages of film clips--one of which, Precious Images, had won him an Oscar in 1987. Costume designer Ray Aghayan, diminutive and deeply tanned, was one of the oldest (and during production meetings, quietest) members of the Oscar crew.
As aides brought in a modest selection of sandwiches and soft drinks, Cates went over the show's musical numbers. The songs were always a key part of the Oscar show, and one over which the producer had no control: whatever the music branch nominated had to be performed. Since he took over, Cates had gone out of his way to book the original performers on the show; he knew that viewers had cringed in the past when the songs were handed over to less suitable interpreters.
This time, three of the five nominations had gone to major stars in the fields of rock and pop music: Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young for "Streetsof Philadelphia" and "Philadelphia," respectively, both from Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia; and Janet Jackson for "Again" from Poetic Justice, a film by director John Singleton. The final two nominations went to the light pop tune "A Wink and a Smile" from Sleepless in Seattle, which was sung in the film by the popular jazz-pop singer and pianist Harry Connick, Jr., and to the formula love song "The Day I Fell in Love," a duet by country diva Dolly Parton and soul crooner James Ingram from the comedy Beethoven's Second. With one exception, the original performers had already agreed to appear--and the one who declined to do the song was the demanding Connick, whose absence had caused no great dismay in the production office. Conspicuously missing from the nominees was anything from an animated Disney movie, although that studio had recently dominated the category, winning seven nominations and three Oscars in four years.
"Janet Jackson is going to do her song," Cates said, looking at the first item on his agenda. "She also wants to do it on the Jackson Family Honors television show, which is coming up before us, so we're trying to discourage that." Cates then summed up a conversation he'd had with Rene Elizondo, who directed many of Jackson's videos and was her husband of three years, although the couple had kept the marriage secret. "Rene says he and Janet want to do it with five violins, very simply, and with candles," Cates said. "Armani's going to dress her. He said they have a sense of it being bluish."
"Got it," said Christopher. "Five blue candles playing violin."
Margolis had worked with Jackson many times before. "She's sweet as can be," he said, "but fairly inflexible. Rene is sweet as can be, but he's a killer also."
Bill Conti frowned. "We're not gonna have another rehearsal like Madonna pulled, are we?" he asked, remembering a 1991 run-through of legendary difficulty.
"I hope not, Bill," said Cates calmly. "The thing to remember with them is that they're guests on our show. Give them all the courtesy we can."
Conti grimaced. "Okay," he muttered.
"Next up is 'Philadelphia,'" Cates said. "Neil Young's going to do it. He wants to do it with an acoustic piano, by himself."
"As opposed to the way he does it on the record?" asked Conti.
"I guess so."
"I wonder if he wants to use that funky, incredibly bad piano he uses on the record," mused Conti.
"Well, they told me he's bringing down his own piano from Northern California, so that's probably the one," said Cates. "Now, Roy, I think we want to keep this pretty straightforward. Nothing too fancy on the stage behind him."
"I'll come up with a simple, strong look," said Christopher. "Do you want to contact him about clothes? That could be a sensitive issue."
"I don't think he'll listen," said Aghayan.
Herman shook her head. "Let's not tell Neil Young how to dress," she suggested.
After dealing with "The Day I Fell in Love" and "A Wink and a Smile," Cates got to the final song. "Last but not least," he said, "is Bruce. He does what he does. He has four people. I'm expecting that he wants to do it just like he did it at the AIDS Project L.A. show last month, which was great. It's a very powerful song. I'm very excited about it, and his people say he's really thrilled to be doing the show."
"So what do we have to do about it?" asked Conti.
"Nothing, for the moment," said Cates.
"No dancers in any of these?" asked Christopher.
"No," said Cates. "We only have two dance elements on the show this year, the opening number and the ballet."
Conti frowned. "Ballet?" he said. "What's that?"
Cates looked incredulous. "You're not aware of that?"
"Oh, what a hole in the loop." Cates explained that Allen was choreographing a ballet to accompany selections from the five nominated scores, to be performed by pairs of dancers from several of the world's leading ballet companies.
This was Herman's territory. "The biggest problem," she said, "is logistics. The Africans speak French, the Chinese barely speak English. Twelve dancers come into town on February 28, but six of them leave on March 6 and don't come back until the seventeenth or eighteenth. The Shanghai dancers arrive on the twelfth, the Paris ballet not until the eighteenth. TheCubans, the Central Ballet of China, and the Africans will be in town the whole time."
"This has to be very organized," said Cates. "It can't be last minute."
"And it's going to be a hard number to design," said Aghayan. "I can't just load it up with sequins and send it out there."
The last musical number on the agenda was the first one in the show: an opening sequence set to Stephen Sondheim's "Putting It Together" and sung by Broadway star Bernadette Peters. "Bernadette will be arriving in L.A. next Monday," Cates told the staff. "And as is her custom, her assistant will be driving her around in a sedan without a phone."
The song would be recorded the following Tuesday night; later in the week, Workman would shoot a movie that would introduce, incorporate, and illustrate the song. "One thing to remember, though, is that it's a little too long now," Cates said. "We might want to cut some of it. But if we see things we think need to be changed, we need to let Bernadette and Sondheim know at the same time. They're best friends, and they talk on the phone constantly, so we don't want one of them feeling left out if the other knows something first."
WHEN IT WAS FIRST HELD IN 1982, the nominees' luncheon was designed to be little more than another photo op. "Somebody thought there was a lull in the publicity between the nominations announcements and the show itself," said Bruce Davis as he waited to greet nominees near the entrance to the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. "It was originally proposed, I think, out of fairly cynical motivations. But it was such an immediate hit among the nominees that we realized, Jesus, everybody says it's a great honor to be nominated, but the only time we ever bring the people together is on this terrible night when four out of five of them will walk away feeling like they've lost something."
Enter the luncheon, which had become a supposed respite from the competitive air and frayed nerves of Oscar season. Nominees, their guests, Oscar staffers, Academy officials, and members of the board of governors were spread out across two dozen tables on three levels of the same ballroom that had hosted the Golden Globe Awards six weeks earlier. The seating chartwas drawn up so that no nominee sat at a table with anyone else nominated in the same category, or anyone else who worked on the same film.
The crux of the lunch came just after the appetizers were served, when Academy president Arthur Hiller officially welcomed everyone. "It's unfortunate," he added, "that in less than two weeks, 80 percent of you are going to, how shall we say, perceive yourselves as losers when your name isn't called." The nominees were asked to stand on a riser that curved around a huge Oscar statue. When they'd jostled into place, the annual group photo was taken, after which the nominees came to the stage in alphabetical order to receive a certificate of nomination and an official Oscar nominee sweatshirt.
The shirt was another innovation of Allan Carr's, though he'd insisted that each shirt be personalized with the name of the nominee. A couple of years' worth of inevitable omissions and misspellings later, Bruce Davis prevailed upon Cates to hand out generic sweatshirts, in this case gray ones sporting a small gold Academy Award and the inscription OSCAR NOMINEE.
After lunch was served, Cates gave a short speech. "Veterans of this lunch know that this is the time when I get to talk to you nominees about your speeches," he said. "I've had my fantasies: a trapdoor behind the podium, or a treadmill going from one side of the stage to the other, thirty-five seconds and you're out ..." But those remedies, he said, shouldn't be necessary. "Forty-five seconds is a long time, ladies and gentlemen. You can do a lot of things in forty-five seconds."
In the press room at the luncheon, composer Marc Shaiman, who'd been nominated for writing the song "A Wink and a Smile," needed less time than that to cause a minor furor. Shaiman had been annoyed when Harry Connick, Jr., declined to perform the song on the Oscar show, and frustrated at how long it had taken to secure a replacement. He'd spoken to David Bowie, who'd briefly entertained the idea, and watched while the likes of Bob Hope and George Burns were approached. He was happy when Tony Bennett agreed to perform the song, then irked when Bennett suddenly cited a prior commitment.
At the luncheon, Shaiman had just learned that actor/singer Keith Carradine would be performing the song. The composer knew Carradine's voice was well suited for the light, bouncy tune, but he was also smartingafter a couple of weeks that had left him feeling, he said, "like such category-filler." When the publicist he'd hired plopped him in front of the assembled press, Shaiman figured they didn't care what he had to say--especially when he looked toward the door and saw Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks waiting their turns at the microphone.
"I was like the kid in school who wants to make the bullies laugh," he said. "So when someone with a real edge in his voice said, 'How come Harry Connick isn't singing your song?' I said, 'Well, he's busy recording, and he has social commitments, and he's a schmuck.'"
Having gotten his laugh, Shaiman didn't think anything of it until the following evening, when the phone in his hilltop Los Angeles home began ringing off the hook. "I finally turned up the volume on the answering machine and heard a musician in New York going, 'Good for you, Shaiman! Tell it like it is!' It had already been on Entertainment Tonight: 'Songwriter gets into Yiddish name-calling with pop star!'" Suitably embarrassed, Shaiman apologized to Connick in a letter that, he said, "should be studied as an example of self-effacement."
THE AFTERNOON of the nominees' luncheon, a new schedule was distributed to the production staff. A running joke had been added to what was normally a dry, straightforward document. Under the heading SATURDAY MARCH 19, there was a new entry for 8:00 a.m.: TUNE NEIL YOUNG'S PIANO."
A little later, at 12:30 p.m.: TUNE NEIL YOUNG'S PIANO.
Sunday March 20, 8:00 a.m.: TUNE NEIL YOUNG'S PIANO.
Sunday, noon: TUNE NEIL YOUNG'S PIANO.
Monday, March 21, 8:00 a.m.: TUNE NEIL YOUNG'S PIANO.
Monday, 9:00 p.m.: STRIKE NEIL YOUNG'S PIANO.
"THEY'D SAVE a fortune," said Douglass M. Stewart, Jr., "if they knew who the winners were ahead of time."
For more than a decade, Stewart and his company, DMS, had been responsible for most of the short film clips that ran throughout Oscar shows--and for the more numerous clips that were prepared but never shown. DMS assembled the clips of nominated films and performances, the brief montages used to explicate categories like costume design, makeup, and visual effects, and the footage that was shown on-screen while some winners (i.e., the lesser-known ones, whose trips to the stage were not of intrinsic interest to most viewers) walked to the podium. Every time one of those last clips was shown, it meant four others went unused.
Stewart also prepared a reel of historical footage about the Academy Award and the Oscar show, which was kept on hand in case something disastrous happened and the producer needed to cut away from the stage. Though the emergency reel had never been used, it was reworked and updated every year, in order that it could fit as seamlessly as possible into each new show.
With less than three weeks to go before the show, Stewart called the DMS staff into his office at a nondescript two-story complex south of Beverly Hills. To begin the meeting, he showed a montage of dog clips designed for an interlude in the Dolly Parton--James Ingram duet from Beethoven's Second. "We spent a month looking at seventy to eighty dog films," he said, "and started with a list of forty dogs we wanted to include. But finally, I think we've got a lock on it." He cued up a montage that included only six celebrated canines: Toto from The Wizard of Oz, Asta from the Thin Man movies, Sandy from Annie, and from the films that bore their names, Lassie, Old Yeller, and Benji. "Gil thinks that Old Yeller ought to be last," said Stewart. "Does anybody think that Old Yeller has more emotion than Benji?"
"No, Benji's much more recognizable," said Stephanie Sperling, a DMS film coordinator. Around the room, the other staffers nodded.
"I like it the way it is, too," said Stewart. "So we'll keep it this way." He paused. "If we can use it."
"Is Disney still a problem?" asked one staffer.
"Yeah," said Stewart. This wasn't a surprise: famously protective of its properties, as the Academy had learned when Allan Carr didn't get permission to use Snow White, Disney had declined to make any of its footage available for a montage celebrating the history of film animation unless the piece showcased nothing but Disney animation. Now the company wasmaking similar dog demands. "They say they don't want Old Yeller and Benji to be included in a bit honoring another studio's dog," said Stewart. "We told them it's about famous dogs, and there are no shots of Beethoven in it. It's on approval."
He paused. "We didn't mention that Beethoven's going to be onstage."
Stewart looked at a five-page list that included the status of all the film clips needed on the show, and brought up a litany of problems. ABC wouldn't allow a scene from In the Line of Fire in which John Malkovich put his mouth around a gun barrel ... They needed better footage from the making of The Piano, which had such a small budget that there wasn't enough money for the usual behind-the-scenes crew ... They were still waiting for Steven Spielberg's okay to use footage from Jurassic Park for the sound effects editing category ... And they had no access at all to any footage from Schindler's List, but were simply waiting for the director to assemble his own clips from the suggestions they'd given him.
"We're getting close," said Stewart as the meeting wound down. "Until the next train wreck happens."
After the meeting, Stewart called a staffer at Miramax, which had released The Piano. The independent studio, notoriously aggressive when it came to campaigning for Academy Awards, had scored ten nominations--two for the Chinese film Farewell My Concubine and eight for The Piano, including crucial nods in the best-picture, best-director, best-actress, and best supporting actress categories. But as zealously as Miramax campaigned, the company was difficult to work with when it came to supplying film clips. Miramax worked slowly, and worse than that it tended to offer the same scenes that had already been seen in every ad or on every talk show.
"We're running out of time, and I need a ten-second shot for cinematography," Stewart said into the phone. "Pick the most beautiful shot in the movie, and give me ten seconds. It's better with stars in it, if you've got it."
"LOOK!" said Cates, pointing to the call sheet in his hand. "I'm listed as talent. All my life I've wanted to be listed as talent."
The producer was standing in a small television studio located on theoutskirts of Culver City, south of Beverly Hills and only a few blocks away from the old MGM studio lot, now home to Sony Pictures. He'd arrived at the complex at 6:15 a.m. for the domestic satellite press tour, in which he and actress Laura Dern would do short interviews with shows on eighteen different ABC affiliates around the country. Dern showed up fifteen minutes after Cates, fully made up and camera ready; this impressed staffers who remembered that for a similar press tour a week earlier, Nicole Kidman had arrived at 4:30 a.m. for two painstaking hours of primping.
Cates's priority was to sell the show, something he felt ABC hadn't been doing as effectively as usual. The network had long since sold all its Oscar ads, at a cost of $630,000 for each thirty-second spot, and the show did not carry a ratings guarantee--meaning if the viewership slumped, as it had for many recent awards shows, ABC would not have to make it up to advertisers. But nobody wanted to concede a ratings slump that in truth had been going on since the mid-1980s. The solution, the Academy's Public Relations Coordinating Committee had decided at a meeting two days earlier, was to use every opportunity to emphasize the heavyweight musical talent on the show.
Cates and Dern took their places in a small studio, one of several in the complex. Behind them was an Academy Awards backdrop; in front of them were several cameras and a group of placards listing the nominees in all major categories, lest they forget anybody.
The first interview was with a morning show in Cleveland. "What's the most distressing part of the awards for you?" asked the host. "When the stars go off on their own?"
Cates admitted he found that distressing, but in about thirty seconds he'd worked the conversation around to the musical performers. "Now, this year we've got Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, and James Ingram ..."
The questioner addressed Dern, who was nominated in 1989 for Rambling Rose. "What's it like as a nominee, Laura?" he said.
"It's great," she said. "Hopefully you can just concentrate on the event, and not worry about the competition ..."
Then the next morning show came on the line, and the routine began again. Interviewers and cities changed, but some things remained constant:Dern described what it was like to be nominated, and Cates turned the conversation to music.
Columbus, Ohio--"Laura, you've been nominated. What goes through your mind waiting for the envelope?"
Dern: "It's a great opportunity to enjoy a celebration of the work. Hopefully you can do that and not think about the competitive aspect of it ..."
"How do you make sure two presenters don't wear the same dress?"
Cates: "If they're interested in finding out, they can call Fred Hayman. Oddly enough, sometimes it happens with singers. This year we have Bruce Springsteen and Janet Jackson and Neil Young ..."
Houston, Texas--"Laura, how do you make sure no two outfits are the same?"
Dern: "Well, Fred Hayman is the fashion coordinator ..."
"Gil, how's it going with Whoopi?"
Cates: "Okay. By the way, the question you asked Laura is interesting, because sometimes it happens with musicians. For instance, this year we have Bruce Springsteen and Janet Jackson and Neil Young ..."
Buffalo, New York--"Laura, what is it like to find out you're nominated?"
Dern: "It was great, because I really cared about the movie ..."
"But you didn't win."
Cates: "You know, who wins is just caprice. For example, this year we have Bruce Springsteen and Janet Jackson and Neil Young ..."
In the control booth, this transition--or, to be more accurate, this non sequitur--got big laughs. "He's taking that corner on two wheels," said Chuck Warn. Afterward, Cates and Dern took a short break, and Cates shook his head. "I feel like a used-car salesman," he said. "All I want to do is plug Bruce Springsteen."
A GRAY-HAIRED WOMAN who looked more like a suburban grandmother than a Hollywood insider, Bethlyn Hand spent more than eleven months out of each year working for the Motion Picture Association of America, the lobbying arm of the film industry. The MPAA and its chairman, Jack Valenti, were perhaps best known for creating, implementing, and zealouslydefending the movie rating system, which had been designed in the 1960s to keep legislators from trying to exercise control over the content of Hollywood movies.
The two most recognizable organizations serving the film industry, the Academy and the MPAA had a cozy relationship. The slick, dapper, pint-sized Valenti was almost always booked as a presenter on the Oscar show, and he was usually given the pleasure of copresenting with an attractive young actress. As for Hand, her MPAA duties included rating movie trailers--but come Oscar time, she was also in charge of Oscar escorts.
These were publicists, most of them recruited from the ranks of the major film studios, who led winners through the press rooms during the show. The job of an Oscar escort usually fell to young studio publicists; for more experienced flacks, the joys of hobnobbing with Oscar-toting celebs were more than outweighed by the grind of spending four hours dragging dazed winners through corridors and up and down elevators and stairs.
Inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for an escort walk-through, Hand loaded two dozen publicists into two elevators for a trip to the fourth floor, where the press rooms were located. "This floor is where all the winners will be taken," Hand told them. "Near the end of the night, you may have a wife or spouse with you, because they're not going to want to wait in the hall after the show is over. If you do, make sure you know who you've got, because they won't have a badge." She laughed. "They almost threw out Larry Fortensky last year, until somebody realized that he was Elizabeth Taylor's husband."
Personal publicists, she added, were generally not allowed upstairs; neither were agents. "According to my memo," said the Academy's John Pavlik, "if Steven Spielberg wins, Mike Ovitz will be coming up here with him."
"I hope he's got a badge," said Hand.
"If he doesn't, I'm throwing him out," laughed Pavlik. "He's not my agent."
Hand led the group down a narrow hallway and into a tiny room with a small stage and a rudimentary set of bleachers. This was the room for deadline press, mostly newspaper and wire photographers who needed to file their work during the show. Behind a curtain was a larger room, with farmore spacious bleachers facing another stage. "I lovingly call this my animal room," said Hand, "because it's a zillion photographers from all around the world, and they all act like animals."
In the two photo rooms, she explained, the winner and the presenter would be photographed together. "Photographers are not allowed to take pictures of the presenters without the winners. If Robin Williams comes in here with somebody who won for his short film, we can't have the winner being insulted because everybody just wants pictures of Robin." After leaving the photo rooms, she explained, the presenters would head back downstairs, leaving the winners to continue through the two interview rooms. This would spare lesser-known winners the humiliation of facing a battery of reporters interested only in their famous presenters.
The first of the two interview areas was a spacious room holding almost two dozen long tables for print and radio journalists. Beyond that was a final, smaller room for television reporters.
"If a winner isn't very well known," Hand added, "you'll send a runner ahead to the general press room to make sure that people want to interview them. If there's no interest, the runner will come back and tell you that, quietly I hope, so you can bypass the room. Obviously, we don't want the winner to know that nobody wants to interview them. You'll do that again for the television room--and in the television room, you most assuredly will have bypasses."
Before the escorts left to go downstairs, Hand offered a final instruction. "You've got to remember to stay with your winners," she said. "They are absolutely euphoric, or numb, so they'll follow you anywhere."
THE DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION sat on a hill in downtown Los Angeles, anchoring one end of a block that also contained the Ahmanson Theatre and the smaller Mark Taper Forum. The block was known as the Music Center--and it was there, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the L.A. Opera, and the Center Theatre Group, that twenty-two Academy Awards shows had taken place in the last quarter century.
Built in the early 1960s, the Chandler was beginning to show its age. But for the Oscar production staff, it worked. It had dressing rooms downstairs,on the same level as the artists' entrance; it had a few offices on the stage level, along with enough extra space to erect a green room and a production office; and outside the building was enough room for a series of production trailers and trucks, most notably the command truck that would serve as Jeff Margolis's home base while he directed the show.
Four days to show time, Margolis sat in the truck and stared at a wall of monitors, which showed him the view from more than a dozen cameras inside the theater. To help him plot camera moves for each entrance, exit, and acceptance speech, a full complement of stand-ins waited for instructions from the show's stage managers. Most of the stand-ins, who covered a wide range of ages and looks, were hired from local theater companies; many returned to the Oscars in this capacity year after year, working for AFTRA scale of about twenty dollars an hour.
To make the rehearsal as real as possible, the stand-ins who subbed for presenters were given dummy Oscar envelopes to open. Inside each envelope was the name of a winner, along with one extra, and crucial, line of text: FOR THIS REHEARSAL ONLY. For the next four days, no one would announce an Oscar recipient without using that phrase. Other stand-ins were positioned in the audience, occupying the seats of that category's nominees. The "winner" would come to the stage, give an acceptance speech, and then exit into the wings.
By this point, large seat cards occupied the chairs of every nominee, presenter, and performer on the show. Block letters listed the names and categories of lesser-known nominees, while movie stars' cards sported black-and-white photos as well.
Virtually all the stars were seated in the first eight rows, the section located in front of the TelePrompTer and the only area of the audience that received significant on-screen exposure. Mixed in with the actors were a few agents and studio heads, plus blocks of seats for Cates, Hiller, Goldberg, and other Academy and show executives. Nominees were placed close to the side or center aisles, for easy exit in case they won. And along the side aisles beginning about eight rows back were the nominees in the less glamorous categories.
By placing all the nominees for the craft categories in one or two rows, Margolis only needed one handheld camera to cover all the possiblewinners--as opposed to the awards in the acting categories, where the nominees were spread out across the orchestra section and a different cameraman would be assigned to each.
Seating decisions were more difficult in years when the Oscars were held at the Chandler, as opposed to the show's less elegant but far more cavernous alternate home, the Shrine Auditorium. Though its stated capacity was on the high side of three thousand, camera placement and the needs of the production reduced the usable size to about two thousand eight hundred people, less than half the capacity of the Shrine. Around one thousand seats went to nominees, presenters, and guests of the Academy, including small blocks to sponsors of the television broadcast. Each nominee was officially given two seats, though some ended up with more. The rest were distributed by lottery to Academy members, who paid $50, $100, or $200, depending on the location. The lottery system was supposed to ensure that members who didn't get tickets one year were more likely to get them the next, but it invariably left plenty of disgruntled Academy members.
By this point, the seating chart had been eyed by Margolis for camera placement, and by Academy controller Otto Spoerri, who allocated tickets and seated the organization's guests around the nominees and presenters. Then Cates looked things over to avoid a different kind of problem. One year, he remembered, one nominee had in the audience his wife, his current girlfriend, and two former lovers, one of whom had remarried. "Sometimes, you just have to spread certain people out," he said with a laugh. "I think I get at least one of those phone calls warning me about that every year."
SATURDAY AFTERNOON, Whoopi Goldberg made her first appearance at the Chandler. She walked out of the wings accompanied by Cates and Bruce Vilanch, who had been writing for the Oscars since the Allan Carr show. Burly and frizzy-haired, Vilanch hitched up his pants and buckled his belt as he followed Goldberg to the podium, then took a seat in the front row alongside Cates, Seligman, Warn, Herman, and senior executive consultant Robert Z. Shapiro.
The houselights were darkened. Susan Futterman, an ABC director of broadcast standards for comedy and variety shows (or, in her own words,"Madame Censor Lady"), sat a few rows farther back, a script in her lap and a pen in her hand. And then Goldberg sashayed onstage, a smug grin on her face, and delivered her entire opening monologue in a high-speed, falsetto mumble that rendered her jokes completely unintelligible, except when she slowed down for the last word of her punch lines: "Schindler!" "Nicholson!" "Tonya Harding!"
She went on to practice her intros and transitions, this time taking them at normal speed. "This next presenter," she read from the TelePrompTer, "was Madonna's friend in A League of Their Own, Meg Ryan's friend in Sleepless in Seattle, and my friend all the time." She stopped. "Rosie O'Donnell? I don't know her."
And so it went: Goldberg moved through her lines quickly, mocking most of them, adding her asides, eliminating lines, or rewriting them on the fly. When a few bars of "Help Me Make It Through the Night" inexplicably played over the sound system after she introduced Al Pacino, she stopped dead.
"If this mother comes out singing that song," she said, "I'm goin' home. Al Pacino doing country western? I couldn't handle it." Then she grinned again. "I know: you're just trying to see if you can throw me. Well, we'll see where the power is Monday night."
AFTER DINNER, the first thing the crew did was tune Neil Young's piano. For real.
It was a night for rock stars at the Chandler. First there was Young, who arrived in a 1954 Cadillac limousine and took his time onstage, virtually ignoring the needs of Margolis and his camera crew. Then Bruce Springsteen's band showed up for their own rehearsal--without their boss, who'd spent the day in New Jersey, at the wedding of his nephew. With a stand-in taking the place of Springsteen, the band set up and ran through the song "Streets of Philadelphia" a couple of times. Behind them on the stage were two enormous boxes, lit from the inside and shining brightly against the black backdrop.
Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, didn't like the look of the set, but initially he decided to wait until the next day and let Springsteen himself decide.But as the band continued to rehearse, Landau watched closely on a monitor at the production table, shaking his head when the light boxes showed up on the screen. "I don't want Bruce's first impression of this show to be a set that he's not going to like," he said.
The manager told Margolis and Seligman that he'd rather Springsteen sang in front of a plain black backdrop. Christopher resisted. "That's one of the key looks of the whole show," he said.
Cates had gone home for the night, leaving no one with the authority to resolve the dispute. The next morning at 8 a.m., though, Landau received a phone call from Cates. "If you don't want a set," the producer said, "then we won't have a set."
THE FIRST DRESS REHEARSAL was always a moment of truth. The rehearsal took place the night before the real show, after a day that had been devoted to star presenters dropping by to rehearse their lines at fifteen-minute intervals. Until the dress, the show had been rehearsed mostly in bits and pieces, seldom for more than five minutes at a stretch. Calculations made in the production office gave an idea of how long the show might run, and past experiences suggested potential trouble spots--but much of the planning remained guesswork until the crew ran through the entire show in as close to real time as it could manage. It was the last time that significant changes could be made: a second full-show run-through would follow the next morning, but if anything major was still wrong at that point, it would likely remain wrong.
Dress rehearsal featured the host and the musical performers, with stand-ins taking the place of presenters and winners. But Goldberg was still determined to keep her jokes fresh, so she once again delivered her monologue in a high-speed mumble. Midway through, she grinned, "You know they're really sweating now."
The host did some sweating of her own a few minutes later, when stagehands took far too long resetting the stage for Janet Jackson. "They're asking me to stretch," Goldberg confessed after ad-libbing a few extra jokes. "They want me to do an act, basically." She looked into the audience, scanning the seat cards. "How cool is it that the Boss is here?" she said. A long pause. "So,Bruce Vilanch," she said, turning and looking into the wings. "This could be the tampon bit." In the audience, Futterman laughed nervously.
Aside from the botched changeover and some sound problems with Neil Young, the rehearsal ran fairly smoothly. The show seemed long--though without a real audience or any gushing Oscar winners, it was hard to tell if the length would be a problem, or if the emotion of the evening would compensate.
Throughout the run-through, the "for this rehearsal only" winners were assigned almost randomly. But some crew members were making guesses--and plans--accordingly. While a stand-in for In the Name of the Father director Jim Sheridan made an acceptance speech after receiving the best-director award, a couple of cameramen huddled in the center aisle, mapping out their moves so they wouldn't block Steven Spielberg's walk to the stage the next night. "I'll drop back quickly and he can go around you this way," said one. "Does that sound okay?"
"THE WORLD SERIES. The Olympics. The Rose Bowl. None of them mean anything." Joseph DiSante stood in front of a room of 126 well-dressed men and women seated at long tables draped in white tablecloths. "Because tonight is the night. Let's go to the Oscars, folks."
At 10 a.m. on Oscar morning, DiSante was holding his yearly indoctrination of the Academy Awards' seat-fillers. These were volunteers deployed to make sure that when the cameras turned toward the audience, viewers would see smiling faces rather than empty seats. DiSante was ABC's head of guest relations, but for twenty years he had also selected and trained seat-fillers, choosing them from as many as 550 letters and 1,200 phone calls he'd received from those who aspired to the gig.
DiSante had already eyed each of the chosen as they entered a soundstage at ABC Prospect, the network's lot on the eastern edge of Hollywood. Most were dressed well (and tastefully) enough to pass muster, though he'd sent home a fortyish blonde in a peach miniskirt, asking her to change into something more appropriate. (She came back sporting a floor-length lime number.) In lieu of actually being paid, the seat-fillers received Oscar hats, posters, and programs when they signed in.
Around the perimeter of the room, buffet tables were laden with chafing dishes of hot food, plus cookies, brownies, and beverages that included milk, water, and coffee, but nothing alcoholic. Red, white, and gold balloons decorated the room. A bus was parked outside, ready for a trip to the Music Center.
But first, DiSante picked up the microphone and delivered what was partly a pep talk, partly a lecture in the art of seat-filling. "It is a very tough, hard process, getting to be a seat-filler," he said. "You are hand-picked because I think you can look like you belong."
Wearing a gray Oscar sweatshirt, DiSante asked the seat-fillers to stand up, introduce themselves to each other, and compliment each other on how good they looked. "It's very important that you know one another," he said. "We're asking you to be part of our security. Through the course of the evening, there will be people who will try to sneak into your lines. We need you to spot them and point them out to us."
Then he outlined the logistics. A team of seat-fillers would be stationed on each side of the house. The team would include "sitters," who would fill the seats; "spotters," who'd point out the seats that were emptied at each commercial break; and "runners," who'd hustle the sitters into position. Their territory, he added, would include everything from the front row to the TelePrompTer, behind which the camera rarely ventured. Seat-fillers would be issued laminated passes, which they were not to remove. "But when you sit down," added DiSante, "you need to hide your badge so that the camera doesn't see it. Men, tuck your badge inside your tuxedo jacket. Women, turn it so it's hanging down your back."
Some of them, DiSante said, would wind up in a seat for the entire show. "If that happens, God bless you and enjoy the show." Some would be challenged by the people they sat next to. "Just tell them you're temporarily filling the seat for camera purposes." Those who filled a winner's seat, DiSante said, could count on about forty-five minutes before the winner finished the press run and returned.
"In the first seventeen or eighteen rows of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion," he said, "the entire power structure of Hollywood is sitting. This is not your night. This is their night."
The two most veteran seat-fillers then demonstrated what DiSante called "the Groucho Marx walk," a quick, hunched gait designed to get peopleinto seats unobtrusively, and "without stepping on people's feet or putting your lovely butt in their faces."
Then he covered the etiquette of sitting next to a movie star. "Let's talk about autographs," he said. "Absolutely not. No autographs. If they talk to you, knock yourself out. But do not initiate the conversation." A few seat-fillers groaned. "Sorry, but it has to be that way. Most of them will talk to you. And if you sit next to a nominee and feel the urge to wish them good luck, go ahead."
DiSante looked around the room. "Is anybody getting nervous?" he asked. A few people raised their hands, so he called one woman, Linda Sanderson, to the front of the room. "What are you nervous about?" he said.
"Being on television," Sanderson said. "Sitting next to Alec Baldwin."
"You're not gonna sit next to Alec Baldwin," he said.
"Why? You're not going to let me?"
"Kim is gonna sit next to Alec Baldwin."
"Maybe she'll go to the bathroom."
After suggesting that the seat-fillers help start standing ovations for the show's two honorary Oscar winners, Paul Newman and Deborah Kerr, DiSante issued a warning.
"If you're down there and any of the press want to talk to you, I consider that an unauthorized interview," he said. "You're gonna hear and see a lot of things that most people never hear or see. Please, don't embarrass yourself, don't embarrass the Academy or the talent. If you're interviewed, remember: what the press really wants to know is what did Clint Eastwood say when you were sitting next to him? He might have said, 'Jesus, it's so hot I can't wait to get outta here.' But that's not what you're gonna say. If you embarrass the Academy or any of the talent, it's going to be all over, and you're not going to be back next year.
"If somebody from the press gets ahold of you," he concluded, "remember: only positive, nice things."
AT THE MUSIC CENTER, the day underwent a slow metamorphosis. Jeans and T-shirts were commonplace when the morning rehearsal began, but as the day wore on more and more staffers would show up in gowns and tuxedos.Security guards and Los Angeles Police Department officers began to survey the hallways and check the doors more frequently. During the lunch break that followed the end of the rehearsal, about 3:00, almost the entire staff vacated the area around the stage, the green room, and the production offices; when they returned, the women sported formal dresses or suits, the men tuxedos.
This was an ironclad rule at the Oscars: everyone working on the show was required to wear formal dress. It didn't matter if you'd be seen on camera, or if you were anywhere near a winner, nominee, or presenter. A wardrobe bank below the stage provided tuxedos for all who wanted them, depleting the supplies of several tux-rental shops around town.
By 3:30, traffic had been diverted on all the streets surrounding the Music Center, while fans in the bleachers outside grew more impatient as they awaited the first arrivals at the red carpet. A bus stop on Grand Avenue, near the artists' entrance, was taken out of service. An airplane flew overhead, towing a sign that contained a phone number and a promise: WORLD'S FUNNIEST SCRIPT. Lower in the sky, half a dozen police helicopters circled the block continuously. In front of the Chandler on Hope Street, an army of parking valets was ready to take cars to an underground garage beneath the Department of Water and Power building across the street.
The valets sprang to action when guests began arriving about 4:00. The bleacher crowd screeched for each new star, while emcee Army Archerd hauled as many of them as possible to his platform midway down the red carpet. Archerd coaxed a few words out of reluctant nominees, plugged Variety every chance he got, and asked a hundred variations on the question "How do you feel?" Sometimes, though, his job was easy: he simply stood back and watched when veteran actress and forty-nine-year-old blond bombshell Sally Kirkland, who'd received a best-actress nomination for Anna in 1988 after waging one of the most aggressive campaigns in memory, launched into an unprompted monologue about how it was the first year Hollywood was raising people's consciousness, and how her dress was designed by an African American designer, and how she was making a movie called Wrestling Monty.
6:00 P.M., PACIFIC DAYLIGHT TIME: "From Los Angeles, it's the 66th annual Academy Awards."
As the traditional montage of arriving celebrities began, Whoopi Goldberg left her dressing room and waited in the wings of the stage. Backstage, Tom Hanks emerged from the men's room.
In the lobby, the crowd of late arrivals included Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Ralph Fiennes, Pete Postlethwaite, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Standing amid a crowd of unused seat-fillers, Fiennes, Postlethwaite, and Day-Lewis decided they weren't comfortable watching the first twenty minutes of the show from the lobby. They slipped through a nearby door and walked down a small corridor that led backstage. Seeing that things were even more chaotic there, they changed their minds and tried to get back into the lobby, inadvertently causing a huge traffic jam outside an office used by the show's writers.
"So, they gave me a live microphone for three hours," said Goldberg early in her monologue. "There haven't been so many showbiz executives so nervous, sweating over one woman since Heidi Fleiss, honey." Backstage, Al Pacino walked down a hallway muttering "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi ..."
Twenty minutes into the show, Hanks presented the first Oscars of the night to the art director and set decorator for Schindler's List. After Allan Starski gave a fifteen-second speech, his partner Ewa Braun leaned to the microphone to say a few words of her own. Before she could speak, Cates gave the cue to Margolis, who instructed Conti's orchestra to cut her off. (Any time the producer was in the command trailer, he made the call to play off winners; during the infrequent occasions when he was elsewhere, the decision fell to the director.)
Cates kept Conti in check for the first big winner of the evening, Tommy Lee Jones, even though the supporting actor committed the unpardonable (to Cates) sin of reading his fifty-three-second speech off a piece of paper. To make matters worse, Jones kept his head down while doing so, giving the TV audience an unfettered view of his gleaming, nearly bald head, which had been shaved for his role in the film Cobb. "The only thing a man can say at a time like this is, 'I am not really bald,'" he explained. "I'm lucky enough to be working."
One floor above the stage, Janet Jackson left her dressing room. A beefy security guard watched her walk by, then sighed. "Me, being that close to Janet Jackson?" he said, grinning. "I'll get over this tomorrow."
During commercials, Goldberg huddled with Vilanch in her dressing room stage left, or in a small room lined with black curtains in the wings of the stage. Nearby were tables covered with Oscar statuettes. Two Price Waterhouse representatives stood in the wings, one on each side of the stage; each carried a full set of envelopes, and each had memorized the results and had orders to immediately interrupt the show if an incorrect winner was announced. One of the two "trophy ladies," models hired to carry statuettes onstage and escort winners off, waited by each table of Oscars. (Officially dubbed "trophy ladies," the women were nonetheless called "trophy girls" by virtually everyone involved with the show.)
A little more than an hour into the show, Gene Hackman gave the supporting actress award to the evening's most stunning, and stunned, winner: eleven-year-old Anna Paquin. The hyperventilating Paquin managed to blurt out a short speech, then ignored the trophy lady trying to steer her into the wings, instead fleeing down the stairs and back to her seat.
Outside the Chandler, the tiny foyer of Jeff Margolis's command truck contained a table laden with junk food: Baby Ruth bars, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Oreos, peanuts, rice cakes, M&M's, raisins, Fig Newtons, salsa, peanut butter, chips ... Above the buffet, someone had pasted a cartoon of two surgeons. One was sweating and wiping his forehead, while the other said, "Relax, man, it's not television."
Watching monitors that showed the view from each of the more than a dozen cameras, Margolis yelled out the camera numbers: "Four! Now ... Cue her! Cue her! Cue her!" As he made each command, he snapped his fingers, and assistant director Wendy Charles Acey yelled her own orders into her headset at exactly the same time. During Debbie Allen's dance number, Margolis dispensed with spoken commands almost entirely; when he wanted a camera move, he waved his hand at the screen, and Acey translated and ordered the appropriate cut or fade. At the end of the routine, Margolis broke his silence. "Roll playback," he said, "ba-bing!"
"Good job, boys," said Cates from his seat directly behind Margolis. "Good job."
On the other side of the building, Christian Slater stepped outside the Chandler for a smoke. Springsteen got a quick touch-up in the makeup chair, then headed for the green room muttering, "Nervous, nervous." As he walked away, Geena Davis took his place in front of a makeup mirror. She was so tall that she couldn't see her face in the mirror, but it wasn't her face she was interested in. Davis was instead eyeing her cleavage, carefully patting and adjusting the folds of her dress around it.
Two and a half hours into the show, Springsteen performed. Pages immediately rushed him back to his seat, and a few minutes later he won the Oscar for best song. "This is the first song I ever wrote for a movie," he said. "So I guess it's all downhill from here."
As soon as he walked off the stage, Springsteen was hustled into a crowded elevator, along with a group that also included Whitney Houston, who'd presented him with his award. In the elevator, a page asked Springsteen for an autograph. "I guess so," he muttered, looking dazed. "I'm a little excited right now."
Upstairs, Chuck Warn, acting on the orders of Springsteen's management, rushed the press-shy winner through the four media rooms as quickly as possible. As Springsteen left the last room and headed for the elevator, the film critic and TV personality Gene Siskel pursued him down the hallway, yelling, "Bruce! Congratulations! But I just want to ask you one question about the process. What comes first, the words or the music?"
Bruce stopped to consider the oldest and dumbest question in the book, while a security guard stationed in the corridor shouted at Siskel, "No interviews in the hallway!" Springsteen gave a tentative answer--"Well, it really depends on the song"--before he was rushed away. As he waited for an elevator, he heard from a nearby monitor that Tom Hanks had won the best-actor award for Philadelphia, the same movie for which Springsteen had written his song.
"Is there someplace we can go to see Tom's speech?" he asked. Knowing that the Chandler's elevators were notoriously slow, Warn quickly came up with an alternate route. "We can take these stairs," he said, pointing to a door. The men dashed down four flights of stairs, only to find that the first-floor doors that would lead them back to the green room were locked."Shit!" yelled Warn. "They told me that this door was going to be unlocked!" After pounding on the door to no avail, Warn ran up one flight; that door was locked, as well. Finally, he found an open door that led to a nearly empty corridor on the third floor. A lone man stood in a doorway at the end of the corridor. "Do you have a monitor down there?" yelled Warn.
"Yeah," yelled the man. Springsteen ducked into the room, a makeshift headquarters for staffers from Eastman Kodak, which was shooting each winner with a large-format instant camera in one of the upper balconies.
On the screen, Hanks was giving an emotional acceptance speech, which began with thanks to a high school classmate and a drama teacher, whom he identified as "two of the finest gay Americans" he'd ever met. "[T]he streets of heaven are too crowded with angels," he said. "They number a thousand for each of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight ..."
In the doorway of the room, a Kodak staffer watched Springsteen rush by and take a seat on the couch. "Um, does that guy have an Academy Award?" he asked.
"Yes," said Warn.
A pause. "Who is he?"
When the Kodak employees finally figured out that they had an Oscar-winning rock star in their midst, they asked for autographs and photos. Springsteen finally made it back to the first floor right about the time that Holly Hunter picked up the best-actress award for The Piano, completing a sweep for that film's female stars--as well as its writer-director, Jane Campion, who won the Oscar for her original screenplay.
But Campion didn't walk away with the other prize for which she'd been nominated: to the surprise of nobody, Steven Spielberg continued what had been a very good night (five Oscars so far for Schindler's List, plus three for Jurassic Park) by winning the best-director award. "Am I allowed to say that I really wanted this?" Spielberg asked.
A few minutes later, Schindler's List won for best picture. In the backstage hallway, a large crowd clustered around a monitor to watch the speeches of Spielberg and producer Branko Lustig, himself a Holocaust survivor. "It's a long way from Auschwitz to this stage," said Lustig, as Neil Young walked through the crowd on his way out the back door.
"Well, that's Oscar sixty-six, baby," said Goldberg a minute later. Spielberg came offstage, Oscars in hand, and was herded toward the elevator. The director, famously wary of elevators, stopped. "Can we walk?" he said.
"Yeah," said his escort. "We can walk."
Most of the crowd had begun making its way toward the Governors Ball, but the bulk of the Oscar staff stuck around. On the side of the stage, Cates was approached by ABC's John Hamlin. "I think this Oscar show will go down in history," said Hamlin, who had supervised Oscar shows for more than a decade. "It wasn't a big, showbizzy, Broadway-type show. It was a great, emotional show."
Cates made a detour into the production office to thank his staff, then slipped into the Governors Ball by a back entrance. He quickly did a few interviews, telling the handful of reporters allowed inside the ball how delighted he was with the show. Then he left the tent the same way he came in, rejoined his wife, and made his grand entrance through the front.
Soon, the ball was crammed with people. Hanks and Spielberg spent more than an hour talking to the press; other winners and nominees dispersed to their tables. Bruce Springsteen stood at the bar, waiting without much luck for a bartender to notice him and take his order. "Ya win an Academy Award," he said with a grin, "and ya still can't get service at the bar."
MANY HOURS LATER, Springsteen, Spielberg, Hanks, and Goldberg were among those who ended up at a private party at Dani Janssen's Century City apartment. Janssen, the widow of actor David Janssen, attracted that crowd partly because the Oscar party scene was undergoing a seismic shift: Irving "Swifty" Lazar had died at the end of December, and Spago, the site of his legendary Oscar party, had closed for the night out of respect for the agent.
Janssen had stepped into the void with a small, private party, while other events made a more public play for the A-list. While Elton John had drawn a good crowd the year before with a Maple Drive party that benefited his own AIDS foundation, the most serious newcomer was Vanity Fair magazine, which cohosted a bash at Morton's restaurant with producer SteveTisch. The Academy, meanwhile, took notice of the absence of Spago on the scene, and took steps to increase attendance at its own soiree: it asked Spago's owner, Wolfgang Puck, to supervise the menu at the following year's Governors Ball.
The morning after the show, Cates read all the reviews, but he didn't pay them much heed. The New York Times wrote the show a love letter, the Los Angeles Times was lukewarm, others found the evening bland. "The first time I ever produced the show, I spoke to Samuel Goldwyn, and he told me something great," said Cates. "He said, 'It doesn't matter what kind of show you do. Some of the reviews are going to hate it, some of them are going to love it, and there's nothing you can do about it. So do the show you want to do, and forget about everybody else.'"
Ratings did not slide the way some had feared. In the months leading up to the Oscars, the Grammy Awards, People's Choice Awards, and American Music Awards had all scored their lowest ratings in years, but the Academy Awards show held its own, dropping off only slightly from the previous year and managing its second-highest rating in a decade. At three hours and eighteen minutes, it was also the shortest Oscar show in five years--a change that could be attributed in large part to Whoopi Goldberg, who spent considerably less time on her entrance and her monologue than Billy Crystal would have done.
One interested viewer of the show was writer Paul Rudnick, who wrote a satirical film review column for Premiere magazine under the name of Libby Gelman-Waxner. Under his own name, Rudnick had recently written the script for the comedy Addams Family Values, and he was struck by Tom Hanks's disclosure that his high school drama teacher was gay. Though Hanks did not, as some publications charged, "out" the teacher against his will--he'd called the retired, sixty-nine-year-old Rawley Farnsworth and asked permission a few days before the show--Rudnick was inspired to begin work on a script about a deeply closeted drama teacher who's outed by a former student at the Oscars. Three years later, that film, In & Out, would win an Oscar nomination for actress Joan Cusack.