I covered the Oscars from backstage for the next four years; in 2005 and 2006, it was a Cates production — the first time Chris Rock hosted, the second Jon Stewart. Over the years, Cates had orchestrated what many now consider the glory days of the Oscars; he brought us Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg, overseeing shows that combined over-the-top glamour with a wry sense of insider humor and writing teams that reacted to odd little events within the show (a falling cellphone, Jack Palance's push-ups). Cates considered the Oscars a significant cultural event but understood it was also a television show, two things that did not often lie down easily together. He was a romantic pragmatist.
Cates' death Monday at age 77 brought back memories of when I first met him. He was concerned with the turn celebrity journalism was taking, with the pathological love-hate relationship the media, and the public, seemed to have with stars. He believed in the Oscars as a time-honored celebration of American achievement in film, and he wanted it to stay that way.
But that was an old Hollywood view, one rooted deeper in storytelling than economics. In subsequent years, studios have all but abandoned mid-level films, and the gap between box office hits and Oscar nominees has grown to Grand Canyon proportions. Fewer people care about the Oscars because fewer people see the movies that win. Meanwhile, more populist award shows have proliferated leading to a rather exhausting "awards season."
Not surprisingly, Oscar viewership has fallen, and in the last few years, the academy has flailed about trying to reinvent the show, turning to a series of first-time producers, many of them in teams. Some did better than others, but none have managed to recapture the magic that was, in many ways, conjured by Cates.
Cates produced his last Oscars in 2008 and the show almost didn't go on — the writers strike ended just weeks before the telecast. It was the second time Stewart hosted and the first I reviewed as a television critic. I thought it was good, all things considered, certainly better than any that have come since.
In fact, after the utter failure of the 2011 telecast, I had hoped Cates might be coaxed away from his beloved Geffen and back to the Kodak, and when I spoke with him earlier this year, he seemed amenable. But the academy decided to pair Don Mischer, who co-produced last year, with Brett Ratner, who may not have signed Billy Crystal but did return to the Catesian template for host — a comedian comfortable with large venues, in this case Eddie Murphy.
But Cates also brought a matter-of-fact understanding of the show, its strengths and its limitations, that is harder to replicate. "It is what it is," he said when we last spoke of the future of the Oscars. "It's a big beautiful television show about the movies."
The issues that plague it — mercurial economics and demographics at the box office, shifting attitudes toward celebrity, the growing sense of award show fatigue — are not within the ken of a producer's control. "Stop worrying about doing something new and do something good," he said with a grin, and more than a few friendly expletives.