As dictated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy Awards must present a total of 23 standard Oscars, plus the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, the always-riveting Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and two honorary Oscars. Only four of the statuettes figure to go to folks we actually recognize: the lead and supporting actors and actresses. Possibly one additional familiar face, should Sting or Bob Dylan win for original song.

The academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, acknowledges that ratings for the broadcast would most certainly jump if his organization did away with 80 percent of the on-air presentations, but Davis maintains that the Oscars are a television show only secondarily.

Hollywood's big night

"Primarily, they're the big annual shindig of a particular organization," says Davis, noting that the awards were handed out long before there was a television in every home. "We have no interest in nudging the production designers or anyone else off the broadcast because there are people in the television audience who are hazy about what those people do. If TV loses interest one day, we'll go back to doing them in a banquet hall."

In other words, if you're looking to blame a Bruce, blame Davis, not joke writer Bruce Vilanch, who says that after Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck announced their intention last year to produce the shortest Oscars ever, they added up all the academy-dictated elements that could not be tampered with and found the running time was already just under three hours. Equally futile was the Zanucks' vow to avoid flashy dance numbers. Robin Williams' show-stopping "Blame Canada" was the grandest song-and-dance routine in recent Oscar memory.

Because of the guaranteed high ratings, the Academy Awards remain the only awards show that runs without a set cutoff time. Don Mischer, producer of seven of the last eight prime-time Emmy Awards telecasts, says, "With the Emmys, we have to get off the air on time."

Oscar producer Gil Cates promises a light, airy set reflective of the new millennium, an "innovative technology" to segue into commercials, diversity in presenters and some unannounced faces.

"People will watch essentially for the horse race," Cates says, "then they watch for Steve Martin, oodles of all the biggest stars and finally the entertainment we use to cement it all together."

As the man who has helped Martin seem more improvisationally brilliant, Vilanch refuses to believe that all awards shows are doomed to Dullsville. Even with the majority of awards going to unknowns, he reminds, "The Oscars is still wall-to-wall stars. Everyone presenting is a star, and the whole evening is a star, really."

Nominations rule the mood

The mood and humor of the evening are greatly set by which films are nominated for best picture. It is no coincidence, Vilanch believes, that Crystal opted not to host the Oscars during the years the somber-themed "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" were feted. "Billy knew that you weren't going to be able to go near those two movies," Vilanch says, "so those were both Whoopi years, which she is very fond of pointing out."

This year's crop of best-picture nominees, Vilanch assures, is ripe for ribbing. Expect jokes targeting the sword-wielding warriors of "Gladiator" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the eroticism and gluttony of "Chocolat." And putting his own spin on the significance of director Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," Vilanch sees the former as a springboard for Michael Douglas zingers, and the latter as a movie "about a girl with huge [breasts] solving pollution with her Wonderbra."

Martin declined an interview request, explaining that he expected he would be asked questions he would refuse to answer, namely about "secrets" he has planned for the show and comparisons to Crystal. But Cates and Vilanch provide a few clues: Martin will not be participating in a musical medley, nor will he be morphed into clips of nominated films -- two gimmicks popularized by Crystal during his memorable openings.

"That's not Steve," Vilanch says. "We're doing some special stuff with him, but it's not on that grand scale. He wouldn't want to try to top Billy."

Even so, during the recent U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., Martin accepted some words of wisdom from Crystal on pacing and how many times he should appear onstage. Vilanch hints that we may see traces of Martin's the Great Flydini, the magical puppeteer Martin played on one of Johnny Carson's final "Tonight Shows." But Vilanch will neither confirm nor deny any specifics, realizing that the element of surprise is crucial to the success of any awards show, whether it is planned surprises or mishaps that surprise even producers.

"The shows that really work the best," Vilanch says, "are the ones that have a balance of the stuff you plan that really works and those great spontaneous moments that capture us all."