For Bruce Vilanch, it’s glamour, glamour, glamour. So much glamour, so little time.
Glamour is his life. At the moment, anyway. At least since December, when he started writing the 61st Academy Awards show, to the world the apotheosis of glamour.
But with Hollywood glamour, what you see isn’t what’s always there.
ABC’s Oscar office off La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards is a labyrinth of starkly white rooms on the second floor, above Adolescent Outreach and below Advance Memory. Next-door neighbors are Total Tan and Leo’s Flowers. Out of his office window, Vilanch can regard a vision of tar-paper roofs.
His room is identified “Miss Grable’s Dressing Room,” with a still of The Legs.
This man of glamour sits lonesome at his computer keyboard ingesting the real writer’s regimen of Diet Coke and taco chips. At appropriate hours he watches “Santa Barbara” on a tiny desk TV.
Vilanch is a familiar image to the Hollywood comedy community--sort of squat, Muppet look, with a substantial beard and a shag of blond hair. He is a robust comic presence that is constantly self-defacing: “This is Farrah Fawcett’s old hair.”
(Oscar show producer Allan Carr affirms that this is Vilanch’s real hair color: “I walked by the other day and looked at his roots. I said: ‘You know that Candy Bergen must spend $20,000 a year to get her hair this color?’ ”)
And Vilanch has on his signature T-shirt. He has a collection of T-shirts and is invariably never seen out and around but in a T-shirt. On this day it was a purple “NEW YAWK,” with a red big apple with a chomp out ot it.
In fact, the elegant designer Bob Mackie made one for him and he wears it in his comedy act: “It’s black and got plunging cleavage that’s built in and long sleeves with rhinestones,” as Vilanch describes it. “I say: ‘I’m so thrilled that Bob made this for me. It’s my very own. But as soon as I’m done tonight it goes right back to Brenda Vaccaro.’
“But I have a T-shirt underneath that says in very large letters, ‘Yes, I’m a model.’ Because it’s my second most-asked question.”
Producer Carr wanted everything this year “crafted” for the stars, Vilanch related. “It’s possible to write just a great generic mass of material, just hand it to the performer and say: ‘OK, you get to do the speech about film is the universal language,’ and ‘You get to do the speech about how music in movies underscores our emotions. . . .’ ”
Said Carr: “He wants the performers to sound the way they sound, so they don’t come to rehearsal and go, ‘What is this? What are these words? I never saw this before. I can’t pronounce that. . . . ‘ “
And, dispensing with the tradition of a team of four or five writers for the show, Carr hired only Vilanch: “Other years they didn’t have people who were compatible and it always looked disjointed.”
(Carr said he hired Vilanch because “he makes me look thin. That’s the real reason.”)
But the process this year, especially with the additional volume of presenters coming and going on the stage, became “gargantuan, physically, humanly impossible,” Carr said.
Much “baby-sitting” and “ego massaging” is required by the nature of stardom. And there are a lot of helpful suggestions--or not helpful. Vilanch related: “Yesterday somebody called to say that they’d like Fay Wray to sit there holding her new book--because it would be a nice plug. Then I thought, what if everybody came on holding their books? Jane Fonda wouldn’t be able to make it up the stairs if she were holding all her videos!”
Carr explained: “It was basically my fault. Because of the time element and all the filler stuff--I forgot that you have to write all the voiceover lines and the station breaks. . . . Bruce and I don’t do that. We just sit around being funny.”
So the other day, barely two weeks before the show, Carr brought Hildy Parks to the rescue. She’s a celebrated New York writer who with husband Alexander Cohen, a major Broadway producer, effectively elevated the Tony Awards show from just another listing in the TV logs to the top of the highlights.
Carr began boasting: “I’ve created a new Edna Ferber and Moss Hart. It’s divine.”
Much of Vilanch’s employment has been spent in negotiations over his lines, a not-unfamiliar Hollywood endeavor.
“I’ve had to deal with a lot of middlemen--and a lot of people who are afraid to give their clients the material. You wind up saying, ‘If they hate it, it’s OK. But I want them to see it.’ I had a publicist actually call me and say: ‘I can’t send this to her (the client) because he (the other star) has more lines.’
“I said: ‘So she’s not gonna shoot you ; blame me . And point out to her that he may have the lines but she has the big joke.”
He lost some double entendres in the Dudley Moore-Bo Derek script: “They were doing the costume category and it seemed like a great place to do jokes about the fact that they didn’t wear anything in their big movie (“10"). Dudley loved it but she was a little skittish. She didn’t want to say some things.”
At this sitting it wasn’t clear what was happening with the Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell script: “We lost this cute thing that Goldie didn’t want to do. Then she changed her mind. It was kind of giggly and she would like to be not Giggly Goldie. She wants to be Irene Dunne.”
One day he got a call from Auschwitz, Poland, where Willem Dafoe and Edward James Olmos are making a death-camp film, “Triumph of the Spirit.”
“They (the movie representative) said that they were coming over to be presenters and they both shaved their heads for the movie, and it would be nice if you explained why they look like this.
“The call itself isn’t so noteworthy, except that I’ve never gotten a call from Auschwitz before. I was unaware that Auschwitz had a switchboard or direct dialing--and it’s very eerie when the secretary buzzes you and says, ‘Auschwitz on Line 2.’ ”
Vilanch came to show biz as a tot as a child actor. Then Ohio State and the Chicago Tribune: “I was every kind of critic. I was the TV critic, the movie critic, the nightclub critic, the rock critic. . . . I was the wipe-up critic.”
One night the then-unknown Bette Midler arrived from New York to do her then-unknown act. “She was opening for Jackie Vernon, to an audience of people who looked like Jackie Vernon.”
He did the interview and both decided that the other was funny. He advised her to localize part of her act and began calling TV critics whom he knew for local joke ideas: “There was always some kind of local political buffoon and always a Virginia Graham type who ran a talk show.”
Through Midler he caught on with the Manhattan Transfer troupe and helped put together their act, which in turned helped land them get a summer series on CBS.
So Vilanch moved West in 1975 to work on a variety of variety shows, including “The Donny and Marie Show.” He won Emmys for Midler and Barry Manilow specials and has an enormous list of writing credits.
Plus acting roles (like “Mahagony,” “The Ice Pirates,” “The Morning After,” etc.). He’s up for the lead in a TV pilot, reports his agent.
“I do a lot of benefits,” Vilanch said. “My company is Benefits R Us.”
He helps write probably most AIDS shows in Los Angeles: “I’ll do any AIDS benefits.” He also is writing (with Alan and Marilyn Bergman) Saturday’s Steven Spielberg tribute being put on by American Cinematheque.
He’s co-writing (with Jeff Silverman) a comedy feature film based on the board game Monopoly for NBC Productions.
He has a rep as a sought-after “script doctor,” that most mysterious of Hollywood callings. These unheralded ghost writers liven up a character or insert a few jokes or twist around a scene or two: “I can’t say what those movies are because I’m not credited . . . but it’s not the newest work in the world. It’s perhaps the third oldest profession.”
So, turning 40 (a year ago), he decided to try expanding his horizons with a “sit-down” act that he does on occasion at the Gardenia, the Art-Decorian club. He describes his life on “Donny and Marie” and “The Brady Bunch” shows and his other lives and times and talks some show tunes. He’s not sure where this will all end up.
His ambition: “I’d prefer to write Woody Allen movies from now on.”
The job, of course, is already taken.
“Well, one loves to bask in the glory. When one has no glory to bask in, then you just settle for the work.”