Allan Carr: 'We Won the Town'

Times Arts Editor

The entrance hall and the high-ceilinged living room of Allan Carr's house on Benedict Canyon resembled a flower shop, or a gangster's funeral. There were vast and artful, top-of-the-budget floral arrangements and towering sprays of spring blooms. Other baskets of flowers had already been reshipped to children's wards at hospitals, Carr said. He had run out of room.

It was late Friday afternoon, two days after the Academy Awards show, which he produced, and Carr was padding about in bare feet, sipping a vodka and grapefruit juice and trying to cope with stacks of mail and long sheets of phone messages.

The Oscar show had been savaged by the critics, with Howard Rosenberg in the Los Angeles Times and Janet Maslin in the New York Times bracketing the country. But, Carr said defiantly, the flowers, the mail and the calls all indicated that the industry had loved his handiwork.

"You delivered," said a note from Jennifer Jones.

"How did you manage to convince everyone not to acknowledge the manicurists?" asked Janet Leigh.

"You put the show back in show business," Jean Firstenberg of the American Film Institute said in her note.

"You brought show business back to the movie business," agent Michael Ovitz wrote.

Among the calls was one from Candice Bergen, angry about the reviews. Michael Caine had toasted him eloquently at a party at Chasens.

There had been the unpleasantness Thursday morning when the Disney studio complained about the use and the characterization of Snow White in the show's opening production number. Neither Carr nor the academy can talk about the matter officially, but discussions are under way and an academy source says the hope is for a civilized resolution to be reached this week.

The press complaints about the absence of some senior stars riled Carr particularly. Jack Lemmon begged off because he had lost 30 pounds for a role about a man dying of cancer. "Jack said he'd have to take two minutes just to explain why he looked the way he did," Carr said.

Ava Gardner and Lana Turner both said, in effect, that the public might prefer to remember them as they looked in their days of glory. Two other grand ladies of the screen offered to appear but only if they could present one of the top four awards (picture, director, actor, actress). Katharine Hepburn explained nicely that she had appeared on one show, to pay tribute to her friend the late MGM producer Larry Weingarten, but that was that.

Warren Beatty was supposed to present in tandem with sister Shirley MacLaine (a variation on the "couples" theme Carr used throughout the evening), but he was shooting "Dick Tracy" and could not get free. Carr had also hoped to twin Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck, but Loren could not be lured out of Florida. So it went.

Carr, 50 this year, grew up in Highland Park, Ill., and attended Northwestern University. He worked for a while in television production, put on some plays in Chicago and came West in 1966 as a personal manager (for Roger Smith and Ann-Margret, among others).

When I first met him in the mid-'60s, he and Smith were working out of a small, cluttered office at the old Goldwyn studio in Hollywood and co-producing "The First Time," which Smith had also co-authored. It was the first important role for Jacqueline Bisset, a last-minute replacement for Leslie Caron.

Carr subsequently wrote and co-produced "Grease," a large box-office success, produced "Can't Stop the Music" and "Grease II," and then (after a five-year struggle) invaded Broadway with "La Cage Aux Folles," for which he won a Tony in 1984.

His house was the last residence of Ingrid Bergman during her first marriage to Petter Lindstrom. It was later the home of Kim Novak and director Richard Quine, and of James Caan. It has been Carr's for 17 years.

A man from ABC called him at 6 a.m. Thursday, Carr said, to read him the overnight ratings for the Oscarcast, which were very good. "They went up during the show. They usually fall off. In Australia they were the highest they've ever been."

Carr accepted the producing assignment (which is unpaid) Oct. 19 and went in the hospital for hip replacement surgery the next day. "I had two weeks to lie in bed and think about what I wanted to do." He started sending letters of invitation in November, and promoting the show. "You don't have time for word-of-mouth to work for you. You've got to stir up some want-to-see."

He has been a lifelong Oscar fan and remembered the 1957 show, produced by Jerry Wald, which included the Mae West-Rock Hudson duet excerpted on this year's telecast. "It's a movie show; I wanted lots of clips and lots of stars," Carr explained.

Not least he got the Shrine Auditorium cleaned from the basement up and created a Club Oscar, where the stars could nosh and chat beyond reach of press and public.

Doing without a host or hosts was, Carr thinks, brave but necessary. Dispensing with performances of the nominated songs was also brave but necessary, he believes.

The teaming of presenters who were families (the father and son Bridgeses) or couples (Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) or compadres (Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Sean Connery) was designed to take some of the awkwardness of the whole presenter syndrome.

(Carr also had a dialogue coach help with the hard names, but a presentation here or there still sounded like a sight translation from Sanskrit.)

He is proud of the 12 scene changes, with their baroque/rococo feeling. "We made it look pretty. It usually looks like 'Wheel of Fortune,' with Mylar sets and girls with lots of cleavage bringing out the Oscars."

Ironically, the show is sometimes more impressive seen live, in the Shrine as at the Music Center, than it looks on the monitors. The small screen does not easily accommodate the scale of the production and its use of space.

The unresolved tug of war each year is between the Academy Awards as a television show for those watching zillions, and as a show for and about the movies and those who make them.

Would he do the show again if asked? That depends, Carr says; depends not least on who is president of the academy. His relations with the current president, Richard Kahn, were exemplary. Under academy rules, Kahn is a one-term president. His successor, not yet elected, will take office in August and name next year's producer. Kahn himself says he would not hesitate to go with Carr again. "He's a showman."

Carr, the sting of this year's reviews assuaged by the messages and the flowers, asks rhetorically: "What have we done? We've touched the heart of America and won the town."

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