It's That Time Again

Michael X. Ferraro is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Six months ago, Billy Crystal graciously declined producer Gil Cates' offer to host tomorrow's 70th Annual Academy Awards. After all, he'd already returned from a three-year hiatus in 1997 to tear down the house. In case you were off the planet that night, Crystal killed.

Walking onstage at the Shrine Auditorium after a hilarious opening bit that spliced our truant host into the best picture contenders, he was showered with a 30-second standing ovation that Crystal, who just turned 50, calls "the nicest thing that I can remember."

Last year, his 82-year-old mother, Helen Greenfield, saw the show live for the first time. He matched Johnny Carson's five hosting stints, second only to Bob Hope's 17. Plus this year, he knew his pre-Oscar schedule would be consumed with fine-tuning his new film, "My Giant," (Crystal produced and stars in the comedy opposite 7-foot-7 NBA player Gheorghe Muresan. The movie opens April 10).

"So I made a really good decision for me," Crystal says, laughing. "Which was, 'No, I can't Gil, I can't!' " But happily, insistent pleas from the Academy, friends and fans finally got to him, says Crystal, who also admits he enjoys trying to top himself. Despite appearances, he says he doesn't take the job to plug his movies, calling such timing "more a headache," than savvy marketing.

And though he's not talking about this year's mystery opening, everything else is fair game.

Q: How different would the Calendar cover photo session have been if "Boogie Nights" had been nominated for best picture?

A: Well, the dressing would have been the same, they just would've needed a macro lens.

Q: Excluding those who've done it (and best friend Robin Williams), who would be your pick to host the show?

A: Jerry Springer.

Q: How long will the show run if Robin wins and what will he do with the Oscar?

A: Well, if Robin wins on Monday, the show will end on Tuesday.

But I don't know where he's going to put the Oscar if he wins it that night. I know him--he'll grab the thing and he'll say to Oscar, "Turn your head and cough."

Q: You're the master of the ad-lib. So what's the best Oscar line you ever thought of right after the show?

A: Oooh boy. That's a good question, because that takes a little time to jog my memory, so, uhh . . . See? I'm the master of the ad-lib and I can't think of an answer.

Q: Whatever happened to

A: Why didn't we do it this year? Because we had 40,000 entries (jokes submitted to the Academy's Web site last year), and we read three of them. It was some weird stuff, and I've saved all of them.

It's pretty extraordinary, some of the things that were sent in that had nothing to do with the show. . . . It's scary out there. The people who go to the 'Ultimate Fight' events--is that what they're called? You know, people who enjoy cage wrestling can't write comedy.

Q: What's your most surreal Oscar party memory?

A: This is easy. Sophia Loren. I've told this before, but Ms. Loren and I had an intimate affair from the time I was 14 till about two weeks ago. We have made love in every significant way in every significant place, and there she is at the Governor's Ball and she caught my eye, turned around and motioned for me to come over.

I walked over, I felt so guilty--and she says, "Beee-lee, kiss me twice," both cheeks, and I'm like dying. I can't believe this is happening, this would have saved so much time. And she said, "You are so charming, you remind me of Cary Grant." I went, "Cary Grant?" It was just astounding.

Q: Why doesn't anyone talk about the Price-Waterhouse Oscar party?

A: That's a tough ticket, that party. Tons of people in formal wear with slide rules. It's an interesting night. People walking around, seeing Price and Waterhouse, going, "You knew, didn't you?!" "Hello, Mr. Can-Keep-a-Secret!"

Q: You've said your favorite hosting stint was the Hannibal Lecter night when you had the flu. Ever talk to Michael Jordan about going on sick?

A: I had pneumonia, a fever surge during that show, I thought I was passing out. We had called [Tom] Hanks earlier to do it, in case I couldn't go on.

But that (Jordan) is a good analogy I guess. I got into a weird delirium that night. I came on with the [Lecter] mask, and Jack [Palance] did the push-ups and we ran with that, and it was just flowing.

I had not rehearsed that intro. So I had just been in the dressing room all morning getting very woozy. They took me into Gil Cates' office, and getting dressed was Paul Newman, who I had never met. He said, "Jesus, what's the matter with you?" I said, "I don't feel good, but you're Paul Newman." And he said, "I used to be." And they laid me down and gave me fluids, and they were going to put an IV in. I was dehydrated, and Paul Newman's giving me chicken soup!

I went back out, and at this point, I felt like I had three martinis. And I had never seen this intro before, and it was not one of our better ones. It was Liza Minnelli and Shirley MacLaine, and it was one of those, 'She's from the 14th century . . .' and it all felt so stupid to me. It was like being stoned, and you're looking at one of your uncles and going, "He's a velvet painting!" You know what I mean?

Q: What's the story behind your "My Giant" co-star, Gheorghe Muresan--and can he act?

A: It's gonna sound like I'm blowing the horn, but from the moment I first saw him say "I love this game," I said that's the guy. He's so interesting and vulnerable and charming. . . .

When we took him through the story, he couldn't believe that he'd have to play a [non-basketball-playing] real person, and at times someone very close to himself. And he said, "I must do this. People should know about big people." He breaks your heart with his honesty.

And we [including director Michael Lehmann] worked so hard together . . . getting him to understand the concept of every time you're on the set, what you're doing is forever. And I probably annoyed him after a while. But it's called "My Giant," and if he's not good, it's called "My Mistake."

Q: Back to that size thing. He's really that big?

A: I didn't want to computer enhance anybody, I wanted the real thing. And there are a couple shots in the movie where people say to me, "How did you do that? How did you get him to look so big?" And I say, "Well, stand next to him."

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