View From the Hot Seat

FOR THE TIMES

For Gil Cates, who's producing tonight's Academy Awards telecast, Friday was like a day at the beach. One moment, he was on the crest of an enormous wave, the next he was in the grip of an undertow. Up, down, ebb, flow, high, low. Welcome to the show. It's his eighth.

"Some things are easy, some are hard," says the 63-year-old director, producer and UCLA dean. "You enjoy the easy ones and hope like hell the others work out."

Here's an easy one, from a long day's journey into Oscarland:

Celine Dion and her husband-manager Rene Augelil have shown up at Capitol Records in Hollywood to record "My Heart Will Go On," the Oscar-nominated song from "Titanic." Cates says the nominated songs are recorded in advance, in case a singer gets a sore throat. So far, no one has. Dion is bubbly, friendly, relaxed. Cates gives her a big hug. She saved his bacon last year, agreeing to sing not only "Because You Love Me," the song from "Up Close and Personal," but to sub for Natalie Cole, who was too ill to sub for Barbra Streisand, who'd declined to sing her nominated song from "The Mirror Has Two Faces"--but at the last minute showed up for the ceremony. Ah, live TV!

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When Dion enters the recording room, Bill Conti's Academy Awards 52-piece band gives her an ovation, a rarity, according to Cates. She belts out her song twice, returns to the control booth to hear it and leaves to more applause.

"I shouldn't say this on the record," says Cates, conspiratorially, "but of all the talent I've worked with on the show, she's special."

Here's a hard one:

It's Friday around 11 a.m., and there is doubt whether Monday night's show will wrap before some engineers carry out a threat to pull the plug on the live feed. During a radio satellite interview on Tuesday, a disembodied voice broke in and asked Cates what he thought of the labor dispute between the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees & Technicians and ABC, home of the Oscar show.

The dispute caused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to produce the Oscar show itself this year, and simply to license ABC to broadcast it. The technical crew is primarily the same as last year's, who agreed to be represented by another union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

As far as Cates and the academy are concerned, this is a union show. "I'm a 100% union man," says Cates, a longtime officer in the Directors Guild of America. But the NABET people don't agree, and issued more threats on Friday of disrupting the live broadcast.

"They've told us they're going to turn the Oscar upside down, guy, that they're going to pull the plug somehow three minutes before the end of the show." Just before the best picture award. Talk about a cliffhanger.

Here's an easy one:

Michael Bolton has followed Dion into the studio, and though he's known to be difficult on occasion, he's a model of collegiality today. He jokes with the band, does two takes of his song, "Go the Distance," from "Hercules," then, with only piano accompaniment, gives everyone a thrill by belting out Puccini's "Nessun Dorma."

Here's a hard one:

Billy Crystal has shown up earlier than expected, to record the nominees' medley opening the show. Cates had said no outsider would observe Crystal's work. The Oscar host has a special arrangement with the academy, and it includes a protective layer between him and the press.

Now he's here, and before Cates or his consigliere / publicist Chuck Warn can purge the room, or explain to Crystal that there's a reporter among them doing a follow-the-producer-around story, Billy recognizes the varmint hovering in the background and walks over. There's a friendly exchange, small talk about baseball, the Yankees and the World Series ring George Steinbrenner gave him on his 50th birthday (it was too small). Then Crystal disappears with Cates.

A few minutes later, Cates returns and, with a shrugged apology, says that when you gotta go, you gotta go. Sorry.

Here's an easy one:

It's afternoon now, and Cates has moved back to the Shrine. In the main room, actor stand-ins are reading presentation copy off the TelePrompter, while director Lou Horvitz and his huge crew fine-tune the lighting.

There are posters with the names--and sometimes the faces--of nominees and other celebrities who will be in the audience. One of tonight's events is a reunion of past Oscar winners. More than 70 are expected, including Luise Rainer, who won the best actress award for "The Great Ziegfeld" 62 years ago.

The Oscar set, designed by 11-show vet Roy Christopher, is an homage to Cates. "Gil likes sets that make him want to fall to his knees and pray," says Christopher.

"Actually, I like sets that have no reference outside the Academy Awards," Cates says.

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The major construction is a golden, mosaic arch with a pair of mobile 30-foot Oscar replicas on both sides. Christopher says the design is meant to create a frame, to allow for both the illusion of spectacle and the intimacy of a party. The band is out of the orchestra pit this year, on stage on a nightclub-style bandstand.

As Billy Crystal would say, it looks . . . mahvelous.

Here's a hard one that proves to be an easy one:

Crystal has now arrived at the Shrine to help Horvitz block out the staging of his entrance and opening medley. Crystal and his team of writers have prepared a piece of film that, like last year's showstopper, will precede his entrance on the stage. Its contents are as carefully guarded as the name in the best picture envelope, and much harder to predict.

The first thing Crystal does on the stage is look for the names of the Oscar nominees he mentions in his medley. No problem locating Jack Nicholson. His poster is in the seat directly in front of the glass podium. A virtual throne.

Remember the Golden Globes, when newcomer Matt Damon, from "Good Will Hunting," boasted from the podium, "I got a better seat than Jack Nicholson"? That was the Golden Globes, son.

As he sings his medley, sometimes using words, more often humming, Crystal hits some coordination problems with the band. Apologies rain out of loudspeakers, but Crystal is unperturbed.

"There are three kinds of talent in situations like this," says Cates. "One is the [expletive] who throws a fit. Another is the one who says, 'OK, you've got a problem, go ahead and fix it, I'll wait.' The third is the rarity, who just rolls up his sleeves and tries to help you solve it. That's Billy."

Here's a hard one Cates won't talk about:

One of tonight's segments involves famous movie animals, and it will include at least one very special appearance. In fact, the guest has arrived, and is due on stage at 4 p.m. for a walk-through. But word is quietly passed to Cates that there is a problem, and the producer excuses himself. When he returns, he explains that he can't explain, instead drifts into anecdotes about moments past.

Remember 72-year-old Jack Palance hitting the deck and doing one-armed push-ups in 1992?

"We thought he might be crazy; we had no idea what was going on," says Cates. "But it worked out pretty well."

The year Madonna sang the nominated song from "Dick Tracy," the sound technician who was supposed to raise a microphone to greet her entrance had fallen asleep, and she had to vamp by grabbing a mike off the floor. (With any luck, this could be the same technician planning to pull the plug on tonight's show.)

And here's a hard one that turned out fun, and hints at why a producer's work is never done:

A man called the production office Friday saying he was an associate of Stanley Kubrick and, on the legendary director's behalf, was requesting two tickets to the show. A call to Kubrick's office in London got the following reply: "Stanley has never heard of [this man]. It's utter nonsense."

When the man called later, he was asked for his Social Security number and driver's license. Later he got a call from an LAPD officer, saying, "I've got your tickets, come on down and get them." No tickets had been sent, of course. And no one heard from him again.

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