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In No One’s Shadow

Mary McNamara is a Times staff writer

It’s become one of the most scrutinized roles in Hollywood. Three hours of running The Show, of patter and paeans and paying attention, of standing alone on the stage with nothing but your material and your quick wit standing between you and disaster in the eyes of your peers and 24 time zones. If anyone deserves a lifetime achievement award, it’s those few brave souls who have hosted the Academy Awards and lived to do it again.

For Whoopi Goldberg, this is No. 3. On this side of the footlights. She also knows from the will-you-can-the-jokes-and-just-open-the-envelope-side--she won best supporting actress for “Ghost” in 1991. Currently she is balancing a multimedia career with serious bicoastal tendencies. Her current movie-in-production, “Girl Interrupted” is proceeding in Pennsylvania. “More Dogs Than Bones” just finished up in Los Angeles, home of her ongoing pet project “New Hollywood Squares.” Add to this Goldberg’s reluctance to fly, and suddenly the fact that she has her own customized, country-singer-style bus makes perfect sense.

Clearly, she spends a lot of time on a cell phone, especially with her writers. Bruce Vilanch, co-star and head writer of “Hollywood Squares” and a 10-year Oscar veteran, have been trading faxes and phone calls at a furious rate, including this conversation about winning and losing and surviving The Show.

Bruce Vilanch: Did you really want to do this or did they have to beg you to come back?

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Whoopi Goldberg: I did not really want to do this. But then Gil [Cates] brought out the special magic weapon. . . .

BV: And that is?

WG: Last show of the century. So it’s going to go white guy, white guy, white guy, black girl, white guy, white guy, black girl, end of the century.

BV: So you’re like a one-woman Y2K.

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WG: You know it, baby.

BV: What makes hosting the Oscars such a tough job?

WG: It is a tough job because now it’s about so many different things. It used to be you watched Bob Hope talk about the fact that he never got an Oscar, and that was the funny joke of the night, but the bottom line was who won.

Now you have to deal with what you’re wearing--if you’re female--and what everyone else is wearing. You have to deal with are you going to be perceived to be as good as the last person who hosted it. You have to deal with all this outside pressure when all it’s really about is who won. That’s all the audience cares about. No one is going to remember what my jokes, our jokes, are. . . .

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BV: They’re just to tide them over until they see who won, and what they were wearing. Or who they were with . . . when they were wearing what they were wearing when they won.

WG: Or what they were wearing when they lost.

BV: Which happens, as the room fills up with losers.

WG: More losers than winners, that’s the bottom line--we have more dogs then bones.

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BV: The last time you did this was ’96 and it was a triumph. . . .

WG: I think so, but we didn’t win the Emmy that year. How many Emmys do you have for the Academy Awards?

BV: I have two, which is a comment on awards in general--winning an award for writing an award show. I didn’t mind getting it, mind you. But getting back to the last show, do you remember what particularly worked?

WG: For me what worked is that I really stopped caring. It became all about having fun and pushing the show along. And some wonderful things happened. You remember that song, “The Color of the Wind,” all those folks running around with their butterfly costumes, and I came out saying, “I’ve always wondered what color my wind was.” I had stopped worrying.

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My dream would be to co-host with Billy [Crystal]. That would have been optimum. But Billy was busy this year, which is how I ended up getting the job.

BV: How long will the show go if we get Robin [Williams] and Roberto [Benigni] on stage together? Roberto could win three awards, so that’s 45 minutes right there, because no one knows the words to tell him to quiet down.

WG: I do. Which is why I think I got the awards this year. I’ll go out there and say, “You know what? I’m the black fist of America, take your award and sit down. I believe the words are grazie, ciao.”

BV: Tell him, “Excuse me, Sophia Loren would like a word with you backstage.”

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WG: I’ll send Sophia out, and they can have a big argument. I won’t stop it, I’ll just move them over to the side.

BV: Is there a movie nominated that you wish you had been in?

WG: (after a moment of wild laughter) No. . . .

BV: It’s hard to make fun of World War II isn’t it?

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WG: It’s kinda hard but we’ll find a way. “Saving Ryan’s Privates,” these are the things we will be doing.

BV: Maybe “Saving Meg Ryan’s Privates,” also known as “You’ve Got Female.” . . . What does it feel like standing up there, being the captain of the ship?

WG: For the first minute it’s freaky, really freaky. You go into that auditorium, and you know it’s the beginning of a grueling three hours if you’re a nominee or a friend of a nominee. Because they’ve been having hell month.

It’s very, very hard on the actors--if they don’t win, does it mean they weren’t good enough, is the camera going to be polite and leave you alone? We had an incident with the best supporting actress who was the shoo-in and she lost and the camera wasn’t smart enough to get off her face after the initial “Oh, I’m so glad she won.” And it’s painful.

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Because when you don’t win, it’s as if you got all dressed up for this great big party and everyone is glad to see you, and at the end of the party, they’re all avoiding you. That’s not what’s happening, but that’s how you feel. You feel dumb, like why did I even come?

BV: The room is tense to begin with, and as the show wears on people aren’t listening anymore, they’re too busy making their hit lists. They don’t care about the rest of the show. . . .

WG: It’s sort of like trying to keep the band playing while the Titanic is going down, while the ship is listing and beginning to sink. . . .

BV: And are you personally retaining the water?

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WG: All during the show, all during the show. The ankles swell. It really tells you how it’s going by how soon I take the shoes off.

BV: I love the moments backstage when all these people are standing around. . . . Last year with the former Oscar winners, we discovered that all the black peoples’ names began with G: Lou Gossett, Cuba Gooding and Whoopi Goldberg. . . .

WG: There was Poitier at the bottom and Denzel Washington. . . . We kept trying to think there must be more of us, but there just weren’t.

BV: What will you be doing Sunday morning when people are reading this?

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WG: I’m still asleep, so don’t call me. Don’t call me, don’t ask me who my favorite is, I’m not going to get up until I absolutely have to. It starts early in the day for us, so once I am up and brush my teeth and comb my hair, we’ll get in the car and go rehearse again. Because there will be a lot of clothes, a lot of clothes, and many diamonds, many, many diamonds.

BV: I will find something appropriate in a black T-shirt and some red Nikes, because they’ve worked out in the past. Do you have a good-luck thing you go through?

WG: No, because there’s really not a downside for me anymore. People will either like what I do or they won’t. There’s no winning or losing for me. I’ve learned to stop reading what people write about, because really, unless you’ve done it, you can’t judge it. Most people don’t have the balls to do it.

BV: What everybody really wants to know: Are you making “Hollywood Squares” a requirement for winning? Are we dragging Roberto onto “Hollywood Squares”?

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WG: Now that we’ve been nominated for an Emmy, I don’t have to do that. I might mention it a dozen times, but that’s it. And I don’t want to talk about the president.

BV: He gave a great performance. . . .

WG: He did, but there were better. . . . Have you heard that Monica is supposed to be at the awards?

BV: I’ve heard that rumor. I heard she’s being brought by a photographer that we know.

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WG: No-o-o.

BV: Yes.

WG: Why would she put herself on the firing line?

BV: What girl from Beverly Hills can resist an invitation to the Oscars?

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WG: I know, but not when I’m hosting it. Now, you know if I see her what’s going to happen. How can I not? Why do they do this to me?

BV: It’s a great sighting, to walk down the red carpet . . .

WG: I’m going to be big, Bruce, I’m not going to mention that she’s there. . . . The only thing that’s possible is if I come out and there’s something on my dress.

BV: Or if you come out smoking a cigar.

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WG: I can’t handle it. It’s better not to say anything at all.

BV: Are you going to any parties this year?

WG: No, I have to go to work on Wednesday, so I’ll be getting on my bus literally right after the show. I’m shooting “Girl Interrupted.”

BV: And you’ve been interrupted.

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WG: Twice. I was in Los Angeles doing a small role in “More Dogs Than Bones,” just got home an hour ago. Then I go to Pennsylvania, then back to New York and then to Los Angeles, then back on the bus.

BV: It’s a glamorous life. You know, people become movie stars so they don’t have to ride the bus.

WG: That’s what you thought, but now the back of the bus is fine.

BV: If the show goes well, I’ll go to a party. If not, I’ll be in a Bronco on the 405.

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WG: You can always get on the bus with me.

BV: Gangway. I’ll take the lower berth. . . . Any last thoughts?

WG: The bottom line is, the Oscars are about the art, an art form for everyone. Doctors, hairdressers, everyone has made an Oscar speech once in their life. So it’s a huge cultural gathering. I want to encourage nominees to be excited about being nominees. This idea that it’s not a big deal is bull----, it is a big deal. You know you’re happy, so look happy. You’re not too cool to participate. There’s only three or four people too cool, and you ain’t one of them.

Everybody wants an Oscar. I want one in the 21st century. It’s a long century, so I think I have a shot.

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