A golden touch, an iron will

Times Staff Writer

It's a late afternoon in February, and Gil Cates has a pregnant actress on his mind.

Inside the production offices for the 75th annual Academy Awards, with the show less than a month away, every detail -- no matter how intimate, obvious or unpredictable -- is grist for the worry mill.

At the moment, Cates, who is producing his 11th Oscar ceremony, is dealing with the fact that the two actresses who sang "Chicago's" nominated song, "I Move On," are unlikely to reprise the number on his show. Renee Zellweger, it seems, isn't eager to sing in front of a global TV audience, and Catherine Zeta-Jones' baby is due a few weeks after the broadcast.

So Cates and his talent coordinator, Danette Herman, convene a meeting with the film's director, Rob Marshall, to kick around possible replacements. Even though Cates is 68, he can toss out the names of all the hottest names in hip-hop.

"We have to find someone who can generate excitement," Cates tells Marshall. "And someone who can also make people want to tune in and see the song." They eventually narrow the list but don't settle on anyone. As soon as Cates finishes, he moves on to the next pressing matter, a special-effects shot for the show's opening.

It's clear, in several behind-the-scenes visits with Cates, that producing the Oscars has no Hollywood equivalent. In addition to the basic requirements of putting together a live awards show -- hiring a director, electing a set designer, supervising a choreographer -- Cates also must serve as diplomat and dictator, team leader and chief executive, schmoozer and bouncer. Then there's the small issue of war threatening to break out just in time to cast a pall over next Sunday's broadcast -- even if the show, as promised, goes on.

This may be the most thankless job in show business. If the show isn't lively, it's the producer's fault. If it's a hit, most of the public recognition goes to the award winners. And every little decision can have enormous consequences, as Cates is well aware.

For instance, he was savvy enough to hold up the announcement that he was producing this year's show until after he lined up Steve Martin to host.

Had he not secured Martin at the outset, Cates says, he would have been inundated by calls from agents and managers pitching their clients, and the real work of the show would have been delayed for weeks.

Cates, who sometimes zips around the office on a scooter, is drawn to Martin not only because he's funny but also because, as a stand-up comedian, Martin knows how to "run a room." "He likes to keep things moving," Cates says. And keeping things moving is Cates' highest priority.

On a timetable

It's a day after the announcement of Oscar nominations, and the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater stands empty. Just 24 hours earlier, academy President Frank Pierson had announced that New York Oscar viewers will be able to go to bed at midnight knowing who won best picture -- meaning that this year's telecast cannot last a second longer than three hours and 30 minutes.

Cates wasn't blindsided by Pierson's promise; he had agreed to it beforehand. But it's one thing to promise a short show and another to deliver it. Laura Ziskin, the rookie producer of last year's ceremony, set the bar pretty low when she vowed her broadcast would come in under four hours and 20 minutes. (She then missed that epic milestone by three minutes.)

Cates, who has directed 25 feature and TV films and has been the producing director at the Geffen Playhouse, knows he holds one small advantage in this regard. Ziskin had to confer honorary Oscars on Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier and Arthur Hiller -- each of whom gave Castro-length acceptance speeches after long film clips. Cates has only one such award to dispense: an honorary Oscar to Peter O'Toole, who has said he doesn't really want it, and thus may get offstage in a hurry.

But Cates also must deal with the unspoken predicament every Oscar producer confronts: all of the less glamorous awards that must be presented. The Golden Globes don't have to hand out trophies for sound effects editing. The Screen Actors Guild Awards don't have to pull together highlights of scientific and technical prizes. But the Academy Awards have to bestow all this, and much more.

There are 24 awards to be presented, including the award added last year for animated feature. Even with very few commercials, ads eat up about 10 minutes of every hour, meaning Cates must somehow dispense an average of a statuette every seven minutes, and somehow make the show more meaningful than pizza-and-trophy night for the Baldwin Hills Little League.

The briefer, the better

In a 12th-floor conference room in the show's Century City offices, Cates is reviewing film clips for all the acting categories with senior executive consultant Robert Shapiro and Douglass Stewart, who edited the clips.

"Why did I come back? Because I love the circus, and this is a circus," says Cates, who started his show business career under the big top and produced his first Oscars show in 1991.

This ringmaster's main concern is speed. Just as a backpacker cuts off the end of his toothbrush to conserve weight, Cates looks at every possible opportunity to shorten the show. Cates has asked Stewart to shave five seconds from a scene of Ed Harris in "The Hours," and Stewart reports that he only has been able to snip three seconds. But it's a good edit, and Cates signs off on the new piece.

Stewart then shows Shapiro and Cates three nomination clips of Diane Lane from "Unfaithful."

The first is one of the film's best sequences: Having just cheated on her husband, Lane's character laughs, cries and reminisces on a train ride back home. It's great acting, but there's a problem. "You asked for the train. But there's no dialogue on the train," Stewart says, as he starts running the scene. "That's really interesting," Cates says as soon as the clip ends. "Let's see the other two." The tape ends, and the room is briefly silent.

"Wow. This is a tough one," Cates says.

"I like the first one," Shapiro says. "I think she's good in it."

Says Cates: "It's amazingly lively, isn't it?"

They decide to watch the three clips again, agonizing. It's finally agreed that while the train scene is the most provocative, it may mean nothing to people who haven't seen the movie. They select another scene instead, of Lane kissing lover Olivier Martinez, but are still torn.

Stewart then presents a very quick reel featuring fragments of scenes from all the movies nominated for best editing. "It's better than it was," Cates says, blunt but avuncular. "It's a terrific way of showing cinematography. But it doesn't really show editing."

"But in order to show editing, you have to take more time," Stewart says.

"I know, I know," Cates says, shaking his head. Time is the one thing he wants to hoard. "Listen, Doug. It's a nice package. But I'm not keen on it. I feel badly, but can you use it for some other category?"

Stewart then shows his video assembly for the screenwriting nominees. Each writer's photograph will appear above a film clip as his or her name is read by the presenter. It's a nice touch given the negligible recognition screenwriters typically receive, but the seemingly simple plan is filled with complications.

On a film with multiple writers, like "Gangs of New York," the first writer's picture will appear on screen longer than his collaborators'. "If there are three writers, won't the third one be [angry] that he's not on as long as the others?" Shapiro asks.

"It's a good point, come to think of it," Cates says.

There's another problem the three haven't anticipated: Nominated for writing "Adaptation" are Charlie Kaufman, who doesn't like having his picture taken, and Donald Kaufman, who doesn't exist. Cates says he will rethink using the screenwriters' pictures.

Building momentum

There is a large gong outside Cates' office, and whenever he confirms an Oscar presenter, he bangs it loudly to summon staff members to his office. On this February day, Cates has just been told that Harrison Ford will hand out a statuette, and the staff comes rushing in to hear it firsthand. But the news will not be released by the academy for several weeks.

The names are dribbled out for two reasons. In announcing one star daily, the academy tries to build momentum for the show. That name-a-day pace also avoids the complaints of thin-skinned stars (including a famous action hero), who complained in the past that their names were released simultaneously with lesser actors.

"There is a lot of effort in matching the right person to present the right award," Cates says. "You might not want to have [the often strangely attired] Vin Diesel present the award for costume design, for example."

Although some agents, publicists and managers will suggest that their clients present only the "important" awards, Cates won't make any deals. "Sometimes people will say, 'I'll only come if I can present a top award,' " Cates says. He won't name names.

In assembling a lineup of presenters, Cates looks not only for the biggest names but also the right mix. "You have to look at the board and say, 'We don't have enough Latinos or we don't have enough young people,' " Cates says. For a global telecast that is looking to attract new viewers, diversity is essential.

The element of surprise

Cates is convinced the key to a show's success is surprise. Not only who wins the awards but everything happening around the presentations. The tributes. The film clips. And, most of all, the stars. To commemorate the ceremony's diamond anniversary, Cates and the academy have invited all of the living winners of acting awards, about 75 people, for a televised reunion.

It's a cross section of decades of fame. So far, Luise Rainer (1937's "The Good Earth") and Olivia de Havilland (1949's "The Heiress") say they want to come. Cates is trying to keep the plan -- and the names of the attendees -- under wraps, but word is slowly leaking out. Then his own team gives it away.

At a Feb. 24 news conference to preview the show's look, production designer Roy Christopher and his staff show reporters models of the show's various scenic elements. One of the sets is the platform on which the reunited stars will stand, and Christopher explains its purpose. The blood drains from Cates' face.

In a quick attempt at damage control, Cates tells the reporters that only about 20 past winners will attend. He knows the figure probably will be higher, but he doesn't want to set unreasonably high expectations.

"That just got by me," he says of the slip. "It was just a screw-up. But the truth is, nobody knows who will and will not show up."

Going over the game plan

WITH the awards 17 days away, Cates has summoned about 100 of the show's staff to the Kodak Theatre lobby for a production meeting. Inside the surprisingly cramped theater, stagehands are beginning to piece together Christopher's massive sets, hauling a huge silver ball over the stage.

There are representatives from the show itself (writers, stage managers, art directors) and every conceivable ancillary business (from limousines to parking to medical services). "We have a lot to go through this morning," Cates says.

A security consultant suggests all the Oscar workers clean out their trunks so car searches won't delay parking underneath the Kodak. Talent coordinator Herman needs to discuss how all the past winners will be brought down the red carpet. And the transportation team needs to discuss how to get 16 "Chicago" dancers from their Hollywood rehearsal room to the Kodak on the day of the Oscars.

Cates is confident U2 and Paul Simon will perform their nominated songs, but he won't say who will sing "Chicago's" "I Move On." "We don't know who's going to do it yet," says the ringmaster, ever trying to build suspense, even among his staff. Who knows? Maybe even Zellweger and Zeta-Jones will astonish everybody and croon. This is all Cates will say: "It will be a really wonderful number."

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