Oscar Gets Ready for a Difficult Role on Wartime Stage

Times Staff Writers

As one of the strangest and most stressful weeks in Oscar history ticked down to its dress rehearsal Saturday, the old show-biz maxim was holding: The show must go on. But would it?

All week, the crazy calculus of staging the Oscars just as the U.S. was waging war on Iraq had racked nerves inside the Kodak Theatre, where if all continues as planned, the 75th Academy Awards will take place at 5:30 p.m. today.

Dark-suited private security officers were highly visible at the Kodak on Saturday as, every 15 minutes, more stars trouped in: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck; three generations of Douglases (Kirk, son Michael and grandson Dylan); last year's best actor, Denzel Washington, who clowned around a bit onstage. The memo of the day circulated, reminding everyone to expect security delays when parking. All in all, a professional and even light-hearted atmosphere prevailed.

But behind the scenes, getting to this point had required more fancy footwork than "Chicago."

The clock started ticking Monday, after President Bush announced his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. Before the week was out, there'd been a short-lived suggestion to hold onto the Kodak for a couple of days longer by buying out the tickets for the incoming "Scooby-Doo" stage musical; a mad scramble to knock down rumors that A-list stars were bailing out; a last-minute decision to scrap the show-opening aerial shot of the theater that suddenly looked too much like a bomb's-eye-view of Hollywood; and a Friday morning call from one of the Oscars' most interested parties -- Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films, up for 40 awards -- to another, ABC, which stands to clear more $25 million on the show.

"It has been a roller-coaster week and everyone has had different opinions as the week progressed, but the [Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] and the show always felt that it's appropriate that the show should go on," said Oscar producer Gil Cates during a rare break from rehearsals Saturday. "Of the 11 shows I've produced, it's the most difficult I've done."

And nothing has posed greater difficulties than trying to predict how the onslaught of news would play out, come showtime. As things stood Saturday, ABC was expected to air a news program related to events in Iraq before a pre-Oscar show and the regular Academy Awards telecast. There were no plans to run a news crawl at the bottom of the screen during the show, but anchorman Peter Jennings might show up during a few commercial breaks with updates on the war.

By Tuesday, with the prospect of Oscars host Steve Martin's monologue being upstaged by bombs over Baghdad, the academy had begun contemplating its limited options. Its worst fear: that war would start just a day or two before the Oscars, almost certainly forcing a postponement. But the producers knew they could delay their program only a day or two; after that, most of the presenters, nominees and musicians all had to get back to work.

The academy briefly flirted with staying in the Kodak an additional week or so. But that would have meant buying every seat for all seven performances of "Scooby-Doo! in Stagefright" -- the next show scheduled to play in the Kodak. The academy concluded that would be too costly. Instead, organizers starting hoping that the war, if it came, would begin and end quickly.

With rumors flying that the show would have to be postponed, Cates gathered his production team for lunch Tuesday at the Grill restaurant inside the Hollywood & Highland complex. Among those attending were associate producer Michael Seligman; Danette Herman, the executive in charge of talent; Robert Z. Shapiro, a longtime consultant to Cates on the Oscar telecasts; and Dennis Doty, Cates' partner and co-producer of the Oscar pre-show. Their discussions revolved around when the war might break out, how to address the rumors that big stars were begging off, and what to do with the red-carpet portion of the ceremony.

Cates huddled with the academy president, Frank Pierson, and other officials to hammer out a statement. They all agreed that the red carpet -- long an Oscar tradition -- would be eliminated this year. They also nixed the temporary bleachers along Hollywood Boulevard, where more than 300 fans were set to watch the stars arrive.

At the same time, the academy was facing its first major defection: Will Smith.

Smith, a best actor nominee last year for 2001's "Ali" and one of Hollywood's biggest box-office attractions, had called his publicist, Stan Rosenfield, saying he was having second thoughts about attending the show.

"He said, 'I've decided not to be at the Oscars this year,' " Rosenfield recalled. "He said, 'I don't feel it's appropriate.' " Rosenfield asked the star if he had informed the academy of his decision. "He said, 'No, would you do it?' I said, 'I get to make the fun calls, huh?' He said, 'Yeah.' I think if he had had a relationship with Gil he would have made the call. We kind of joked about it a little."

Cates immediately tried to discount the defection. "There are so many rumors flying around, and all of them are untrue," Cates said. "We have many more people who have wanted to be on the show who are ready and waiting." The show promptly replaced Smith with Brendan Fraser.

Rumors then began flying that Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman of "The Hours" was bowing out. But although she was seriously debating whether to attend, her representatives said she would show up. Meanwhile, a London paper published a story -- strongly denied by his publicist -- that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks would also be a no-show.

The producers did acknowledge that along with Smith, other no-shows included New Zealand director Peter Jackson of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," and Jim Carrey, who was replaced as a presenter by Matthew McConaughey.

On Friday morning, with the war in full swing, Oscar officials canceled the broadcast's planned opening: a dramatic, NASA-assisted sequence that began with an outer-space view of Earth and ended up zooming in on the Kodak.

At 11:30 a.m. Friday, Cates, Pierson and the show's director, Louis J. Horvitz, and others huddled around the television to get an update about the war before holding a noon news conference. Pierson reiterated that the show would go on. But he and Cates conceded that the broadcast was at the mercy of news events and that the academy was checking with ABC on an almost hourly basis.

At ABC, network President Alex Wallau received a phone call from Miramax's Weinstein, who asked if the television network needed any help in keeping the stars from opting out of the show. Wallau, a longtime associate of Disney President Robert Iger, didn't have a firm answer for Weinstein, whose mini-studio -- like ABC -- is a subsidiary of the Disney empire. Wallau has been the point person in dealing with the academy, and ABC News President David Westin reports to him.

ABC has already sacrificed revenue by postponing its annual Barbara Walters interview special, as well as locally produced pre- and post-Oscar programming on KABC-TV in L.A.

For ABC, the Oscars represent both a strong promotional platform for its programs and a financial windfall. Sources say the network has 58 commercial spots in the 3 1/2-hour telecast, which sold for a reported $1.35 million each. The network's license fee to the academy is just more than $50 million, meaning ABC clears a profit of more than $25 million.

Although ABC was criticized by its affiliated stations for a series of miscues during the first night of the war coverage, including a late start broadcasting the story, station representatives contacted said they supported proceeding with the Oscars telecast.

"No human being is made to sit there and watch tanks roll across sand for 24 hours," said Alan Bell, chief executive of Irvine-based Freedom Communications, whose holdings include several ABC affiliates. "It doesn't mean you're disrespectful to the American and British forces if you take a break for a couple of hours."

Throughout the week, the network has been monitoring events abroad as well as the scheduling practices of its competitors, noting that both CBS and NBC returned to a mix of news and regular prime-time programming with little complaint or fanfare. John Hamlin, an ABC specials consultant, had been at the Kodak all week sitting next to two TV monitors -- one, a closed-circuit look at the show; the other, broadcasting the latest news from Iraq.

Late in the week, 61 Oscar winners, some of whom won before World War II, arrived for their rehearsal -- a centerpiece of the show's 75th-anniversary theme. Among them were Olivia de Havilland, 86, who had jetted in from Paris; Luise Rainer, 93, who flew in from London; and Celeste Holm, 83, who arrived from Hong Kong.

In the audience, Ben Kingsley sat beside Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Jon Voight, as Nicolas Cage and Anjelica Huston came up and chatted. Backstage, Red Buttons was spotted giving Mickey Rooney a big hug.

On Saturday, some members of the latest class of Oscar hopefuls -- Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah, each nominated for best supporting actress in "Chicago" -- showed up to practice their dance routine. As they went through their paces, the TV monitors remained on, broadcasting an unfolding war into the Hollywood theater.

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Times staff writer Brian Lowry contributed to this report.

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