Dishing Oscar

A frank talk with Gil Cates, the man who's producing the biggest TV show of the year.


Ian Rothkerch
March 24, 2001 1:00AM (UTC)

Of all the thankless jobs in show business, producing the annual Academy Awards must rank below being Bruce Willis' hair wrangler. The executive producer is responsible for coordinating hundreds of needy, high-profile egos, choreographing a four-hour mix of introductions, film clips, performers and host material and making sure that, in the end, the right envelope makes it to the stage at the right time.

Putting together one show takes three months, and each year, the spectacle of a show names 24 winners. At the same time, nearly 1 billion people are examining the show with a magnifying glass, looking for the screwups of live television and the miniature scandals set off by this winner or that. At the end of the day, the news shows don't talk about the logistics that go into scripting the stars into fairly seamless live television, with almost every conceivable reaction shot readied, with fail-safe after fail-safe preparation for emergencies. Instead, they talk about the ever-increasing running time, the vapidity of the dance numbers and a few tasteless dresses. The producer can't win.

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You'd never know it listening to Gil Cates.

The seasoned director has more than 20 movies to his credit (including "Oh, God Book II" and the Oscar-nominated Gene Hackman tear-jerker "I Never Sang for My Father"). He will be directing his 11th Academy Awards telecast Sunday night. Cates, who says he loves the gig as much as he did when he started directing the show, is a maestro of self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance, a man with a Zen-like armor of nonchalance that protects him from the slings and arrows of Oscar bashers.

I recently chatted with Gil Cates via phone. He diplomatically danced around questions on Joan Rivers, his most egregious Oscar show and the top-secret list of hosts to replace Billy Crystal.

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You're the Michael Corleone of Oscar telecasts -- every time you think you're out they just pull you back in. Why do you keep doing this to yourself?

Oh, that is so funny. I love that. Well, when I did the first show [back in 1990], I was sure I was only going to do one. The truth of the matter is, the people with whom I work are very nice and it's just a fun show to do -- even though the climate has gotten a little testier over the years.

And by "testy" you mean ...

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Well, the level of caring and kindness has somehow diminished throughout the country and I guess we reflect that as much as anything else.

As someone who spent the majority of his career directing movies and plays, what was the lure of doing an awards show in the first place?

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Essentially what happened is that I was on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the year after the '89 show Alan Carr had produced. The then president of the academy was Richard Kahn and he appointed a committee of academy board members just to look into the show in terms of ways of improving it and things to watch out for. Also on that committee was Karl Malden, and when he was made president of the academy the following year, he said to me, "OK, big shot. You got all these ideas, so why don't you produce it?" I had been asked to do it before and just wasn't able to, so this time I thought it would be fun. It was quite accidental and quite innocent.

What's the most creatively fulfilling aspect of doing a program like this?

One is, of course, getting all these people together to do the show live. There's no retake on that, there's no tape delay -- it's totally live.

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Part of the excitement is around the fact that all this happens live at that given time. I think essentially people watch us because they like horse races -- they like to see who won and who lost.

There is a certain satisfaction that my colleagues and I get from presenting these 24 awards or so in a way that seems as painless as possible. Time, regardless of the length of the show, seems to go fast. I know a lot of the folks who watch the show would [disagree] that anyone is making an attempt to do that, but I can assure them that we all do.

The other thing is to try each year to somehow surprise the audience with something that you do or educate them about something they've never seen before. I take great pleasure out of the fact that one year we did a year devoted to women and one of the film packages was on women in editing. People in our industry, let alone the lay world, were surprised to learn that until the '50s editing was done mostly by women.

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[Or] take dance, for example. Dance is in deep trouble in the United States, so some people get their first opportunity to see dance of any kind on the Academy Awards show. All those reasons make it fun to do the show, plus the fact that it's nice to have a period of a couple of months where people return my phone calls.

You've received a lot of flak in the past for overloading the telecast with too many of the aforementioned film montages and dance numbers. How do you respond to this criticism? And feel free to address your detractors by name.

My favorite critic story is about a show five years ago. We got a review in the New York Times that called us one of the best awards shows in recent memory and said that it went along quickly and flawlessly, etc. The Los Angeles Times called it a lengthy bore. Frankly, and you want my honest-to-God opinion ...

We expect nothing less.

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I don't spend much time listening to what the critics of Academy Awards show say. You know, the critic's view is based generally on preconceived notions or ignorance. I still meet people who tell me they're annoyed at the fact that the Academy Awards show explains the rules in great detail -- the show hasn't explained those in 15 years! People tend to slobber one show onto another show and they really kind of forget the differences between the two. Basically, the issue for me is, Can we make the show entertaining given its length and the number of awards that are mandated to be presented? The show is very much like the World Series; its length is the length necessary to do the job.

Of all the Oscar shows you've done, which one would you most like to forget?

[Laughs] Oh, God. I don't think I even want to go there. What I can tell you without reservation is that I like some shows better than others, clearly.

Do you feel the show David Letterman hosted back in '95 got a bad rap? To this day, the man still seems to be flagellating himself over the job he did.

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I thought that was a pretty good show. David did a pretty good job. Listen, it's like if you had two children. One's the tall one, one's the short one, one's the outgoing one. People tend to speak in hyperbole: "This show's much better than last year" or "It's terrible compared to last year." David followed Billy Crystal, who's naturally a brilliant, terrific host. That's a tough act to follow.

This year you've tapped Steve Martin to host. What makes you think he's up to the task?

Steve Martin's humor is unique. It's very different from Whoopi [Goldberg's] and David's and Billy's. Basically, it's intellectual and it's thought-provoking. I think his unique persona will present the show in a special way that is going to be terrific. Technically speaking, he was for many years a stand-up comic and he knows how to work a room. He's quick on his feet, he's mentally agile and alert. I think he'll be a great host.

Just out of curiosity, who else was on that list to replace Billy Crystal?

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Oh, I'll never tell. I will answer your question this way: There are only a half-dozen people who can really do that job in my opinion -- who are well-known. Obviously, the person should be a movie star. Go look through the list of stars who are so uniquely known by the American people that they have their own special dispensation.

How much creative control do you have over the host's material? Have you ever gone toe-to-toe with a writer over a joke you found particularly offensive or unfunny?

Well, I don't have that kind of relationship with the writers. If someone shows me a joke they have and I think it's in questionable taste, usually they'll change it or come back with another idea or just cut it. Essentially, you've really booked that host to get what that host does best. I've had hosts in the past who would come to me and say, "What do you think about this joke or what do you think about that?" I'll give them my honest opinion about it, but basically the host is the host. You have to give the host enough latitude to do his job properly.

Considering that Hollywood has long been branded a politically liberal community, what effect do you think the presidency of George W. Bush will have on the tone of this year's telecast?

I think there's a larger part of your question, which is that each year is different than the year before. The first year I did the show, the Berlin Wall came down and there was euphoria and happiness around the world which was reflected in that show. One year when Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were running for senator in California, it was quite obviously the year of the woman, so we had a show that reflected women in film. Each year is reflective of the movies and the time in society, so it's sure to reflect the fact there's a different administration. It's not a purposeful reflection -- it's in the water.

Watching the Oscars, I sometimes get the sense that the host's monologue doesn't go over well with the audience -- regardless of how funny it may be. Do you think actors, in general, have a hard time laughing at themselves?

No. I think the actors are very comfortable laughing at themselves, and some of the biggest jokes and biggest responses have come from that. I think what you're referring to is that many of them are nervous and scared to death. If you have 25 awards, you have 100 people -- all of whom are centered in the best seats in the house. There's a lot of tenseness and anxiety. I mean, they love laughing at themselves for the most part. I'm sure I've hurt people's feelings in the past, but it's not our intention.

Having worked with the biggest names in the business, which celebrities won't be invited back anytime soon? What's the biggest power trip one of your presenters has ever pulled?

I know you're going to find this difficult to believe, but when people come down to the show they're generally so overwhelmed by the size of it and all the other stars that are there, they're usually very, very easy to deal with. Honestly. There really have been no power trips. Occasionally, you'll find an actress who's nervous about the dress she's wearing and she'll say, "Can I see both dresses on camera before I decide?" Or someone will come down and say, "Ohmigod, I'll be too nervous to read this stuff." You'll find things like that. Let's face it -- they don't get paid for it. You don't have to deal with their agents or lawyers to book them. There's no billing clause in it. It's a very simple deal. "You want to present one of the best-picture clips -- yes or no?" It's a no-brainer. You're interested or you're not interested.

How about the seating assignments? You'd think that in a community so ego-driven, you'd have performers saying, "I want to sit closer to the stage" or "Make sure I don't get a seat next to so-and-so."

No, no, no. But I'm conscious of not putting a performer next to his recently divorced spouse. [Laughs] I've been asked to write a book on my experiences in the Academy Awards show and I've been trying to store material -- it's mostly funny and positive stuff. Like Mike Myers, whom I asked to take an envelope from Bart the Bear. Bart weighs 1,800 pounds, he eats a hundred roasted chickens, he's 11 feet high -- so Mike Myers is gonna have to go up to this fucking monster and get an envelope. I mean, he would be stupid not to be nervous about that.

In the past, several actors (famously Tim Robbins and Richard Gere) have used the Oscar stage as a bully pulpit for their personal causes. To all those presenters and award recipients considering going on a soapbox, what do you have to say?

Well, I divide that question into two parts. As far as the presenter is concerned, that's someone whom I've asked to be on the show. I find it unconscionable that they would use that time for their own personal view. Because, in effect, they have made a deal with me to come on the show and present best cinematography. If they say something that's personal, I think that's in bad taste; I think it's inappropriate and would strongly censor that. However, if a person wins an award and they have 30 seconds to say "Thank you" and they elect instead to say "Save the trees," it's totally fine with me.

What are the criteria for being a seat filler, and are they unionized?

Troublemaker. [Laughs] They're not unionized, and it's very difficult to be a seat filler because of security reasons. We only take seat fillers who work for the academy, and they're vetted by many people just to make sure that the security concerns are met.

Do these people have to have a certain look? Are they models?

No, they're everyday-looking people, and that's what I like about them.

Do you feel the glut of advertiser-friendly award shows in recent years has diminished the prestige of the Oscars or reinforced it?

I look at every award show as a buildup to the Oscars -- honest to God. I wish there were fewer of them only because I wish there were other things on television. It really makes no difference. Why do people go to the Golden Globes? They go to the Golden Globes obviously because it's a lovely party, but they also want to know who the front-runners for the Oscars are. It all pays off on the Oscars. You'll notice that there's no award show that follows the Oscars. What are you going to do after the Oscars are given? That's it.

Approximately a billion viewers tune in to the Academy Awards every year -- what do you believe accounts for the universal appeal of this ceremony?

It's been said so many times, but film is the new art of the 20th century -- it transcends language and it really transcends culture. Film stars are the common denominator, the common language. You're talking about something [the Oscars] that's 75 years old now, and there's a sense of a global village and a sense of belonging.

What are your thoughts on the incessant hype machine that surrounds the Oscars? How do you deal with the pressure to live up to the network's and the viewers' high expectations?

Well, I love the hype because I think that's what generates the audience. Obviously, the most appealing thing to me is to have a big audience. But with regard to the hype and how it affects me personally, frankly, it really doesn't affect me very much. To tell you the truth, I run a theater here in Los Angeles called the Geffen Playhouse and we have 500 seats -- I get as nervous on opening night with 500 people watching as I do with 500 million. There's a point at which it's not the number, it's the quality of the work.

What's the most outrageous thing anyone's ever done to attend the Oscars?

Well, there's one time when someone snuck in, which was outrageous because he got himself into big trouble, and I don't think I should even get into that. I mean, I get dunned all the time for tickets -- it's bloody awful.

I'm going to give you a few names and I want you to tell me the first word that comes to your mind:

Jack Valenti.

Short.

Jack Nicholson.

Important.

Joan Rivers.

Uh ... [Laughs] I can't think of one word that would encompass her. I may not be a good player for this game. She's a friend of mine, so I don't want to say the first word that comes to my mind.

Melissa Rivers.

[Stutters] This is not a good game for me.

Richard Gere.

Thoughtful.

Dick Clark.

Active.

Do you ever find yourself selfishly rooting for certain nominees to win?

Absolutely, all the time -- if I think someone will be a more colorful recipient of an award or if someone will make a better speech. I have that feeling when the academy presents me with a list of people who are going to get honorary Oscars or the Thalberg award. I'm very much interested in what will make the show a better show, which is not always in the academy's interest.

I want you to come clean now: Do you know who's going to win beforehand or not?

Everyone who's gonna win -- weeks beforehand.

[Pause]

Will you get a life, for Chrissakes? Of course I don't know! Are you kidding me?

I'll give you an example of how little I know. We occasionally have a short action film presentation and a studio will make an animated introduction. So the person says, "And the winner is ..." Well, we have the little animated thing drawn to have five separate winners and we have someone from Price Waterhouse come into the truck. Right before it's announced, he tells us which number tape machine to roll. No one knows!

After all these years, do you still find it amazing how many celebrities walk off the wrong side of the stage and have trouble opening the envelopes?

No, because I filter it all through the sense of astonishment, surprise and just plain uniqueness of that experience. I mean, there you are up there and there are 3,000 in the hall looking at you; there's 500 million people watching you. There's no preparation for it. Some celebrities do get a little dry-mouthed. They make mistakes. I understand Elizabeth Taylor's appearance at the Golden Globes. She's not reading that [teleprompter] -- it's just nerves.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what are the chances a young journalist can get a pair of Oscar tickets if he writes a very flattering and complimentary piece about you?

Is "1" no chance or is "10" no chance?

"1" is no chance.

I'm afraid the answer is "1."


Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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