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Calendar's Big Oscars Issue : They Don't Write the Songs : But Hal Kanter and Buz Kohan do write the Oscar show--most of it anyway. How do they do that?

March 20, 1994|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Matthews is the film critic of Newsday and New York Newsday

You've seen it many times. A star, on stage to present an award, is reading from prepared material when he suddenly leans forward, squints and begins speaking haltingly, as if the lines on the TelePrompTer are so unutterably stupid, his mind is too embarrassed to relay them to his mouth.

As awkward as it may seem, the moment is actually a slick piece of acting, a little body performance pleading, "Don't blame me, I didn't write this crap!"

For veteran writers Hal Kanter and Buz Kohan, multiple Emmy winners for their work on past Oscar shows, the stars' lean-and-dodge maneuver is Pet Peeve No. 1.

"That's the worst offense performers can commit," says Kohan, 60. "They agree to the material, sign off on it, then when they go out and blow a joke, they say, 'I didn't write it.' Well, they didn't write the stuff that made them successful, either."

Adds the 75-year-old Kanter, who did his first Oscar show while it was still on radio in 1952 and is doing his 25th this year: "Giving some actors a joke is like handing a straight razor to a baby."

You don't have to spend much time with Kohan and Kanter to learn that working with presenters, tailoring material for the stars' personalities and images, is the hardest part of their job. Some want shorter speeches, some longer, some want them funnier, some prefer them serious. And they don't know who wants what until they have given them something to read.

"You can never give an actor a blank piece of paper," Kanter says. "You have to give him something with words on it before he can destroy it."

The presenters' speeches, of course, are only one part of the prepared script. There are tributes, introductions to film clips, speeches by Academy and industry officials, jokey explanations of Price-Waterhouse's tabulating procedures, and the opening monologue of the host (this year Whoopi Goldberg).

Kohan and Kanter say they wrote Goldberg's Oscar speeches in 1991 and 1992, when she was a presenter, and she read them exactly as written. But like Billy Crystal and Johnny Carson before her, she reserved the right as host to prepare her own monologue, and her staff of three writers has been working on it since she was signed on early last month.

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As for what Goldberg will say the rest of the evening, while introducing presenters, musical numbers and other speakers, Kohan and Kanter are holding their breath.

"We write the first version of what she will say," Kohan says. "Then that goes to her writers, and they do their thing, then she has her input. In the end, it's up to her. She's out there and the show is live. If she maintains her spontaneity without getting too controversial, she'll be wonderful."

Kohan and Kanter have worked together on the Oscar show for the last four years and they bring vastly different backgrounds to the task. Kanter started his career as a contract writer at Paramount, and between building a reputation as Hollywood's funniest luncheon and dinner speaker, wrote scripts for a pair of Elvis Presley movies ("Loving You" and "Blue Hawaii") and Frank Capra's 1960 "Pocketful of Miracles."

Kohan, a 13-time Emmy winner, somehow converted a masters degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music into a career as a variety show writer ("They paid more for the word than the note," he says). He wrote for the Perry Como, Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis Jr. programs before becoming head writer of the long-running "Carol Burnett Show."

Since the demise of variety shows on TV, Kohan has been on the annual awards cycle (besides the Oscars, he writes for the Grammys, Tonys, Emmys and People's Choice awards), anniversaries ("Bob Hope's 90th Birthday"), and specials ("The Jackson Family Honors").

Last year, with the show's theme being a tribute to women in film, producer Gilbert Cates wanted a woman on the writing team and, at Kanter's suggestion, hired former L.A. Times movie critic Sheila Benson. This year, the theme is a celebration of the filmmaking process, of the people behind the camera, and Kohan and Kanter are back as a duet.

Kohan worked on this year's Grammys right up to the March 1 broadcast, and flew back the next day to join Kanter for a meeting at the Academy's Westwood production offices. The two had already divided up their responsibilities. Kanter defers to Kohan on music categories and song introductions, Kohan defers to Kanter on screenwriting and directing.

"On the rest, we just stare at each other until one flinches," Kohan says.

No matter how soon they begin, or how well they write, they say their words are always negotiable.

"I always say the show isn't written, it's rewritten," Kanter says. "You spend weeks writing it, and in the last couple of days, it's rewritten."

"The performers, or their PR people, know that the earlier they complain, the less chance they'll have of getting what they want," Kohan says. "If they wait until three hours before air time and say, 'He doesn't want to say this,' you either have to rewrite it or get another presenter."

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