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CALENDAR'S OSCAR SPECIAL

The Crystal Ball

After three years away, Billy Crystal is again donning the (free) Armani to host the Oscar show. He thinks it'll be a good night--but it's a weeks-long headache.

March 23, 1997|Carla Hall | Carla Hall is a Times staff writer

If there's one thing he vows on his fifth turn at the Oscar podium, it's this:

Billy Crystal will not show you the money.

As he jokes, sings, ad-libs and cavorts his way through the marathon Academy Awards telecast, the comic who has become the gold standard for Oscar hosts in the '90s pledges not to utter the catchy "Show me the money!" line from the Oscar-nominated hit "Jerry Maguire."

Well, OK, not unless he really has to. (Hey, it's a long night. He even dubbed the academy Web site to which anyone can send jokes and comments www.whyistheshowsolong.com)

"I'm trying to get through the show so I don't say it," he says with a slight wince.

You can't always go by what Crystal says. Three years ago, after Whoopi Goldberg, his good friend and partner in the Comic Relief fund-raisers, emceed the show, he told an interviewer: "As I sat there watching Whoopi do it, I said to myself, 'I don't ever have to do this again.' "

He listens quietly as this quote is read to him.

"So here we are," he says with a little smile.

After four straight hosting gigs (1990-1993)--plus duties hosting the Grammys and Comic Relief--he wanted a break. "I didn't want to be the designated host-guy," says Crystal, who won one Emmy (in 1991) for hosting and two for writing on the show, in 1991 and 1992.

He was tired of going on and having that get-the-first-laugh tension, tired of spending the two months before going on thinking of nothing else but the show. "That gets to be old," he says. "And when you stop doing something, you realize how hard it was. . . . I needed to recharge my batteries and take my talents in different places."

He did do "Hamlet," playing the first gravedigger in Kenneth Branagh's four-hour version. (How's that for different?)

But after three consecutive Oscar shows spent not in front of the podium but in front of his TV set with the rest of the fabled 999 billion (or whatever) who are watching, Crystal started thinking about coming back.

He probably would have done it last year--when Quincy Jones produced--but no one asked. "I think they assumed I wouldn't do it."

He also figured it wouldn't hurt to be doing the Oscars less than two months before the early May opening of "Father's Day," a comedy in which he stars with Robin Williams. "That's a really funny movie and I'm really excited about it. And I didn't want people to forget what I do," he says.

He waited until his friend Whoopi Goldberg signaled her intentions to not do the show. Then when longtime Oscar show producer Gil Cates--who did not do the show last year--called Crystal and asked him, he accepted. "I felt like, 'You know what? One more good one.' "

So on Monday, he'll walk out on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in his Armani tux, with a toothbrush in his pocket--a reminder that he was once just a Long Island kid who held up a toothbrush as an Oscar to mimic the winners as he watched the show on a black-and-white TV. The first few rows of the audience--all of whom he will see with a discomforting clarity because the house lights are up--he describes as "nervous, nervous people." This year, many of them will be new and different faces from the bounty of independent films that garnered nominations.

"It's sort of fun to say, 'Great, three years away, and, uh, who are you people?' " says Crystal, who has seen all the nominated films. "We'll have some fun with that and be respectful because I think the quality of the movies this year is quite terrific. It's great the academy people voted for good work rather than the blockbuster syndrome."

He's sitting in a Peninsula Hotel conference room that just doubled as makeup and dressing room for a photo shoot for this story in which he posed as someone from each of the nominated films. To imitate Frances McDormand's plain-spoken wily cop in "Fargo" he had pulled on a heavy officer's jacket and geeky ear-flapped cap. Thick socks doubled as mittens. He stood before the photographer and scrutinized his hands.

"Somebody cloned Lamb Chop," he deadpanned.

Going for one of the slightly vacant, bemused looks of McDormand's character, he inadvertently telegraphed dazed surprise.

Crystal explained: "Sort of a Disney stockholder's look--'He got what? For how long? What if he'd done a good job?' "

The room tittered as he took the swipe at Michael Ovitz leaving the No. 2 slot at Disney with his multimillion-dollar farewell package.

It's the kind of riff that Crystal has made his trademark as Oscar host--kind of topical, kind of insider-y, a little jab, not a full blow. He's been known to excise, in the writing phase, jokes that were too harsh on people he expected to be in the audience.

"I want to push some buttons and make it fun and be a little dangerous and playful," he says. "None of it's meant. But you want to be a little provoking. It's fun to get a little ooooh from the audience."

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