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Confessions of an Oscar Writer

March 22, 1998|BRUCE VILANCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If an awards show is happening in Hollywood, odds are someone will be calling Bruce Vilanch. Monday's Oscars will be his ninth year as a writer for the Academy Awards--and he's shared writing Emmy Awards for two of those shows. He's also written for the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, American Comedy Awards, People's Choice Awards, Daytime Emmys and countless social benefits. As he says, he's written for every function and dysfunction imaginable. Here he offers a glimpse of the life of a writer.

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There is a small, devoted cadre of people who don't believe the Academy Awards show is written.

I've met them. At none of the better houses, but they are out there. They believe everyone on the Oscars is spontaneously witty. Or stupefying dull. Whatever.

"It's pretty much up to them, isn't it? I mean, nobody writes that stuff ... Someone does?"

I once served on a blue-ribbon panel of TV writers, none of whom I had ever heard of, judging the Emmy entries in the variety-writing category. After the first hopeful--an award show--was screened, a hand went up.

"What was the writing on that show?," a blue-ribbon panelist inquired. The winner that year was a stand-up comic's concert act.

So this isn't a condition confined exclusively to civilians (people outside of show business--"non-pros," Variety calls them).

People who actually make a living in the factory of illusion believe their fellow professionals step out on stage ready to greet the largest single audience of their careers with no script.

The fact is that everything you hear on Monday's Oscarcast has been written, rewritten, re-rewritten, fretted over, spelled out phonetically, garbled in a fax, left in a tuxedo jacket, cleared by an expensive legal team, delivered by bonded couriers with scripts handcuffed to their arms, smeared with aloe vera, chewed by the Abyssinian kitten, dropped in the pool, laughed at by valet parkers, obliterated by canasta scores, shredded during a shrill custody battle outside Gymboree and inadvertently tucked under the bottom of the Norwegian blue's cage.

Part of this, of course, is because the Oscars is like the Super Bowl.

People who never watch a football game dutifully drop what they're doing at least once a year to take in that big match. People who never go to the movies and people who never watch television (except maybe to watch football) tune in to the Academy Awards.

If you're going to play in the Super Bowl, it's better to be on the winning team. So you'd better train.

For actors who normally spend nine hours a day in a comfy Winnebago on a cell phone and another 20 minutes in front of a camera, the idea of performing live in front of a real audience is fiercely daunting. Especially when they have no character to play.

Most actors never have had to establish a stage persona. They don't know who they are on stage when they're not playing somebody else. A few gifted actors--like Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler--are also solo performers, so they know who they are when they're alone on stage. Shirley MacLaine not only knows who she is, she knows who she was.

But most of them have always depended on the character the writer has given them to play.

And Oscar Night is no exception.

The writers have to come up with something for them to play. Sometimes it's the dread Banter. The writers always try to avoid that, but frequently it's what the actors actually want. ("It'll humanize him," one icy hunk's publicist insisted to me one year. Trust me, Adolph's Meat Tenderizer couldn't have humanized this guy.)

More often than not, you go with informational stuff about the category. This gives the actor a reason to be there (other than his own fabulousness), plus it shuts up the whiny nerd at your party who always asks, "But what is Sound Effects Editing?" (This is also usually the guy who wins the pool because he guessed the tender Flemish picture about the leprous carp fisherman would win Best Foreign Language Film.)

Now that the writers have figured out what the actor should say about Sound Effects Editing (who can hear over that category, anyway?), the material must go to the actor, the actor's agent, manager, publicist, holistic pet psychiatrist, feng shui master, ex-wife who always had good taste and the mealy-mouthed little assistant who has a degree in CompLit from Pepperdine and never has read anything quite so puerile.

They fax their notes.

"She doesn't want to be funny," is the note I've gotten from every single actress except Lucille Ball, whose great-grandchildren will live elegantly on what she made from never telling a writer she didn't want to be funny. After the material is hashed and rehashed, the actor himself arrives for rehearsal and a little more hash-slinging.

And then it's time for the show. And the meticulously polished material is performed, frequently with the following pearls of ad lib:

a) "I told them that wouldn't work."

b) "Could you move that card up, please?"

c) "Gosh, I can't see a thing without my glasses."

d) "I'm absolutely falling out of this dress."

e) "Hello, Jack."

And the Oscar goes to: "Don't blame me. I didn't write it."

The Academy Awards will be telecast at 6 p.m. Monday on ABC.

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Part of the fun of watching the Academy Awards is checking out what your favorite stars are wearing to the bash and who they brought. Oscar fanatics can check out all the pre-ceremony action beginning at 4 p.m. with "An Evening at the Academy Awards" on KABC, "Live From the Academy Awards" on KTLA and on "E!: Academy Awards Pre-Show," cable's big contribution to Oscar Night mania.

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