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OSCARS '98

View From the Hot Seat

Telecast: From overseeing the recording of nominated songs to dealing with a labor dispute, the checklist is long for producer Gil Cates.

March 23, 1998|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

For Gil Cates, who's producing tonight's Academy Awards telecast, Friday was like a day at the beach. One moment, he was on the crest of an enormous wave, the next he was in the grip of an undertow. Up, down, ebb, flow, high, low. Welcome to the show. It's his eighth.

"Some things are easy, some are hard," says the 63-year-old director, producer and UCLA dean. "You enjoy the easy ones and hope like hell the others work out."

Here's an easy one, from a long day's journey into Oscarland:

Celine Dion and her husband-manager Rene Augelil have shown up at Capitol Records in Hollywood to record "My Heart Will Go On," the Oscar-nominated song from "Titanic." Cates says the nominated songs are recorded in advance, in case a singer gets a sore throat. So far, no one has. Dion is bubbly, friendly, relaxed. Cates gives her a big hug. She saved his bacon last year, agreeing to sing not only "Because You Love Me," the song from "Up Close and Personal," but to sub for Natalie Cole, who was too ill to sub for Barbra Streisand, who'd declined to sing her nominated song from "The Mirror Has Two Faces"--but at the last minute showed up for the ceremony. Ah, live TV!

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When Dion enters the recording room, Bill Conti's Academy Awards 52-piece band gives her an ovation, a rarity, according to Cates. She belts out her song twice, returns to the control booth to hear it and leaves to more applause.

"I shouldn't say this on the record," says Cates, conspiratorially, "but of all the talent I've worked with on the show, she's special."

Here's a hard one:

It's Friday around 11 a.m., and there is doubt whether Monday night's show will wrap before some engineers carry out a threat to pull the plug on the live feed. During a radio satellite interview on Tuesday, a disembodied voice broke in and asked Cates what he thought of the labor dispute between the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees & Technicians and ABC, home of the Oscar show.

The dispute caused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to produce the Oscar show itself this year, and simply to license ABC to broadcast it. The technical crew is primarily the same as last year's, who agreed to be represented by another union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

As far as Cates and the academy are concerned, this is a union show. "I'm a 100% union man," says Cates, a longtime officer in the Directors Guild of America. But the NABET people don't agree, and issued more threats on Friday of disrupting the live broadcast.

"They've told us they're going to turn the Oscar upside down, guy, that they're going to pull the plug somehow three minutes before the end of the show." Just before the best picture award. Talk about a cliffhanger.

Here's an easy one:

Michael Bolton has followed Dion into the studio, and though he's known to be difficult on occasion, he's a model of collegiality today. He jokes with the band, does two takes of his song, "Go the Distance," from "Hercules," then, with only piano accompaniment, gives everyone a thrill by belting out Puccini's "Nessun Dorma."

Here's a hard one:

Billy Crystal has shown up earlier than expected, to record the nominees' medley opening the show. Cates had said no outsider would observe Crystal's work. The Oscar host has a special arrangement with the academy, and it includes a protective layer between him and the press.

Now he's here, and before Cates or his consigliere / publicist Chuck Warn can purge the room, or explain to Crystal that there's a reporter among them doing a follow-the-producer-around story, Billy recognizes the varmint hovering in the background and walks over. There's a friendly exchange, small talk about baseball, the Yankees and the World Series ring George Steinbrenner gave him on his 50th birthday (it was too small). Then Crystal disappears with Cates.

A few minutes later, Cates returns and, with a shrugged apology, says that when you gotta go, you gotta go. Sorry.

Here's an easy one:

It's afternoon now, and Cates has moved back to the Shrine. In the main room, actor stand-ins are reading presentation copy off the TelePrompter, while director Lou Horvitz and his huge crew fine-tune the lighting.

There are posters with the names--and sometimes the faces--of nominees and other celebrities who will be in the audience. One of tonight's events is a reunion of past Oscar winners. More than 70 are expected, including Luise Rainer, who won the best actress award for "The Great Ziegfeld" 62 years ago.

The Oscar set, designed by 11-show vet Roy Christopher, is an homage to Cates. "Gil likes sets that make him want to fall to his knees and pray," says Christopher.

"Actually, I like sets that have no reference outside the Academy Awards," Cates says.

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