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It's All Winning to Him

March 26, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF Writer

Chicago Sun-Times movie critic and host of the syndicated series, "Roger Ebert & The Movies," gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to his gig Sunday night as host of KABC's "An Evening at the Academy Awards Live."

Ebert is celebrating his seventh year on the Oscar pre-show where he schmoozes with arriving nominees as they walk the red carpet at the Shrine Auditorium.

This year, KABC's entertainment reporter, George Pennacchio, is Ebert's co-host.

After the show, Ebert gets analytical for "An Evening at the Academy Awards Live: The Winners," with KABC News anchor Harold Greene.

For 23 years, Ebert teamed with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel for the syndicated TV series, "Siskel & Ebert." After Siskel's death 13 months ago, Ebert continued on with various guest critics and the show was renamed.

Ebert talked about his hosting duties and life without Siskel over the phone from his office.

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Question: As a critic, is it difficult to adjust to short, chatty interviews on the arrival show?

Answer: Not really, as long as you realize what it is you are doing. It is happy talk. It is prom night for the movie industry. It is not the time to stand there on that red carpet in those inhuman cattle shoot conditions and do film criticism. You talk about human interest stuff. You have to have a sense of humor and you have to think that it is fun because it is fun. I was born in the middle of Illinois and live in Chicago. I am not one of those slick reporters on the entertainment shows. It just tickles me.

Q: But isn't it crazy and hectic?

A: The Academy has a policy that the press is to be made as uncomfortable as possible and to be handled with the greatest possible rudeness. It is a mob scene. Each person is allotted one square foot of room [to stand]. The press is not there as some kind of a scourge. The press is there because they have credentials from the Academy and the Academy is holding the Oscars for publicity. The primary purpose of the Academy Awards is not to honor the best work of the year, it is to publicize movies. You can't publicize the movies without the press. So make it easy for the stars by allowing them a sane orderly method of getting through that rat race and make it easy for the press by not having them all shout while they are back behind this prickly hedge. They have a hedge there that cuts into you.

Q: Do you find the younger stars to be as gracious and eager to talk as the veterans?

A: Generally speaking, yes. They are friendly with me because they don't see me as one of those pestilential celebrity interviewers. I am basically a critic and they know I am not not going to ask them about their divorce or their sex life. All these people are arriving in limousines and all of the limousines have TVs and they are all watching ABC. By the time they get there and see you, they have been watching you for an hour in a traffic jam and they want their chance [with you].

Q: Have any of the stars you've interviewed on the red carpet complained about bad reviews you have given them?

A: Occasionally. I deal with it. If somebody is there in their tuxedo ready to go in and be an Oscar nominee, I'm not going to tell them I thought their movie stunk. I don't try to take cheap shots. There is not a lot of hostility.

Q: Do you feel you have any weak points out on the red carpet?

A: Musicians. I don't recognize a lot of them. Last year, for example, Liv Tyler, her father [Steven Tyler] is in that rock band, Aerosmith. I am going to tell you something. I didn't know they were Aerosmith. Every year I managed to distinguish myself by not recognizing someone I should know.

One year, I almost didn't recognize Helen Hunt. Her look was completely different. These women do these things to their hair and makeup. I know what Helen Hunt looks like and I recognize her instantly, but the way she looked Oscar night ... I am a quick study and I caught on right away who it had to be, but she didn't look like Helen Hunt.

I am just waiting for one of these days to make an enormous mistake because it is a situation that invites error. You have to come up with names and place people instantly.

Q: I would imagine it's been very difficult for you with Gene Siskel gone.

A: It has been a real tough year. I miss him. We had this competition every year of who could predict the winners the best. Then we always had an annual competition over who had the best record and that depended upon how you defined categories. It became a statistical debate that grew to bewildering mathematical complexity to the point that either one of us could demonstrate on a moment's notice who had won the competitions over the years.

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"An Evening at the Academy Awards Live" begins at 3:30 p.m. on KABC. "An Evening at the Academy Awards Live: The Winners" is scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m. Both specials have been rated TV-G by the network (suitable for all ages).

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