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Some Oscar Questions Linger: Like, Where Was Whitney?

March 28, 2000|GREG BRAXTON and BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Even after all the envelopes were opened and the winners were announced at the 72nd annual Academy Awards, industry insiders and viewers alike speculated on some of the more fun and unusual moments of the event.

Prominent among the questions: Where was singer Whitney Houston, who had been scheduled to perform in a medley of old Oscar-nominated songs along with Garth Brooks, Ray Charles and Queen Latifah?

Several sources said Houston was "fired" by orchestra leader Burt Bacharach during a rehearsal Friday, where she reportedly was unprepared and unresponsive to direction. Country singer Faith Hill filled in for Houston during the Oscars.

Neither Bacharach nor Houston could be reached for comment. But show publicist Jane Labonte said Houston was having obvious problems with her voice during the Friday rehearsal, and was unsure on Saturday whether she would be well enough to perform Sunday. "She was having a very hard time singing," said Labonte. "It was very clear that her voice was in trouble."

Some viewers also became alarmed at the camera shot of a man in a wheelchair who began writhing and fell out of his chair when "King Gimp" won for best documentary short subject.

The man was Dan Keplinger, the artist who was the subject of the HBO documentary. Keplinger, who has cerebral palsy, was "overwhelmed" when the film won, according to an HBO spokesperson, and became so excited that he began moving around so much that he fell out of his wheelchair.

After a few moments, Keplinger composed himself and was shown smiling during the acceptance speech of Susan Hannah Hadary and William A. Whiteford, the film's producers. "King Gimp," which was written by Keplinger, explores his struggles as he "uses paint as his language and his art as his voice." The film debuts in June on HBO.

Several new devices were woven into the broadcast by executive producers Richard and Lili Zanuck, including the often-seen and often-heard "Voice of the Oscars," actor Peter Coyote. Some wondered why the actor, who has appeared in films such as "E.T.," "Jagged Edge" and the current hit "Erin Brockovich," was positioned as a mere announcer.

"I'm really flattered," said a tired but exhilarated Coyote, still jubilant a day after his stint. "I would do it again in a hot minute. Most of the time when the Oscars come around, I'm in a motel working, or I would be hosting a 'sore losers' Oscar party. So it was really nice to be asked to the dance. And the Zanucks actually booked me before they booked Billy Crystal to host."

Coyote, who has become a frequent voice-over presence on commercials, added he was uncertain whether he would be shown during the show. "I told them, 'I used to have a career as an actor, so it would be nice to be seen.' They told me not to worry. And they meant it. It just can't hurt to have your mug in front of a billion people, and to be associated with the Oscars."

Fashion and hair questions also fueled conversations around water coolers and gas pumps. "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker raised more than eyebrows when they showed up in dresses, with Parker wearing a copy of the low-cut dress that Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammys. Some security personnel were reluctant to let the pair in, saying they would have to go home to change. But ultimately they were allowed in with their offbeat attire.

The long dark tresses of Angelina Jolie, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in "Girl, Interrupted," also raised questions. Jolie's hair was dyed dark for "Dancing in the Dark," an MGM movie with Antonio Banderas and directed by Michael Cristofer, who directed her in the 1998 HBO movie "Gia."

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Perhaps the most outrageous portion of the ceremony came during Robin Williams' rendition of the Oscar-nominated song "Blame Canada" from the film "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." Although the song contained a few obscenities, Richard Zanuck was able to get network approval for Williams to mouth, but not sing, one particular four-letter word. The actor also got the OK to sing the word "fart."

Another Oscar moment came with "The View" host Meredith Vieira ending ABC's pre-show by entering the auditorium at a near run, and eventually plopping down in the lap of a surprised Clint Eastwood--who was a spontaneous choice.

Although ratings for this year's Oscar telecast surpassed results from a year ago, the broadcast fell well short of the staggering heights achieved in 1998, when "Titanic" sailed away with best picture.

Preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research show 79 million people watched at least a portion of the broadcast, with 46.3 million tuned in during any given minute. That's an increase of not quite 2% over last year--when the Oscars, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, moved from Monday to Sunday for the first time in a decade and the film "Shakespeare in Love" was named best picture.

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