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THE OSCARS

Wake Us When It's Over

If everyone thinks the show's too long, why doesn't anyone shorten it? Don't blame the producer--the academy determines much of the content.

March 25, 2001|WILLIAM KECK | Will Keck is a regular contributor to Calendar

Presenting your 2001 Oscar-watching essentials checklist:

* Ballots.

* Miniature Oscar statuettes.

* "Chocolat" confections.

* "Crouching Tiger" eggrolls.

* "Gladiator"-kill pate.

* Chips and dip served in "Brockovich" brassieres.

And most crucial of all:

* Plenty of No Doz.

No matter how many raunchy Judi Dench jokes Steve Martin may toss out tonight as host of the 73rd annual Academy Awards, you won't be able to enjoy them if you've nodded off somewhere during that Saharan wasteland separating the opening of the show and the concluding categories.

Let's face it: With our deepest apologies to the mothers of this year's nominated sound editors, we don't care to hear your sons and daughters thank you for your support. This is why we have Hallmark.

Still, most of us, as always, will weather the visual effects and documentary short categories, not to mention clips of films we purposely avoided at the art houses, acceptance speeches delivered in foreign tongues, and that downer obit montage, in anticipation of (odds-on fave) Julia Roberts' charming, respectful, yet appropriately witty 30-second bedtime story.

But should you find yourself jerking awake during the post-show Barbara Walters weep-fest (this year's victims: John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston, Ben Stiller, and Faith Hill), don't blame Oscar producer Gil Cates, producer of 10 of the last 12 ceremonies, or joke writer Bruce Vilanch, the "Hollywood Squares" staple who has written for the Tonys, the Grammys, the Emmys and always the Oscars. The two pros actually have very little to do with the show's running time.

As dictated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the evening must present a total of 23 standard Oscars, plus the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, the always riveting Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and two honorary Oscars. Only four of the statuettes figure to go to folks we actually recognize: the lead and supporting actors and actresses. Possibly one additional familiar face, should Sting or Bob Dylan win for original song.

The academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, acknowledges that ratings for the broadcast would most certainly jump if his organization did away with 80% of the on-air presentations, but Davis maintains that the Oscars are a television show only secondarily.

"Primarily, they're the big annual shindig of a particular organization," says Davis, noting that the awards were handed out long before there was a TV in every home. "We have no interest in nudging the production designers or the animators or anyone else off the broadcast because there are people in the television audience who are hazy about what those people do. If TV loses interest one day, we'll go back to doing them in a banquet hall."

In other words, if you're looking to blame a Bruce, blame Davis, not Vilanch, who says that after Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck announced their intention last year to produce the shortest Oscars ever, they added up all the Academy-dictated elements that could not be tampered with and found the running time was already just under three hours. Equally futile was the Zanucks' vow to avoid flashy dance numbers. Robin Williams' show-stopping "Blame Canada" was the grandest song-and-dance routine in recent Oscar memory.

*

Because of the guaranteed high ratings, the Academy Awards remain the only awards show that runs without a set cutoff time. Don Mischer, producer of seven of the last eight prime-time Emmy Awards telecasts, says, "With the Emmys, we have to get off the air on time. We're not given an option. I'm often envious of Gil, who can take a little more time with things. [Running over] has become sort of a tradition."

Grammy icon Pierre Cossette, producer of all 31 live Grammy shows as well as last year's inaugural Latin Grammys, says if he were given the Oscar assignment (which, by the way, he'd enthusiastically accept), he would make the show less structured, replace the more obscure awards with musical numbers culled from the vast motion picture library and move the whole gig to New York City's Madison Square Garden.

"With the Grammys, we never let a moment go by where we're not going to get big applause," he says. "That's hard to apply to the motion-picture thing, which is more an ambience show."

To that end, Cates promises a light, airy set reflective of the new millennium, an "innovative technology" to segue into commercials, diversity in presenters and some unannounced faces.

"People will watch essentially for the horse race," says Cates, "then they watch for Steve Martin, oodles of all the biggest stars and finally the entertainment we use to cement it all together."

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