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THE 75TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS | BEHIND THE SCENES

The Oscar show, and how it went on

Steve Martin thinks on his feet, helping to pull together a cohesive ceremony in a dicey world.

March 24, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Whether or not this year's Academy Awards would go forward was a minute-by-minute dilemma. And once the show began, the frantic decision-making didn't let up.

As it turned out, handling the threat and progress of war was hardly the main hurdle to pulling off the show, as was revealed by a night backstage at the Kodak Theatre. After the house lights dimmed to open the show, producer Gil Cates and director Louis Horvitz had to adapt to a superstar actress' last-second demands for rewrite, a divisive political speech by a documentary filmmaker and even a walkie-talkie that plummeted to the stage.

One of the biggest challenges show organizers faced was how they would incorporate the war into the global telecast. They mostly didn't.

Host Steve Martin and the show's writers had contemplated -- then jettisoned -- a direct joke about Saddam Hussein. Martin was going to address the Iraqi leader and say: "I hope your connection goes out just before we announce best picture."

The 75th Academy Awards started off with a breakdown in a key piece of scenery -- an enormous rotating globe that hung over the front of the stage. A worker ascended into the theater's rafters to try to fix the problem, but in the middle of a Martin monologue, the worker's walkie-talkie fell off his belt and crashed to the stage, startling Martin and stagehands in the wings. Martin quickly ad-libbed to say the incident was planned.

Throughout the night, the show's writers scrambled. Much of the week had been spent fielding calls from presenter Barbra Streisand about specific word changes in her remarks. On Sunday night, mere minutes before she was to go on to present the cinematography Oscar, Julia Roberts let it be known that she didn't want to recite her presentation speech, and would rather just announce the nominees. Cates dashed out of the production truck backstage at the Kodak Theatre -- where presenters Meryl Streep and Colin Farrell were catching a quick smoke -- into the wings of the auditorium to hurriedly confer with Buz Kohan to discuss options. Kohan, a member of the team writing presenters' comments, marched into the greenroom to meet with Roberts and see if he could work out a compromise.

Later in the broadcast, documentary feature winner Michael Moore began an attack on President Bush after winning the trophy for "Bowling for Columbine." He was promptly greeted by boos not only from the audience but also from many of the stagehands. As Moore's speech reached its crescendo, Cates and Horvitz decided in the production truck to cut him off.

"Music! Music!" Horvitz yelled. The orchestra quickly drowned out the rest of Moore's speech. As he walked backstage with his trophy in his hands, Moore heard even more criticism from the stagehands, one of whom came up to the filmmaker and told him in colorful language that he had a different opinion of the president.

The ever-shifting tension between escapist entertainment and violent global conflict made this year's Oscar show the most logistically complicated since the ceremony was postponed by one day after President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. In the hours leading up to this year's broadcast, that friction was evident in nearly every corner backstage at the Kodak.

In one dressing room, where Oscar guests changed into their tuxedos, there were two distinctly different groups -- those who had firearms strapped across their chests and those who did not. The weapon-carrying people in black tie were undercover police officers, strapping young men with ear pieces.

For Horvitz, much of the earlier part of the day was spent in the control truck, staring at 21 monitors representing every television camera inside the Kodak Theatre. Behind him, a single monitor showed the bombings in Baghdad.

"Ready three. Go three. Ready nine. Go nine," Horvitz said, cuing each shot. U2 had just finished performing the nominated song "The Hands That Built America" from "Gangs of New York." But that wasn't the only part of the ceremony Horvitz and Cates had to work on in the final rehearsal before Sunday's show.

ABC called to inform award organizers that it wanted an additional 30 seconds and possibly more for a news update that would run in the middle of the broadcast, as well as a two-minute segment to deliver the latest war information to Oscar viewers. "Guys, it looks like we're going to add another ABC news break," Cates told the nine people squeezed into the broadcast control truck.

Inside the truck, the mood was intense -- focused but light-hearted. The show's staff quickly figured out where to place both updates, and looked for spots to trim the show so that it didn't run past its promised 3 1/2-hour length. (It exceed that mark only by about five minutes.)

Nevertheless, the preoccupation of nearly everybody backstage shifted from air strikes to air kisses. Televisions that on Sunday morning had been tuned to CNN later were tuned to NCAA basketball games. In the greenroom, a small holding tank for presenters and winners, caterers set out Fiji water, red corn tortilla chips and chocolate torte.

Mindful that there could very well be last-minute changes to both the Oscar broadcast and the news updates, Cates had in front of him the seat assignment inside the theater for Alex Wallau, president of ABC Networks, and his mobile phone number.

But for these 3 1/2 hours, he didn't need them.

*

'Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil? Because art is important.'

Nicole Kidman, accepting the best actress award

*

'If John Wayne was here, he'd be doing what we're doing. He'd be supporting the troops.'

Ron Smith, demonstrator at Hollywood and Highland

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