Up the Academy

The Oscar telecast has, for a decade, been Gil Cates' golden moment

"The other shows, whether it's the music show or the television show or even the Screen Actors Guild show, are limited to their purpose. Think about it. Think about the thousands of pictures you have stored in your mind that you've seen on that big screen, whether it's Vivien Leigh saying, 'I'll never be hungry again' or Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl or Raging Bull with De Niro. You and I can talk about these pictures and immediately associate the picture with a time, a place, a phenomenon. We've been watching the Oscars with our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. It really is inextricably intertwined with the fabric of our own being, and we are in many ways a reflection of the movies we see, and the movies are a reflection of us."

Cates is loath to disclose any of the night's, ahem, surprises (like, say, Julia Roberts and Gladiator won't take home their undeserved statues?) but does reveal there will be the much-loathed dance numbers ("a little dance, anyway") and three honorary Oscars, which will eat up a good 30 minutes (you've been warned). And he does promise that this year's show will run far shorter than last year's debacle, produced by his friends Richard and Lili Zanuck. Then, the show couldn't run any longer without turning into its own network.

This is not the first time Cates follows a flop: He came aboard in 1989, the year after producer Allan Carr staged perhaps the worst Oscar show in its history--the one that paired Rob Lowe with Snow White for a musical number so horrific the Walt Disney Co. filed suit against the Academy, claiming copyright infringement, among several other allegations. The image of Snow White serenading Tom Hanks and Michelle Pfeiffer, as Merv Griffin looked on, lingers 12 years later, like gruesome autopsy photos. Cates was brought in by the Awards Presentation Review Committee--the Oscars' version of the Warren Commission--to determine what went wrong, and he wound up taking the job himself, along with $150,000 in pay (he was the first man to be paid for producing the Oscars).

Gil Cates returns for the 10th year as producer of the Oscar telecast. Is he a glutton or genius? Ah...yes?
Long Photography, Inc.
Gil Cates returns for the 10th year as producer of the Oscar telecast. Is he a glutton or genius? Ah...yes?

Cates won't talk about the 1989 debacle--he's sworn to keep all such discussions off the record--nor will he go on the record about why David Letterman's appearance as host in 1995 was really so roundly loathed. He does, however, still stand by his choice of Letterman as host, as he should--he was the perfect pin to pop Hollywood's pretentious balloon. Cates, who convinced Steve Martin to host this year's affair, insists this year will be his last. Then again, he's said the same thing twice before.

"The fact is, you have the whole world watching, and everybody's a critic, which is great," Cates says of his reasons for wanting to produce the show. "If you do dance numbers, people say you shouldn't; if you don't, people say you should. The best piece of advice I had was from Sam Goldwyn, when I did the show the first time. He said, 'Whatever you do, a substantial number of people won't like it, so you might as well do the show you like.' To quote a very wonderful producer, my late brother, it is what it is. What are ya gonna do about it? You can't change it. You can only do the best you can.

"The truth of the matter is, it really goes back to the fact I enjoy the process. I enjoy the fact that...at the end of the day, there are two facts of certainty I can tell you that I can't tell you about a play or a movie. One is that come hell or high water, the show will begin at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time March 25, and come hell or high water, the show will end the same day roughly three and a half to four hours later. That's kinda neat. When I finished doing my movie [A Death in the Family for PBS], I stayed working on for months--Jesus Christ, months afterwards--and it still hasn't screened. It's not gonna screen till October. With the Academy Awards show, when it's over, it's over. Most people don't remember who won the Academy Awards last year."

But they do remember the Academy Awards show. That's why Cates--and we--keep coming back.

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