Cover Story

Puttin' on the Glitz

A behind the scenes look at the Academy Awards -- Our report on two months spent following the people who make the Oscars happen

There are actually two Academy Awards shows. There's the one you'll watch along with a billion others, which is highlighted by Billy Crystal jokes, earnest tributes, winners' overly long thanks to their mothers, and renditions of nominated songs you've never heard of. Then there's the other, in some ways more entertaining show: the behind-the-scenes production of bringing the Oscar telecast to TV. The planning involves around-the-clock meetings and phone calls, hardball negotiations, and massive amounts of ego massaging. It takes place behind closed doors, and its secrets are as closely guarded as General Schwarzkopf's battle plans. This is the show ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has been watching.

Throughout February and early March, we sat in on the strategy sessions, hung out at the dance auditions, and met with the key players whose job it is to keep the show from becoming fodder for Tuesday monologues by Arsenio and Jay. (The 1989 Oscars' dreadful opening number, featuring Rob Lowe singing to Snow White, still stings.) ''When you do the Academy Awards, everybody is watching... your family, your professional acquaintances, taxi drivers,'' says Gilbert Cates, this year's producer. ''If you screw up, there's nobody the next day who doesn't look at you and say, 'A-ha!'''

Here's a blow-by-blow account of the making of the telecast, and what will happen at Oscar Central from now until Army Archerd goes into high gear outside L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium:

FEBRUARY 1
Ballots are tabulated in the L.A. offices of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse. ''The academy handled balloting themselves until there were allegations of a dishonest count in 1935,'' says managing partner Frank Johnson, who'll make his 15th Oscar appearance this year with his associate Dan Lyle. After the 4,940 voting members of the Academy send in their ballots, which are checked for authenticity by the six people who verify their coding, and Johnson and Lyle start tallying the results. Next, Michele Morgan, Johnson's executive assistant, types the press release announcing the nominations three days before they're made public.

FEBRUARY 6
The first Oscar press conference in the gray-carpeted headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). The gulf war is raging, and Cates and executive director Bruce Davis get bombarded with questions about the threat of terrorism. Davis says that before the show specially trained dogs will sniff for explosives. The 5,700-seat Shrine will also be equipped with metal detectors, and Pinkerton guards will check credentials.

Sitting in the wings afterwards, Cates, who is dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, talks about the pressures he gets from agents and managers demanding choice presenters' spots for their clients. ''Many representatives phone and make suggestions,'' he says. ''We have several lists of presenters at the office.'' Others are more blunt. ''I've heard of people calling and saying they want their client to appear with Whoopi or Julia, because they're hot,'' says Erik Magrath of Carlyle Management, which handles Supporting Actor nominee Andy Garcia. ''Some even threaten to pull their client if they don't appear with 'the right person.'''

FEBRUARY 8
Orchestra pit discussions at music director Bill Conti's Hollywood mansion. Yesterday, Conti received the schematic diagram for the Shrine's pit and learned that the space is 108 square feet smaller than the one at last year's site, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. ''If you write music for 50 people and you can only fit 45 into the pit, you've got a problem,'' Conti says. With his engineer and contractor, the Oscar-winning composer (Original Score, The Right Stuff) starts amending his plans. The engineer suggests hiring thin musicians; they decide to reposition sections. This is Conti's seventh time in the pit for the Academy Awards and he's still stunned by the quantity of music necessary. ''There are five nominees in each of 15 categories,'' he says. ''Even if you say, 'This guy will never win,' each piece of music has to be prepared.''

FEBRUARY 12
The accountants reveal the nominees. At 9 p.m., a contingent of four Price Waterhouse people, led by Johnson and Lyle, arrive at the AMPAS offices, the lists of nominees in hand. ''They lock themselves in our mail room with the photocopy machines,'' says Academy historian Patrick Stockstill, who has worked the midnight-nominations shift for eight years. ''Security guards lock the building and shut down our phone system. No one can leave. We joke about going out on the roof and shouting the names of the nominees, but no one would ever do that.''

FEBRUARY 13
The announcement of nominees. While the rest of L.A. sleeps, nearly 500 people gather at 5:30 a.m. in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater for Hollywood's most important press conference of the year. The hour is chosen to maximize coverage on Good Morning America, Today, and CBS This Morning; Oscars publicity coordinator Bob Werden and 20-odd Academy staff members have stayed up all night preparing the packets of photos and press releases. Academy president Karl Malden and actor Denzel Washington begin reeling off the names. Gasps are heard at the news that Ghost has been named a Best Picture contender and that Julia Roberts has a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman. ''God, they're throwing in everything but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,'' mutters one jaded publicist.

FEBRUARY 19
Nailing down the presenters. Cates, in his production office in Westwood, quickly lowers black miniblinds over his ''war board,'' one of the more valuable hunks of corkboard in Los Angeles. On it, laid out in rows of colorful index cards, is the complete breakdown of the show, including the names of potential presenters. Cates is running into scheduling conflicts. ''A lot of people aren't available, which is something that most of my colleagues forget,'' he explains. '''Get Dustin Hoffman!' they say. Yeah, that's great, but he's doing a film.'' Ultimately, Cates & Co. announce that this year's presenters will include Gregory Peck, Susan Sarandon, Debra Winger, and Macaulay Culkin. Madonna will make her Oscar debut, singing ''Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)'' from Dick Tracy.

FEBRUARY 26
An on-the-fly meeting with director Jeff Margolis. ''We're still working on the five nominated songs,'' Margolis says, rushing to get to The ABC Rehearsal Hall. ''We don't have people to sing the songs from Postcards From the Edge or Home Alone yet.'' Breathlessly, he adds: ''I'm spending most of the rest of the week with Debbie Allen. The opening number is huge this year.''

MARCH 1
Conti's concerns. ''I've been putting out fires all week,'' reports the exhausted musical director on the telephone. ''They're going crazy at the rehearsal hall on the opening number. Debbie Allen wants to have a dancer fall into the orchestra pit. I said, 'Great. Who's he going to land on?'''

Conti is also busy ''casting'' his orchestra, trying to enlist the cream of L.A.'s session musicians. ''When the presenter names the winner, the orchestra has about 1.5 seconds to find the right music,'' he explains. ''I don't want anybody in my pit who looks around and asks, 'What did he say?'''

MARCH 5
Getting the costumes right. Costume designer Ray Aghayan is in New York City with designer-to-the-stars Bob Mackie, and they're scratching their heads over that opening number. ''It covers many years of history and involves many costume changes that have to be done in front of the audience,'' says Aghayan by phone. ''We're trying to figure out the best way to have a turn-of- the-century girl turn into a 1920s flapper.''

MARCH 21
The sets. ''We'll take the whole day doing nothing but rehearsing the scenery,'' says sculptor-cum-Oscar-production-designer Ray Klausen. ''We'll run the scenery in show order so stage managers and stagehands know exactly where it all goes, and mark everything on the floor with tape. On this day, the scenery is the star.'' The sets are still under wraps, but they will be as large as 80 feet wide by 40 feet high, and will reflect the 1991 Oscar theme: 100 years of film.

MARCH 25
O-Day at the Shrine. At 4 p.m., accounting stars Johnson and Lyle will arrive via separate routes, each carrying a briefcase containing an identical set of 22 envelopes bearing the names of each winner to be announced on the air. The accountants will have committed the winners' names to memory the morning of the show. ''We drill each other in a little session in the office before leaving for the show just in case someone announces the wrong winner,'' Johnson says. ''We'll know they're wrong and I can step out and make the correction.''

Academy staffers, historian Stockstill, and executive assistant Teri Diller will be on duty backstage, watching over two tables lined with approximately 30 Oscars each. Before each category is announced, one of them will hand over the statuette to a tuxedoed union representative. ''They insist on handling the Oscars because they are considered props,'' explains Diller. The union men will then give the Oscars to models called ''hostesses'' (insiders call them ''trophy girls''), who'll deliver them to the presenters onstage.

By show time, Margolis will have spent 80 hours inside one of his two control trucks, tactically rehearsing his near-400-person army of assistant directors and stage managers, camera operators, engineers, technicians, and stage crew members. A veteran director of TV specials for the likes of Cher and Bette Midler, Margolis will have had his strategy set for weeks: He'll use seven cameras outside to cover the arrivals and another 14 inside to shoot the ceremony. But since even he doesn't know who the winners will be, he must get his camera team to move in a millisecond when the names are called. Simultaneously, his graphics people will have to flash the names of the winners and their categories on the TV screen. ''There are a lot of people who have to think really fast on their feet once the envelope is opened,'' he says. ''It's a real challenge.'' We'll be watching.

Originally posted Mar 22, 1991 Published in issue #58 Mar 22, 1991 Order article reprints
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