Up the Academy

Gil Cates takes a long, deep breath before answering the question: Is producing the Academy Awards show the ultimate no-win situation? Cates has produced nine of the past 11 Oscar telecasts, and he returns March 25 after a year's layoff; for those scoring at home, Cates is not to blame for last year's epic, four-hours-plus show, which ran so long it stopped being a TV show and turned into a lifestyle choice. Once the 73rd annual Oscar shindig wraps, somewhere around 4:32 p.m. March 26, Cates will lay claim to the title of The Man Who's Produced More Oscar Shows Than Anyone Else. But, again, is it a moniker worth going to the trouble of possessing? It's a show that rarely receives much positive press the morning after, once it takes the money from the dresser and disappears into the sunrise. In the daylight, it's chided for being, among so many other things, too short or too long, too turgid or too reckless, too smarmy or too smug.

"Ya know, it's interesting," Cates begins, finally, from his Los Angeles office, where the evening's production board hangs in front of his desk--full of promise or perhaps threats. "I had a professor at Syracuse University, and he instilled in us the joy to be taken from this work is the process, and if you get joy from the process, it makes everything else OK in a way. The truth of the matter is, I enjoy doing the show. I don't enjoy reading bad reviews, and I don't like it when people don't like something, but I do enjoy doing shows I enjoy..."

His voice trails off, as Cates is interrupted by an assistant who hands him a note bearing bad news: "Someone we thought was going to be on the show is not," Cates says, in a tone of voice that suggests it's a problem he can deal with. "My colleague likes doing this to me in the middle of a conversation. Thank you very much."

So, who dropped out?

"It's Kate Winslet," he says, referring to the Titanic star. "She couldn't come in from Europe."

Winslet's failure to appear is the least of Cates' concerns; Bob Dylan's inability to attend and perform "Things Have Changed," his best song nominee from Wonder Boys, is far more problematic. (Dylan will be on tour in Australia, and word is he will perform via satellite.) What most concerns Cates is putting on a show that congratulates Hollywood--indeed, one that revels in its sheer, galling fabulousness--without knocking it to the floor by patting it too hard on the back. To hear him talk about it, producing the Oscar telecast is an enormous responsibility, far more than just putting on the world's biggest variety show (which it is, complete, once more, with Debbie Allen-choreographed dance numbers).

Cates insists the Oscarcast is about reveling in tradition, respecting the medium, and regarding what he calls the "mythology" of Hollywood; it's about fun, without making fun. But it's no longer quite that simple: MTV and VH1's myriad teen-beat shows, the Emmy's giddy self-deprecation, and the Golden Globes' drunken bash have transformed our notion of an awards show into something far less dull and sanctimonious. We have little patience now for hour upon hour of film montages celebrating "Women in Film" or "Politics in Hollywood"; we have little interest in sitting through one more Saving Private Ryan dance number (Normandy was, likely, less painful). We want fast and funny, bright and breezy--high drama cut with a knowing sense of humor.

The Oscars have always been the prize; even last year's painful exercise in tedium drew some 46 million viewers in the United States, 2 percent more than in 1999. If it's a no-win situation for Cates, it's a no-lose situation for ABC, even though the network is said to be having trouble selling all of its ad spots ($1.4 million for 30 seconds). But Cates insists he can't pay attention to the other awards shows, which he watches and praises but, ultimately, dismisses for one simple reason: They ain't the Oscars. They aren't The Big Show. They aren't about...The Movies.

After all, most television shows and pop songs are evanescent: Who can tell one episode of Frasier from any other these days? Who doesn't expect the day when Eminem ships directly to the cutout bin, after a stint on his own WB sitcom? And what musician or TV actor doesn't want to be a Movie Star, be it a De Niro or a DiCaprio? The rest of the entertainment business is the minor leagues compared to The Movies--billionaires, still playing at Triple-A. So bring on the Emmys or Grammys or the MTV Music Video Awards, Cates insists; they're but warm-up acts, cheap filler. The Oscars? They're tradition--Hollywood's Christmas, the audience's Super Bowl Sunday. It matters little how ridiculous they are--and they always are, because Hollywood has this awful habit of mistaking "tacky" for "taste" and "kitsch" for "class"--because, in the end, we will watch, even if Gladiator conquers the night.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky