Behind the red

For all of us
who’d like to thank the Academy for bringing us our
favorite event of the year, who love the Oscar show no
matter how ridiculous parts of it are, there’s
a lively new book of behind-the-scenes dish that
merits a place on our shelves: Steve Pond’s
The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage
at the Academy Awards
(Faber and Faber, $26). The Big Show won’t replace Mason
Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar as the
indispensable book for Oscar junkies, but it serves as
a worthy supplement to it. Whereas Wiley and Bona
provide a delightfully witty rundown of the films, the
campaigns, and the ceremonies from the first awards
presentation in 1929, journalist Pond serves up a
different kind of insider take, having received access to
observe preparations for Oscar shows from 1994 through 2004
(those being the year of the ceremony, with the films
in competition having been released the previous
year). In addition to his eyewitness reports, he
offers numerous anecdotes on earlier shows culled from
production staffers. His chronicle is filled with
stories of stars behaving both badly and well;
portraits of the unsung heroes behind the singers,
dancers, and presenters; and nods to the outrageous if not
out gay man who, Pond says, continues to influence
Oscar night even after his death. That man is Allan Carr, famous as the producer
of Grease on film and La Cage aux Folles
on Broadway, infamous as the man behind the Village
People movie Can’t Stop the Music and the 1989
Oscar show that gave us the cringe-making spectacle of
a Rob Lowe duet with Snow White in an interminable
opening number. The roundly panned show also featured a second
long and tacky production number, with young actors
singing “I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner,”
plus splashy sets, teams of presenters making inane
conversation, and other touches of Carr’s trademark
flamboyance. (Indeed, “flamboyant” seems
to be everyone’s adjective of choice in
describing Carr, known for his designer caftan wardrobe and
his lavish parties, and gay for all the world to see but
ever cagey about discussing the matter.) The ceremony’s scathing reviews,
according to Pond, were heartbreaking for Carr.
Neither he nor his career ever recovered, and he died
of liver cancer in 1999. But, Pond says, Carr’s
spirit has hovered over the Academy Awards
presentations ever since: “Carr’s show
caused a backlash that restored dignity to the Oscar
show…if you can call David Letterman’s Top Ten
List or Whoopi Goldberg’s double entendres
dignified. It doomed large-scale production
numbers…but only until Debbie Allen and Paula Abdul
began choreographing battalions of dancing fish, genies, and
lions. It did away with cute chat between
presenters…briefly, if at all.” Before all this goes on for the audience, of
course, there’s plenty of preparation and
behind-the scenes drama. Pond tells many tales of
divas, with one of the most memorable involving Madonna, who
walked into rehearsal for the 1991 show ready to
perform the nominated song “Sooner or Later (I
Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy, while the
crew awaited the arrival of paramedics to treat a camera
operator who had fallen into the orchestra pit. Madge
didn’t see the need for delay, saying,
“She’s just lying there. Can’t we
do this?” Then on show night, a switch in microphone
arrangements led her to yell “Fucking
asshole!” at a staffer, grab him by the neck,
and lift him off the floor. Pond reports, though, that
Madonna’s subsequent appearances on the Oscars, in
1997 and 1998, went much more smoothly. Whenever the name of another famously demanding
star, Barbra Streisand, came up, show staffers were a
bit skittish, given her “troubled history with
the Oscars,” Pond notes. For instance, she stayed
backstage for the whole 1974 show because she wanted to be
seen only if she won (she was nominated for Best
Actress for The Way We Were but didn’t
take home the Oscar). In 1997 she declined to sing the
nominated song she cowrote, “I Finally Found
Someone” from The Mirror Has Two Faces;
then, when substitute Natalie Cole became ill,
Streisand’s manager called (perhaps, according to
Pond’s sources, with Barbra listening in) and
volunteered her services—if she could have
extra rehearsal time. With rehearsals already
scheduled down to the minute, producer Gil Cates declined
the offer and went with Céline Dion, “the
lesser star but by far the lower-maintenance
performer,” Pond writes. Cates’s
publicist, Chuck Warn, offers his own comment on Barbra:
When Bart the Bear appeared on the 1998 show,
accommodating the 1,400-pound creature required, Warn
said, “a lot of special preparations. But nowhere
near Streisand.” However, for every star who gives Academy
staffers headaches—such as the uncommunicative
Letterman, who turned the ceremony he hosted in 1995
into an extended version of his talk show—there is
someone who appears to be a joy to work with, like
Steve Martin, the host in 2001 and 2003. Thoroughly
prepared, always relaxed, Martin eschewed star perks and
won the compliment of being “no maintenance.”
And then there are the stars who provide welcome
levity, like bisexual rocker-actress Courtney Love.
Tapped to present the makeup Oscar in 1997, Love told the
show’s writers she wanted to read an Emily Dickinson
poem with the line “The sunrise kissed my
chrysalis.” The writers objected, with Carrie
Fisher protesting, “They’ll think it’s
clitoris,” and Advocate columnist Bruce
Vilanch adding, “It’s a little vaginal,
coming from a woman who named her band Hole.”
Love agreed to forgo the poem, although it might have
been fun to see the audience’s reaction. Vilanch, a fixture of the Oscar writing staff
since he was first hired by Carr for the 1989 show
(another example of Carr’s continuing
influence), emerges as one of the book’s
behind-the-scenes heroes, supplying zingers both for
the script and to amuse his colleagues offstage.
Another gay hero is composer Marc Shaiman, who in addition
to writing nominated songs and scores has collaborated
with frequent Oscar host Billy Crystal on his
show-opening medleys of song parodies. The medleys,
usually a highlight of the program, provide “a chance
to do an entertaining musical number” with a
“cushion of irony,” Shaiman told Pond.
Not everyone, though, wants to be a part of the
number. For instance, the copyright holders to Fiddler on
the Roof
and The Music Man
didn’t care to have songs from those shows
recast with lyrics referring to the assassination at the
center of JFK. Shaiman and Crystal encountered no
obstacle, however, to turning Cole Porter’s
“Night and Day” into “Matt and
Ben” for the 1998 show, tweaking Damon and Affleck
with lyrics such as “Your script was tight…so
are your buns.” Shaiman has provided some other memorable Oscar
moments, such as appearing in a baby-blue pimp outfit
for the 2000 ceremony, when he was nominated for
cowriting “Blame Canada” from South Park:
Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
His collaborators on the
song, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt
Stone, wore gowns based on fashions made famous by
Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow. Shaiman said he
didn’t have time to come up with a drag outfit but
that if he had, he would have worn a Cher-style
feathered headdress. That’s the kind of over-the-topness that
has come to characterize the Oscar ceremony, and for
that, says Pond, the Academy can thank (though some
may prefer to blame) Allan Carr. Pond ends his book by
acknowledging Carr once again. After watching a Letterman
Stupid Pet Trick, “Sadie, the Dog That Spins
When You Applaud,” during rehearsals for the
1995 show, Vilanch remarked that he’d like to
send a tape to Carr, with a note saying, “And to
think, you got in trouble for Snow White. How times
have changed.” In the final analysis, Pond
contends, Carr may have been simply “a fabulous
showman just a little ahead of his time, the unfortunate
victim of what might have been a bad rap.”

Tags: World, World

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