To Vilanch, it’s all a big joke

Writer heads for first time, has won Emmys for previous efforts

The first thought of all successful writers is asking themselves who is their intended audience.

And that is what makes writing for the Oscars such a difficult job. Are you trying to elicit laughs from the thousands of tuxedoed, nerve-wracked industryites sitting in the auditorium, or should your focus be on the millions watching on television around the globe? For those folks in Michigan who don’t know — or care, for that matter — the difference between Kate Capshaw and Kate Mantilini, inside jokes can be surefire bombs.

Enter Bruce Vilanch, this year’s Academy Awards head writer, as assigned by show producers Richard and Lili Zanuck.

Vilanch, who has written 10 times for the show and won two Emmys for his efforts, will be head writer for the first time. He will have a staff of writers directly reporting to him, all in the hope that the three-hour broadcast will not only honor Hollywood’s finest but make for an evening of entertaining television.

“It really is a collaboration,” says Vilanch, the subject of the 1999 Miramax film “Get Bruce.” “It’s the greatest show on earth. I mean, it’s huge, like the Super Bowl with better commercials.”

Says Richard Zanuck, a first-time producer for the Oscars: “What Lily and I were looking for was a unified voice. It seemed to us, in watching the past shows, that you could almost tell that several writers were on board, and that you could tell the different tones of those writers.”

In addition to penning numerous awards shows, Vilanch has built a solid reputation as a writer for celebrities who are getting feted and need to come up with witty material. Among his A-list clientele are Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Bette Midler and this year’s host, Billy Crystal.

Crystal will have nine writers, including Vilanch, piecing together his monologue, while four other scribes will work on the remainder of the show.

Vilanch admits that writing for the Oscars is arduous task for several reasons, not only because of the difficulty in keeping the material relevant for all parties, but trying to keep the audience’s attention when lesser-known names (sound effects editors, makeup artists, etc.) are in the spotlight.

And the award presenters might be well-known actors, but when it comes to speaking in front of a live audience, no matter how experienced they are on a movie set, many are unfamiliar with the nerves that can set in when doing live TV … and there are no reshoots here.

“A lot of actresses and actors … they can do several takes if they’re working for Stanley Kubrick, but they don’t know quite what it’s like to come out on stage and be themselves,” Vilanch says. “They have no stage character. So that’s the challenge, to help them get one, even for a minute when they’re out there, so that they entertain the audience.

“If they’re used to playing an action hero all the time, and they’ve never been in front of the camera without a weapon, this is a real test to have them just come out there and be themselves. That’s why it’s difficult.”

Although a great majority of the writing comes after the nominees are announced in mid-February, both Vilanch and his team will be in the wings on Oscar night, ready to accommodate anything or anybody that makes a terrific running joke. Jack Palance’s one-handed push-ups come immediately to mind.

“When somebody does something that’s worth commenting on, we then go into action, start writing and rewriting and pitching ideas back and forth,” Vilanch says. “A lot of it, of course, never gets out there. … I’ve done it with Billy, Whoopi and David Letterman, who wanted to be spontaneous, but he was not having a good time. I was standing in the wings with him and said, ‘Well, are you having fun?’ and he said, ‘I feel like I’m in a hostage situation.’

When it comes to Monday morning quarterbacking, everyone’s universal complaint for each Academy Awards show is that the telecast runs too long.

For television viewers back east, that used to mean the best picture winner wasn’t announced until midnight. (This year, like in 1999, the telecast will begin at 5:30 in the West Coast, with a 5 p.m. arrivals pre-show.)

Therefore, Vilanch, who co-wrote Midler’s swan song to Johnny Carson on the latenight talker’s penultimate show, says this year’s theme is to keep things short. But seriously, Zanuck says the telecast will have no set themes as it has in the past, but rather will be a celebration of film.

Adds Vilanch: “‘Keep it short’ has been the running theme every year, and we’ve failed miserably a lot of the time, but that’s because we want to entertain people.”

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