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Oscar aud greets winners warmly

GOOD MORNING AND CONGRATS, OSCAR-WINNERS: Well, the 69th Academy Awards must have set a record for standing ovations. Maybe it was the late hour, but as the final awards were made, ovation after ovation greeted each winner, from Billy Bob Thornton to Frances McDormand, Geoffrey Rush, Anthony Minghella and, of course, Saul Zaentz. But then again, maybe the die was cast at the very outset, when, for the first time, an opening monologue got this treatment. It was, of course, for Billy Crystal’s parody of all the nominated pictures. It was a close call, however, for Crystal, who stumbled in rehearsals when coming through the paneled screen at the finale of his clips and had to be treated with ice on his shoulders during the afternoon. … While a group of fans picketed against “Larry Flynt” outside the Shrine during the arrivals, the audience in the Shrine applauded when Billy Crystal announced that Flynt was in the audience. A few minutes later, the elation continued when Cuba Gooding Jr. made the most exuberant acceptance speech — and performance — ever seen. Crystal, who again proved why he was asked back to emcee, mixed in some warm remarks — for instance, his bow to Madonna for her appearance, and to winner Juliette Binoche for her remarks to Lauren Bacall. … But it wasn’t until almost an hour and a half into the show that it became standing ovation time for Michael Kidd and Julie Andrews, who flew in from “Victor/Victoria” on Broadway to introduce him. Ralph Fiennes had flown in from London, getting two days off his appearance in the early Chekhov play “Ivanov”. … And when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman came onstage to a prolonged ovation, it was reminiscent of Ali’s appearance at the centennial Olympics last year. … The production numbers were few but they were choice, particularly the “Lord of the Dance” troupe backed by the triple-screen film editing segment. Debbie Reynolds, of course disappointed, was returning to Vegas to resume her nitery turn on her own hotel stage, but now as a member of “Non-Nominees Anonymous.” Musical director Nick Conti and his orchestra provided not only wonderful intros for the nominated segments, but also entertained the audience during the commercial breaks with terrif orchestrations, including one following David Helfgott’s bow after “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with the Academy musicians playing a fully orchestrated flight, complete with trumpet solo. Of course, Helfgott got ovations coming and going. … By the time Saul Zaentz came up to get his Thalberg award (and ovation), it was obvious to the audience in the Shrine that it was only the beginning, and that he would go on to take best picture as well. … Interestingly, the audience was generous in giving hefty applause to the “In Memoriam” clips, which are always a part of the ceremony. It was amazing to note how many giants had fallen in all phases of the business. … Andrew Lloyd Webber, who told me he is anxious to make yet another movie, showed some of his wit when he noted, “Thank goodness there wasn’t a song in ‘The English Patient’ ” The Shrine stage was magnificently decked out by Roy Christopher, and its size helped to make the lengthy show even more enjoyable. As the evening was finally coming to an end, Oscar-winner Red Buttons turned to me and said, “I’m waiting for my category — roasts.” The Oscars return to the scene of the Shrine again next year.

AT NOON MONDAY, LARRY FLYNT got a pair of Oscar tickets from a friend. He told me, “Over 1,000 outraged Academy members called me” when they read in this column that Columbia did not give him tickets. Woody Harrelson changed plans in order to go with Flynt. … They never said it would be easy: Gil Cates found that out again as the hours dwindled down to airtime. It started days ago, when Barbra Streisand said she would not sing her nominated song, nor would she attend the awards. So, a singing replacement had to be found — and was, with the gracious Natalie Cole. Then, who to duet with Cole, as Bryan Adams had sung with Streisand in “The Mirror Has Two Faces”? Arturo Sandoval was tabbed to trumpet along with Cole. Then, Natalie became ill Saturday and a sub had to be found for her. Celine Dion, who had already agreed to sing the nominated “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal” by Diane Warren, agreed to sub for Cole. Sandoval would also toot with Dion. At 11 p.m. Sunday night, after everyone had been cleared from the Shrine, Dion rehearsed the Streisand song. Then, Cates got a call from Streisand’s manager Marty Erlichman saying Barbra had changed her mind and now wanted to attend (but not to sing). But where to find tickets for her? They did: the tickets that Cole was to use! Why did Barbra decide to come at the last minute? She told one friend, “I made a mistake.” Another reason given, she wanted to show up for nominee Lauren Bacall, her mother in “Mirror.” So, Streisand and Jim Brolin zipped up from San Diego, where he was shooting promos for his syndie “Pensacola,Wings of Gold,” to start shooting in mid-June. He stars in this series while hosting the Fox series “Strange Truth” next season.

GIL CATES AND TV DIRECTOR Louis J. Horvitz also had to clear the Shrine for the rehearsal of David Helfgott, who didn’t know until Saturday that he would perform (“whatever song he wants”) with the clip of “Shine.” However, his wife Gillian had been in touch with Cates a week earlier to set up his “surprise” appearance. … The music stars continued to add drama to Oscar: Madonna arrived for her rehearsal with her baby Lourdes and was totally professional as she prepped “You Must Love Me” from “Evita.” She and Courtney Love had an interesting conversation, with Courtney also taking compliments such as “You should have been nominated.” Love said she was grateful for the opportunity and hopes to find more of same. But she laughingly noted of her confab with Madonna, “It was art and commerce — now maybe it’s time for me to switch!” Carrie Fisher, making her bow co-writing the Oscar script with veterans Hal Kanter and Buz Kohan, had a dramatic moment away from the Shrine. She told me her grandmother Maxine, who had been hospitalized, “was calling for Dr. Kevorkian.” P.S., she’s now recovering. By the way, it was Kanter’s idea for Carrie and Debbie to present together. … Mira Sorvino, who continues to live in N.Y. but commutes here to see “boyfriend” Quentin Tarantino,said she’s made three films in a row and plans to take much time off. … Billy Crystal spent two days filming his parody of the nominated movies in Simi Valley and at the Chaplin Stage on La Brea. Bruce Vilanch said as much work went into creating the seg as goes into a TV special. George Foreman and Muhammad Ali were on hand as part of the “When We Were Kings” nominated docu feature team. Foreman fights Lou Savarese April 26 in Atlantic City, the fight promoted by Irving Azoff and Jeff Wald. Miramax gave its “Max Awards” Sunday night at its BevWilshire pre-Oscar party with Dom Perignon. Max is the Weinstein freres’ father’s name. Miramax’s Mark Gill and Meryl Poster m.c.’d the mock awards, with chocolate Oscars given to the nominees on hand; including Juliette Binoche, Armin Mueller-Stahl, director Anthony Minghella, Kristin Scott Thomas and Saul Zaentz. Thomas and Binoche did a takeoff on the “AbFab” duo and Billy Bob Thornton did a “Trainspotting” imitation. Thornton, readying to start “Primary Colors,” told me it will be good to get “back to work”: he’s been on the “Sling Blade” campaign train (he doesn’t fly) for months. And writer-director Minghella echoed Thornton’s sentiments on working the global trek for the movie. The Miramax family was determined that, win or not, the world would know their movies had gotten Oscar attention worldwide.

THE ACTION AT PARAMOUNT on Saturday was for a different award, “The Class Act” of 1997. It was given to Ginny Mancini by the Friends of the School Volunteer Programs of the L.A. Unified School District. Over $100,000 was raised with Par and Wells Fargo’s hefty support. The festivities followed a tented dinner outside the new Par theater, where Ray Charles and Jeanne Hazard produced the tribute show to Mancini. Lee Hale produced a video chronicling her lifetime career and contributions. Bill Conti, time away from Oscar duties, opened the show, which included femcee (and singer!) Bea Arthur, Tony Martin, Monica Mancini, The New Mel-Tones, John Byner, Robert Clary, the John Rodby Trio plus terrif youngsters, the Crenshaw High School Elite Choir and Multi-School Jazz Band. Dolores and Jerry Nemiro chaired. Par’s Earl Lestz explained how the mentoring program goes; Par has 123 mentors in the L.A. public schools! Rosemarie and Bob Stack hosted an exquisite dinner party Sunday night to “welcome back” Denise Hale, here from SanFran for the Oscar doings. She brought Mayor Willie Brown to the Vanity Fair party Monday. Hale enjoyed catching up with many old Hollywood friends as they exchanged stories with the Stacks about Oscars in Hollywood’s “halcyon” days. Stack, you recall, was a nominee for “Written on the Wind.” Wife Rosemarie, an accomplished artist, received a commission to paint a ’20s mural for a commercial building. The Sunday night doings also saw friends of the late Ronnie Cowan gathering at Ginny Mancini’s penthouse for a final toast to Cowan, former wife of Warren. It has been a busy few days!

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