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Spontaneity makes great TV

Stage often used for a political purpose

The Oscarcast may celebrate the best of film, but what makes it so much fun is that it’s great TV.

So what’s the secret to airing the best Oscarcast?

“It’s all about surprise,” admits Gil Cates, who’s produced nine shows. “Some of it’s planned, but most of it is not.”

What comes to mind in the latter case is a streaker interrupting David Niven’s introduction of Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Palance’s one-handed pushups and the appearance of a fake Apache Indian who ambushed the Oscarcast with Marlon Brando’s political rant.

Dustin Hoffman once blasted the ceremony as “an obscene evening” that was also “garish” and “embarrassing.” Everyone agrees, but no one but Hoffman seems upset about it.

“It’s the greatest Hollywood party of the year and everybody wants to be there,” Cates says.

The party can sometimes go sour, though, when stars give their politics a lead role, as Richard Gere did by blasting China’s occupation of Tibet in 1993. Johnny Carson made viewers just as uncomfortable in 1981 when he took a potshot at the president by denouncing his plan to cut national arts spending as “Reagan’s strongest attack on the arts since he signed with Warner Bros.” Reagan had just been shot by John Hinckley two days earlier and the Oscar ceremony was delayed one day out of respect.

At least those awkward moments were left at that. When Vanessa Redgrave blasted “Zionist hoodlums” and got booed as she accepted her supporting actress trophy in 1978, scribe Paddy Chayefsky turned up the heat by firing back. “I am sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda,” he fumed at the podium a few minutes later. “I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

Eddie Murphy knew he’d get the last word when he bestowed the best picture award in 1988, adding a battle cry of black power. “I just want you to know that I’m gonna give this award,” he said, “but black people will not ride the caboose of society!”

What should we think of these outbursts?

Producer Cates has a surprisingly tolerant view of some.

“If someone is a presenter on the show, they should follow the script,” he says. “That’s their job. However, if you win and you’re entitled to 30 seconds, you can say whatever you like as long as it’s in good taste. Sometimes, I know, people go too far.”

What some stars don’t do is edit themselves, such as Greer Garson, who prattled on for nearly six minutes in 1942. Some wags claimed that the speech lasted longer than her role in “Mrs. Miniver.” Not true, but it was one half-minute longer than the time it took to bestow all of the awards at the first Oscar ceremony in 1929.

Long acceptance speeches can be funny, though. That’s how Cates recalls Cuba Gooding Jr.’s acceptance speech for supporting actor for “Jerry Maguire.”

“After he went on for a short while, we started to sneak the orchestra in and he kind of rode the music like a guy out on the surf,” Cates says. “It was spectacular. As the orchestra got louder, he got louder and he finished in time with the orchestra as if it were planned.”

The orchestra also underscores other great Oscar moments, many of them nice surprises — Billy Crystal’s playful poke at the top pics in each year’s race — but others can be disastrous. After Rob Lowe crooned “Proud Mary” with Snow White, critics howled, Lowe went into hiding and Disney sued.

“When you do an Oscar show, you want to take chances and try different things,” says Howard Koch, who produced four shows. “Whether or not they work comes down to one thing: good old showbiz luck.”

Thomas O’Neil is the author of Variety’s “The Emmys” and “The Grammys” (Perigee Books).

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