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Viewers dance with joy over loss of hoofers

'We're not a Broadway musical' Zanuck says

Over the Christmas holidays, Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck were sitting in a restaurant in Sun Valley when some people at a nearby table sent over a bottle of wine. The reason?

“They wanted to thank us for cutting the dance numbers,” Richard explains. “They were from Oklahoma. We didn’t know them at all.”

One of their first moves as producers of this year’s Academy Awards presentation was to pare from the program the extravagant — and often lengthy — dance sequences.

“We got a ton of mail on it,” Richard says. “All of it supported the move.”

The Zanucks want to point out that they appreciate great dance and choreography and eliminating the dance numbers had nothing whatsoever to do with any dislike of the form.

“One of the things Dick and I decided when we accepted this assignment is to remember all the things in the telecast that during which we got up to go get food,” Lili says. “That’s how we started off judging the pacing.”

One of the monumental challenges for any producers of the Oscars is to bring something new to the storied extravaganza. The Zanucks have lots of ideas on that topic. But the innovation they would be most proud of this year is to bring the show in at no more than three hours and 15 minutes. Three hours would be ideal.

This is no easy task. Last year’s long-winded borefest took just over four hours. To achieve that end, the dance numbers were asked to exit stage right.

“We didn’t cut them because we thought anybody did a bad job,” Richard explains. “We just didn’t see them fitting in with the scheme of things for this show.

“I remember seeing the show as a little fellow with my father (longtime 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck), when it was strictly an awards show that was over in a half-hour, and then everybody peeled off to go to parties. Over the years, it has grown into a media event and has drifted away from its main purpose, which is to give awards. We’re not a Broadway musical. We’re not a variety show. The prime purpose is to give awards that revolve around films.”

Adds Lili: “We felt that dance numbers were more relevant to the industry back in the days when movies were being made that promoted dance.”

The Zanucks have other ideas as well. Working with Louis J. Horvitz, who is directing his fourth consecutive Oscar telecast, the show will be choosy about just what makes it on the screen.

“We know what it’s like to have that once-in-a-lifetime thrill,” explains Richard, who copped the best picture Oscar with wife Lili for “Driving Miss Daisy.” “By the same token, as this year’s producers we know we have to be cognizant of the fact that there will be 800 million people watching around the world. We don’t want to bore them in any way.

“It’s not in our nature to have a quick trigger finger, but I hate lists. There’s something insincere about that. If you can’t remember who you want to thank when you get up there, maybe they shouldn’t be thanked.”

Horvitz feels the same way. “They’ve been forewarned,” says the director, who has two Emmys to his credit, one for directing the 1998 Oscar telecast. “It’s their (nominees’) option, to either get played off, or to say in 45 seconds or a minute what’s in your heart.”

Horvitz and the Zanucks don’t want people to think that all they’re doing is cutting from the show. They hope to add segments that provide “a new spin” on Oscar.

“I think the word ‘surprise’ may be too strong,” Richard Zanuck notes. “But there will be some very entertaining moments that go into Hollywood’s past, plus we will stick our toe into Hollywood’s future. It will be entertaining.

“Of course, it all starts with Billy.”

Of course. That would be Billy Crystal, who will host the Academy Awards for the seventh time, including his latest stint two years ago.

The Zanucks and Horvitz barely mention Crystal — not because he isn’t worth mentioning, but because he is to the Oscar telecast what Tom Cruise is to your motion picture, or what Michael Jordan was to the Chicago Bulls: Once you have him on board, that’s one enormous burden you don’t have to worry about anymore.

After Billy, the Zanucks have been careful not to leak too many details of their revamped show. What they’ve hinted at in terms of new wrinkles are a look at movie technology of the future, film from a female perspective and as many genuine “Roberto Benigni climbing on chairs” happenings as possible.

“My job will be to sit in front of 22 cameras and look for human moments,” Horvitz says.

Says Lili Zanuck: “We did ask Lou to expand upon his bag of tricks because it does increase the pacing. The viewer is sophisticated and likes the movement.

“This will be the Academy Award show that everybody knows and loves,” she adds. “We were assured when we were invited to produce the show that we would be able to create a new spin on the show’s elements. And there isn’t anything we do that we haven’t put a spin on.”

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