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Master of Oscar show entertains world

AND THE WINNER IS...Gil Cates, founding dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and producer of the Academy Awards for a record 10th year, talks to reporters at a press conference a few weeks before the big event, March 25.BY MARINA DUNDJERSKI
UCLA Today Staff


Q: Name the only actor ever nominated for an Academy Award twice after his death. A: James Dean.

Q: Who is the youngest performer to win a competitive Oscar? A: Tatum O'Neal at age 10.

Q: Who has produced more Oscar telecasts than anyone? A: Gil Cates, founding dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, currently in the final stages of producing the 73rd Annual Academy Awards, scheduled for March 25.

When 1 billion viewers worldwide settle in to watch this year's Oscar show with its elegantly futuristic set and towering Oscar sculptures, Cates will once again be backstage for the record 10th time as producer of one of the world's most-watched shows.

Cates, 66, is arguably the most successful Academy Awards show producer in history. To date, his telecasts have garnered 61 Emmy Award nominations and 15 Emmy Awards.

In 1989, when the Oscar show was being panned by critics and filmmakers alike, Cates was asked by then Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Karl Malden to produce it. That 1990 Oscar telecast, a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, featured star-studded live satellite feeds from Buenos Aires, London, Moscow, Sydney and Tokyo because Cates wanted to represent a "celebration around the world." The telecast received critical acclaim and Cates took home his first Emmy.

But producing the Oscars is not Cates' only job. He is also the producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, a post he has held since 1995, and has appointments in both UCLA's theater and film departments, teaching courses twice a year, much to students' delight. In the summer, he takes time to direct films - his strongest passion.

How does he juggle it all? "One of the virtues of doing this show, in my 10th year, is that I have a sense of what the demands are going to be and I can prepare for them," Cates said in his Century City office that is Oscar Central until the 60-plus employees move to the Shrine a week before the show. (On the day of the show there are some 500 people working to make it come off.)

Indeed, observing "the master" - as Cates is affectionately called by students as well as Academy president Bob Rehme - while he selects music for a theatrical trailer publicizing the Oscars or hops from one reporter to the next doing television stand-ups at a press conference, one sees polished skill, poise and enthusiasm - not a trace of the cynicism that one might expect from someone doing the same gig for a decade. In fact, he'll tell you repeatedly: "I love doing this show!"

"Each year it's different," Cates said. "If someone wants to study the sociology and anthropology of a given year, they can do a lot worse than studying the Academy Awards which is a time capsule. In it are all these elements of that year: language, film, interests, fashion."

Like most people who have watched the show over the years - it has been televised annually since 1953 - Cates has his own list of favorite moments. Some came by way of sheer surprise, lying beyond a producer's control, like when Jack Palance won Best Supporting Actor in 1992 for "City Slickers" and dropped down on stage to do one-arm push-ups. "I literally thought he was losing his mind and that we'd probably have to go to a commercial," Cates recalled, laughing. "It turns out, he wasn't. He was just being exuberant and showing that he still had energy, strength and charm."

Another cherished moment for Cates came when 11-year-old Anna Paquin won for her role as best supporting actress in 1993 for "The Piano." "She got on stage and for a full 20 seconds, she couldn't speak; she just hyperventilated. It was so dear and so genuine," he said.

Other memorable events were carefully produced.

"I loved it when Steven Spielberg presented George Lucas with the Irving G. Thalberg Award, and I had NASA sneak an Oscar aboard a shuttle," Cates recalled. "There were the astronauts, congratulating Steven and George for encouraging the imagination necessary to develop the engineering which subsequently put these people in space - and the Oscar floated weightlessly through the air."

Cates, who is producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, also holds dual appointments in the theather and film departments and teaches courses twice a year.Controversy surrounded the Academy's bestowing of an honorary Oscar in 1999 to director Elia Kazan, who in 1952 testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, informing on several colleagues. Cates vowed to show whatever emotions the camera would find.

"There are things that are not subject to easy answers," Cates said. "There are things that are really complex and conflicted. And Kazan's honorary Oscar was a legitimate conflict.

"I happen to side with the fact that Kazan deserved the Oscar for what his work was and was happy that he got it. Having said that, I really understand why people were desperately bothered by it, and I decided early on that whatever happened in the hall that night, we wanted to present what the reality was.

"I discussed that with Lou Horvitz, who was the director, and I'm very proud of the fact that he was able to show people sitting or standing; people ambivalent; people who started not to applaud, then did applaud; people who started applauding and then subsequently stood; and people who didn't stand at all.

"It was great. I'm sure that I can't speak for how happy people were with that, but I can tell you that it was honest."

Ever the professor, Cates said he tries to leave the audience each year with something learned. One year he focused the show on women in film. In another telecast, he celebrated 100 years of movies and aired bits from the first sound test, first color movie and first on-air kiss, among other film firsts.

"One of the great pleasures of doing the show is that each year you have an opportunity to really produce something that is a beneficial experience," he said. "That maybe comes from my having been a dean or my liking to teach. But you can't say that out loud because people would be bored by it. If they don't know that it's good for them, then they may accept it."

Others who benefit from the show are UCLA graduate students. At least one graduate student intern from the School of Theater, Film and Television has worked on each of Cates' shows. That kind of close working relationship with the professional world is essential for students, Dean Robert Rosen emphasized.

"Being an intern with the Oscar show is a particularly favorable circumstance for the student," Rosen said, "first, because it's under the tutelage of a master professional who also has a full appreciation for the goals of education - that's Gil Cates. Second, because they are working with the very top people in the industry at every level of production."

Angela Sostre, a graduate film student and this year's intern, said Cates is "a great mentor to look up to" and that she is learning how to interact with others involved in "producing something that is this big."

Added Jason Moore, who was an intern in 1997, "There couldn't be anybody better to study than Gil - he's just a master."

While keeping mum on what's in store with this year's show - the ultra-secretness and suspense have become an Oscar tradition - Cates will say that the theme revolves around 2001. "We are officially into the millennium, and hopefully the show will give us a perspective on where film is at the end of the millennium that will be constructive."

Last year, Cates did not produce the Oscars because he had an opportunity to direct James Agee's "A Death in the Family," slated to air on PBS later this year. It was only the second time in 12 years that Cates has not produced the show. The other was in 1995, when he began his job at the Geffen and wanted to concentrate on his work there.

Can viewers expect to see another decade of Cates-produced Oscars? The master wastes no time answering: "Every year I do it, I think it's the last year. But I love doing the show. I don't have any - what's the word for that - I don't have any desire to make myself hard to get."

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