The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards

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Behind the red curtain
A dishy new books reveals everything you ever wanted to know about backstage goings-on at the Academy Awards but were afraid E! would never ask
By Trudy Ring

An exclusive posted February 24, 2005

For all of us who’d like to thank the Academy for bringing us our favorite event of the year, who love the Oscar show no matter how ridiculous parts of it are, there’s a lively new book of behind-the-scenes dish that merits a place on our shelves: Steve Pond’s The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards (Faber and Faber, $26).

The Big Show won’t replace Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar as the indispensable book for Oscar junkies, but it serves as a worthy supplement to it. Whereas Wiley and Bona provide a delightfully witty rundown of the films, the campaigns, and the ceremonies from the first awards presentation in 1929, journalist Pond serves up a different kind of insider take, having received access to observe preparations for Oscar shows from 1994 through 2004 (those being the year of the ceremony, with the films in competition having been released the previous year). In addition to his eyewitness reports, he offers numerous anecdotes on earlier shows culled from production staffers. His chronicle is filled with stories of stars behaving both badly and well; portraits of the unsung heroes behind the singers, dancers, and presenters; and nods to the outrageous if not out gay man who, Pond says, continues to influence Oscar night even after his death.

That man is Allan Carr, famous as the producer of Grease on film and La Cage aux Folles on Broadway, infamous as the man behind the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music and the 1989 Oscar show that gave us the cringe-making spectacle of a Rob Lowe duet with Snow White in an interminable opening number.

The roundly panned show also featured a second long and tacky production number, with young actors singing “I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner,” plus splashy sets, teams of presenters making inane conversation, and other touches of Carr’s trademark flamboyance. (Indeed, “flamboyant” seems to be everyone’s adjective of choice in describing Carr, known for his designer caftan wardrobe and his lavish parties, and gay for all the world to see but ever cagey about discussing the matter.)

The ceremony’s scathing reviews, according to Pond, were heartbreaking for Carr. Neither he nor his career ever recovered, and he died of liver cancer in 1999. But, Pond says, Carr’s spirit has hovered over the Academy Awards presentations ever since: “Carr’s show caused a backlash that restored dignity to the Oscar show…if you can call David Letterman’s Top Ten List or Whoopi Goldberg’s double entendres dignified. It doomed large-scale production numbers…but only until Debbie Allen and Paula Abdul began choreographing battalions of dancing fish, genies, and lions. It did away with cute chat between presenters…briefly, if at all.”

Before all this goes on for the audience, of course, there’s plenty of preparation and behind-the scenes drama. Pond tells many tales of divas, with one of the most memorable involving Madonna, who walked into rehearsal for the 1991 show ready to perform the nominated song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy, while the crew awaited the arrival of paramedics to treat a camera operator who had fallen into the orchestra pit. Madge didn’t see the need for delay, saying, “She’s just lying there. Can’t we do this?” Then on show night, a switch in microphone arrangements led her to yell “Fucking asshole!” at a staffer, grab him by the neck, and lift him off the floor. Pond reports, though, that Madonna’s subsequent appearances on the Oscars, in 1997 and 1998, went much more smoothly.

Whenever the name of another famously demanding star, Barbra Streisand, came up, show staffers were a bit skittish, given her “troubled history with the Oscars,” Pond notes. For instance, she stayed backstage for the whole 1974 show because she wanted to be seen only if she won (she was nominated for Best Actress for The Way We Were but didn’t take home the Oscar). In 1997 she declined to sing the nominated song she cowrote, “I Finally Found Someone” from The Mirror Has Two Faces; then, when substitute Natalie Cole became ill, Streisand’s manager called (perhaps, according to Pond’s sources, with Barbra listening in) and volunteered her services—if she could have extra rehearsal time. With rehearsals already scheduled down to the minute, producer Gil Cates declined the offer and went with Céline Dion, “the lesser star but by far the lower-maintenance performer,” Pond writes. Cates’s publicist, Chuck Warn, offers his own comment on Barbra: When Bart the Bear appeared on the 1998 show, accommodating the 1,400-pound creature required, Warn said, “a lot of special preparations. But nowhere near Streisand.”

However, for every star who gives Academy staffers headaches—such as the uncommunicative Letterman, who turned the ceremony he hosted in 1995 into an extended version of his talk show—there is someone who appears to be a joy to work with, like Steve Martin, the host in 2001 and 2003. Thoroughly prepared, always relaxed, Martin eschewed star perks and won the compliment of being “no maintenance.” And then there are the stars who provide welcome levity, like bisexual rocker-actress Courtney Love. Tapped to present the makeup Oscar in 1997, Love told the show’s writers she wanted to read an Emily Dickinson poem with the line “The sunrise kissed my chrysalis.” The writers objected, with Carrie Fisher protesting, “They’ll think it’s clitoris,” and Advocate columnist Bruce Vilanch adding, “It’s a little vaginal, coming from a woman who named her band Hole.” Love agreed to forgo the poem, although it might have been fun to see the audience’s reaction.

Vilanch, a fixture of the Oscar writing staff since he was first hired by Carr for the 1989 show (another example of Carr’s continuing influence), emerges as one of the book’s behind-the-scenes heroes, supplying zingers both for the script and to amuse his colleagues offstage. Another gay hero is composer Marc Shaiman, who in addition to writing nominated songs and scores has collaborated with frequent Oscar host Billy Crystal on his show-opening medleys of song parodies. The medleys, usually a highlight of the program, provide “a chance to do an entertaining musical number” with a “cushion of irony,” Shaiman told Pond. Not everyone, though, wants to be a part of the number. For instance, the copyright holders to Fiddler on the Roof and The Music Man didn’t care to have songs from those shows recast with lyrics referring to the assassination at the center of JFK. Shaiman and Crystal encountered no obstacle, however, to turning Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” into “Matt and Ben” for the 1998 show, tweaking Damon and Affleck with lyrics such as “Your script was tight…so are your buns.”

Shaiman has provided some other memorable Oscar moments, such as appearing in a baby-blue pimp outfit for the 2000 ceremony, when he was nominated for cowriting “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. His collaborators on the song, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, wore gowns based on fashions made famous by Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow. Shaiman said he didn’t have time to come up with a drag outfit but that if he had, he would have worn a Cher-style feathered headdress.

That’s the kind of over-the-topness that has come to characterize the Oscar ceremony, and for that, says Pond, the Academy can thank (though some may prefer to blame) Allan Carr. Pond ends his book by acknowledging Carr once again. After watching a Letterman Stupid Pet Trick, “Sadie, the Dog That Spins When You Applaud,” during rehearsals for the 1995 show, Vilanch remarked that he’d like to send a tape to Carr, with a note saying, “And to think, you got in trouble for Snow White. How times have changed.” In the final analysis, Pond contends, Carr may have been simply “a fabulous showman just a little ahead of his time, the unfortunate victim of what might have been a bad rap.”