Bruce Talks Oscar With Greg Hernandez

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Greg In Hollywood
A chat w/Bruce Vilanch about Sunday’s Oscars
By Greg Hernandez on Mar 6, 2010 4:58 pm

Whether the Oscar host was Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock or Hugh Jackman, one constant for the past two-plus decades has been funnyman Bruce Vilanch in the writer’s room.

This year, Alec Baldwin and past-host Steve Martin will share the hosting job. I talked to Bruce recently about that powerhouse duo, about his favorite Oscar moments and what might be in store for the audience and viewers at home on tomorrow’s ceremony.

“It varies every year,” Bruce said of the preparations. “This year, since Steve is co-hosting, he writes a lot of stuff and is a precise instrument. We have a confab every few days and hammer together the opening then pull it apart then re-hammer it. The wild card on the show is what the winners will say, everything else is scripted.”

Another wild card is having more than one host for the first time in decades: “The difference is they had to establish a relationship and have individual points of view on stage so it’s double the work obviously – triple the work.”

What about having 10 best picture nominees this year instead of the usual five?

“It’s like Octomom took over, everything is 20 times bigger than it was,” Bruce said. “It does change it because we want to give each movie equal time and recognition. It’s 10 movies introduced and glorified, it’s twice as much star power. It changes the dynamic of the show, it’s about more movies now.”

Bruce is so grateful that one of those 10 nominees is Avatar : “When you have 10 foot blue creature and the most popular movie of the year, it’s difficult to ignore that. But it’s hard to joke about a movie like Precious or The Hurt Locker. People just refuse to be lighthearted about rape or soldiers in Iraq.”

Bruce said it’s good for the awards that best picture nominee Avatar was not only critically-acclaimed, but is the highest grossing movie in history: “When that happens, the numbers go up because more people are interested because they have seen the movie. In the old days when you did the Oscars, everyone had seen everything, everyone knew who the movie stars were. No one knows who [best supporting actress nominee for ‘Up in the Air’] Anna Kendrick is.”

Even though the writers have worked for weeks on material for the presenters, their job is not near done once the ceremony is underway. Bruce and other writers watch for any comic possibilities and pray for classic moments like in the early 90s when Jack Palance won the Oscar for City Slickers and did a few one-handed push-ups on the stage in celebrations.

“The Jack Palance push-up was wonderful and crazy and gave us fuel to write jokes all about him. I live for those moments when somebody wins and makes a fool of themselves and we can good-naturedly make fun of them. It’s a great, big live show and you want to be spontaneous.”

Then at the 2003 ceremony when Michael Moore won for his documentary Bowling for Columbine, he delivered a fiery, political acceptance speech after which Martin quipped: “It was so sweet backstage, the Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”

“You really have to be on your toes, running from the green room where presenters are waiting to hatch the material to the little booth on the side where the hosts are watching the show,” Bruce said. “You have to keep abreast of everything that happens looking for the opportunity for the host to comment. We were very lucky that year that Steve followed Michael Moore and that the incident happened.”

Has anyone ever been mad at you for a joke at the Oscars and maybe had a word with you at the governor’s ball?

Said Bruce: “Most people I think are thrilled that they are at a level where a joke can be made about them at the Academy Awards, they wouldn’t be thought of unless they have made some kind of impact on the culture. Also, we vet ourselves personally and ask, “Can we do this with so and so sitting there? One year with Russell Crowe, there was a joke he didn’t like. They put the camera on him and he got a laugh.”

With so much potential drama built in to the proceedings, I wondered if the Oscar show has to be really funny to succeed.“I think people have a better time if it’s funny,” Bruce said. “It’s such a pompous occasion, so much self-importance. These are career-changing moments for people who have a great deal invested professionally so the humor helps to level that a little bit. It’s a show, it’s showbiz.”

Bruce began the Oscar gigs in the late 80s and I asked him if things have changed much since then.

“The world changed,” he replied. “When I started it there were four networks. The TV universe has expanded exponentially. The Internet came in and now everyone is on Twitter and talking on cell phones. The public’s attention is more fragmented and the celebrity machine has exploded. All the gossip,, the paparazzi, it has an affect on the show. The ratings are lower because people have more options. What has changed about the show is that the movie business has changed. Eleven years ago, ‘The English Patient‘ won best picture, an independent movie not many people had seen. That has been the trend. You have to make those movies accessible to have the show make sense to people who haven’t seen the movies.”

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