Feb 28, 2000

Author/s: Stuart Levine

The first thought of all successful writers is asking themselves who is their intended audience.

And that is what makes writing for the Oscars such a difficult job. Are you trying to elicit laughs from the thousands of tuxedoed, nerve-racked industryites sitting in the auditorium, or should your focus be on the millions watching on television around the globe? For those folks in Michigan who don't know -- or care, for that matter -- the difference between Kate Capshaw and Kate Mantilini, inside jokes can be surefire bombs.

Enter Bruce Vilanch, this year's Academy Awards head writer, as assigned by show producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck.

Vilanch, who has written 10 times for the show and won two Emmys for his efforts, will be head writer for the first time. He will have a staff of writers directly reporting to him, all in the hope that the three-hour broadcast will not only honor Hollywood's finest but make for an evening of entertaining television.

"It really is a collaboration," says Vilanch, the subject of the 1999 Miramax film "Get Bruce." "It's the greatest show on Earth. I mean, it's huge, like the Super Bowl with better commercials."

Says Richard Zanuck, a first-time producer for the Oscars: "What Lily and I were looking for was a unified voice. It seemed to us, in watching the past shows, that you could almost tell that several writers were onboard, and that you could tell the different tones of those writers."

In addition to penning many awards shows, Vilanch has built a solid reputation as a writer for celebrities who are getting feted and need to come up with witty material. His clientele includes Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Bette Midler and this year's host, Billy Crystal.

Crystal will have nine writers, including Vilanch, piecing together his monologue, while four other scribes will work on the remainder of the show.

Among Vilanch's challenges is coming up with material for presenters who might be well-known actors, but when it comes to speaking in front of a live audience, no matter how experienced they are on a movie set, many are unfamiliar with the nerves that can set in when doing live TV ... and there are no reshoots here.

"A lot of actresses and actors ... they can do several takes if they're working for Stanley Kubrick, but they don't know quite what it's like to come out onstage and be themselves," Vilanch says. "They have no stage character. So that's the challenge, to help them get one, even for a minute when they're out there, so that they entertain the audience."

Vilanch and his team will be in the wings on Oscar night, ready to accommodate anything or anybody that makes a terrific running joke. Jack Palance's one-handed pushups come immediately to mind.

On the fly

"When somebody does something that's worth commenting on, we then go into action, start writing and rewriting and pitching ideas back and forth," Vilanch says. "A lot of it, of course, never gets out there.... I've done it with Billy, Whoopi and David Letterman, who wanted to be spontaneous, but he was not having a good time. I was standing in the wings with him and said, `Well, are you having fun?' and he said, `I feel like I'm in a hostage situation.'"

Vilanch, who co-wrote Midler's swan song to Johnny Carson on the latenight talker's penultimate show, says this year's decree is to finish it all in three hours.

"`Keep it short' has been the running theme every year, and we've failed miserably a lot of the time, but that's because we want to entertain people."