Oscar gurus Cates, Davis talk strike

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We'll never know how the Academy Awards would have played out had the protracted WGA strike continued forth in all of its picket-rich, waiver-depriving glory. What we're now being treated to instead, alas, is the same old chic, exalted ceremony that it always has been through the decades.

But you'll excuse Oscar producer Gilbert Cates and Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and

Sciences, if the two men sound rather at peace with having the bigger challenge taken off of their plate roughly two weeks before Sunday's ceremony at the Kodak Theatre.

It isn't that Cates, in particular, doesn't relish a nice trial by fire every once in a while. This is Cates' 14th Oscar producing gig, and even when it appeared he would need to pull together a star-free show as the WGA's dispute with studios raged, he evoked an air of cool defiance and unflappability. What, him worry? No one was going to see him sweat. Not the writers. Not the acting community. Not the people who hired him.

That said, Cates was admittedly relieved when the strike was officially settled last week, opening the door to full participation from the Hollywood community and, as a result, a planning sprint right up to Sunday's big bash.

"We've got it under control," he said last week with typical Buddha-like serenity.

Both Cates and Davis spoke separately earlier this month with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond about the angst involved in preparing a worst-case-scenario Oscar show sans actor and writer participation, side by side with a post-settlement Plan A.

The Hollywood Reporter: It was interesting, Gil, to see how insistent and determined you were all along that there was going to be an Oscar show come hell or high pickets, that the writers strike wasn't going to derail it. How were you so sure it was going to work out?
Gilbert Cates: It was simple. We were planning two parallel shows. One was with the writers and all of the actors involved post-strike. The other was if the WGA refused to grant us a waiver and only some actors crossed the picket line. We were going forward with one or the other.

THR: But what would the show have been if you had little or no star involvement?
Cates: We would have made an entertaining show. The Oscars present 24 awards. Only four of them go to actors. The other 20 don't. So most nominees would have been in attendance. The orchestra would have been there and playing. We had a tremendous library of extraordinary (film) works to draw from (for clips). And we would have had Jon Stewart running things on stage.

THR: So you weren't worried about this becoming a debacle along the lines of what happened to the Golden Globes in January?
Cates: Absolutely not. You simply have to play the cards you're dealt, because the truth is that the Oscars reflect the time in which the show is produced. We had a much more somber show, for instance, the year the Iraq War began (2003). There was such a celebratory flavor when we did the show the year that the Berlin Wall came down (1989). So we simply would have evoked the mood in Hollywood as the writers were striking.

THR: Yet I imagine it's somewhat easier to put the finishing touches on one show rather than two at the same time, huh?
Cates: (Laughing) Much.

THR: Bruce, would you second that?
Bruce Davis: (Laughing) Yes. We're enormously relieved, even if the strike might have led to a ceremony that came across as fascinatingly different. We'd been counting on at least some of the nominees showing up before, but it's much nicer to have all of them, or close to it. We like the fact we're going to have presenters now, too.

THR: That's actually an interesting point. What were you guys going to do had all of your A-list talent honored the picket line and SAG's call for strike solidarity? Just take
people in off the street and throw them up on stage?
Davis: Well, you're joking, but it was kind of fun when we'd thought about using presenters from other walks of life. You have no idea how many people sent us very formal letters and e-mails asking if they could serve as presenters on the show.

THR: Wait a minute. Just regular members of the public lobbied to present Oscars?
Seriously?
Davis: Oh yeah. They were dead serious. We're talking about people who described themselves as simple fans who loved movies. We got inquiries from actors, fans, young kids. They were like, you know, "I've always loved Daniel Day-Lewis and seen all of his movies and would be honored to present the award in his category."

THR: That's actually rather astonishing.
Davis: We feel obligated to respond to them all. I mean, it's like, you know, "Thank you for your offer. Maybe if things go as badly as they possibly can, we'll get back to you in a week or so." It was just wild. I'm thankful it never quite came to that, though it might have been fascinating to watch it play out.

THR: Are you kidding? I would have paid actual admission to see that. You know what that is? It's the reality TV revolution. Joe Blow is empowered from what he sees in his living room to think anyone can have that 15 minutes -- or, in the case of Oscar presenting, closer to two minutes.
Davis: Even so, I figured I wouldn't pass any of the offers on to Gil. He had enough on his plate.

THR: Besides the writer and actor participation and attendance by the nominees, is there anything else about the show that has to be amended in the days and hours leading up to the ceremony?
Cates: Actually, you know, we already had commitments from actors on a contingency basis to book the show if there was no picket line to cross. Everything else is more or less as it would have been.

THR: And which way is that? Any tiny bone you can toss out to whet everyone's appetite before Sunday?
Cates: Well, no, I actually prefer to keep it all a surprise if you don't mind.

THR: But I'm pretty sure I can land you a bigger television audience and greater interest in your obscure little awards show if you'll just play along with me here a little.
Cates: (Laughing) Thanks, I'll take my chances.

THR:
Bruce, is there anything you might be able to do to get Gil to tell me anything? I'm supposed to pull together this lengthy question-and-answer piece, and he thinks that the most effective Oscar promotional approach is to keep everyone in suspense. As a journalist, I've never found that to be true.
Davis: (Chuckling) No, that's just Gil's way. He doesn't want any little teasers out there. He comes from the school that says maintaining some mystery gets the most interest.

THR: Well, I come from the school that says in the absence of facts, it's best to spread rumors.
Davis: All right, here's a piece of news for you: There will be no picket line at the show. And we're all sleeping better because of that.

THR: A scoop at last.         
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