Producer Donna Gigliotti on the 91st Oscars: "I Always Believed the Show Could Work Without a Host"

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Donna Gigliotti

The show's first-time producer explains why that Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga performance was designed to look more like a film than TV and why Queen was the right choice to open the kudocast.

“The thing ran like clockwork. As far as I can determine, I think it did all the things I was hoping for,” Donna Gigliotti said of the 91st Oscars, as she looked back Monday morning on the first Academy Awards broadcast she has produced and the tumultuous months that preceded it. Asked how grueling those months had been — as the Academy struggled to name a host and backed off decisions like presenting some categories in an abbreviated format — she insisted, “'Grueling' is your word, not mine. I’ve said this over and over again. It was one of the most exhilarating professional experiences I have had in a very long time. I am not deranged. I had a great time doing it.”

Mounting the show along with Glenn Weiss, who served as co-producer and director, Gigliotti said that even before the Kevin Hart hosting drama played out in December, she had raised the possibility of doing the show without a host.

“Nobody really wants to believe me when I say this,” she insisted, “but it was in mid-October — I can prove this because I had discussions with Glenn, and I take very good notes as well — I was talking about going host-less. If you are charged with producing a show that runs faster than it has in the past, and you simply go and look at the math of how the show works, It occurred to me, the host takes a lot of time, and if you’re going to produce a show that’s fairly brisk, maybe one of the things that you do is you take out the host. I always believed the show could work without a host.”

The other thing Gigliotti began developing, even before Oscar nominations were announced in January, was an overall concept. “You can start off with an idea,” she explained. “The concept was how movies connect us with one another. And I was blessed with looking at the past year in film where you had films like Black PantherBlacKkKlansmanBohemian RhapsodyA Star Is Born — big movies that had meaning to audiences all over the world. So as simple-minded as that might sound, that was the idea: how movies connect us from one another. Then from that I went to the idea, let’s bring in presenters who are outside the world of film. So we got Serena Williams, Tom Morello, Trevor Noah, Rep. John Lewis. But you can only have that idea, and then you have to sit and wait until the nominations come out before you can actually go into action. So you have a very short window to actually put the show together. There is a lot of thinking that goes on before that, and then the nominations come out and, boom, you’re in, you have to move like the speed of light.”

When nominations were announced on Jan. 20, Bohemian Rhapsody's five noms gave the show's producers an opening act — a performance by the surviving members of Queen, joined by Adam Lambert. Said Gigliotti: "Look, the picture was very, very successful. We were playing to a worldwide audience. Bohemian Rhapsody did $100 million in Japan alone. If you’re going to produce a show that plays worldwide, it seemed a logical way to open up the show.”

They also then began lining up the special presenters. When Gigliotti and the show’s talent coordinators approached the various individuals, they had specific films in mind for each, she said. In the case of Lewis, who presented the clips from the eventual best picture winner Green Book, Gigliotti said, “Look, Rep. John Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders. He believed that he would die on the bridge in Selma. He’s iconic. But on some level, the connection is green books no longer exist because of John Lewis.”

Chef Jose Andres, who led disaster efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and actor Diego Luna, who was similarly active after an earthquake struck Mexico City in 2017, both embody compassion, Gigliotti said, “and I think that’s what Roma is about. Roma embodies compassion.”

As for Barbra Streisand’s appearance to introduce Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, that was simple, Gigliotti said: “Barbra came out and said “I’m from Brooklyn, Spike Lee’s from Brooklyn and we both like hats.’ That’s the connection there — and she loved the movie. She felt very strongly about BlacKkKlansman. For me, I think, it would have been so obvious if Barbra Streisand had come out and presented A Star Is Born. Why would I do that? If anybody wants to know why people don’t tune in the show, it’s because everything is foretold, it’s not interesting, there are no surprises. So that’s how she ended up doing BlacKkKlansman.”

The evening’s theme also determined some of Weiss’ camera moves, which often looked out from the stage onto the audience. “We had long discussions about what the show should be about, and what he really accomplished with all the camera work was to technically embrace what we were trying to do — which was to connect the audience with the people onstage talking about the films and the artists that were winning their awards. We wanted them to feel connected,” Gigliotti continued. “We didn’t want it to feel like there was a wall between what was happening onstage and what was happening in the audience in the Dolby. We thought if we accomplished that in the room, it would translate to the TV screen. Everything [Weiss] was doing was about how do you break the wall of the proscenium, how do you reach out to the audience, and bring the audience onto the stage.”

Those decisions were most in evidence in Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of the Oscar-winning song “Shallow.” The number began with no introduction, as Cooper and Gaga got up from their seats in the audience and walked up the steps to the stage. “There we were pulling them out of the audience, which was unusual in and of itself,” Gigliotti, who worked with Cooper on Silver Linings Playbook, explained. “I’m sure that you noticed that that was all one take. Bradley came in from rehearsal, and he gave us a lot of really great ideas. He’s a pal of mine, I love the guy, and he’s really very smart. He and Lady Gaga really worked on the whole idea of making ‘Shallow’ more like a film than an awards show. The two of them really did collaborate on that.”

One of the show’s lighter moments involved Keegan-Michael Key’s descent from the rafters, a la Mary Poppins, to introduce Bette Midler’s rendition of “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns. Gigliotti admitted that she did have an anxious moment or two during rehearsals when she looked up to see Key, who’d climbed over the catwalk to get in place, hanging in mid-air for seven or eight minutes. “My heart was in my throat,” she confessed. “And I thought obviously we’re insane, but it all worked out. And he’s such an athletic guy that he did it 100 times better than the pro that came along with the harness.”

One moment that was missing from the broadcast was an inclusion of famed director Stanley Donen, who died Saturday at age 94, in the In Memoriam segment. An Academy committee, and not the show’s producers, decides who is in the In Memoriam, which this year was accompanied by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and 64 members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “That was not my decision, the producers are not in charge of the In Memoriam,” said Gigliotti, suggesting that technical issues on the piece, which had been carefully timed to coordinate the orchestra and the images, made a last-minute addition difficult. “I don’t even know if it would have been possible to include Stanley Donen this year, but I’m sure he’ll be in it next year,” she said.

Will Gigliotti herself be back as producer next year? “No one has asked, and so I’ll wait until someone does,” she laughed.