risky business

Oscar has experience with strike-related uncertainty

It's not quite deja vu all over again. But as the planning proceeds for the 80th Annual Academy Awards, which has had to make contingency plans because of the writers strike, it's worth flashing back 20 years to the 60th Annual Academy Awards, the last time Oscar had to deal with a writers strike.

The two situations aren't completely analogous: With a possible resolution to the strike pending, the Academy is hopeful that writers, and the actors who support them, will all show up for the Feb. 24 broadcast at the Kodak Theatre. The clock is ticking, though, and as of press time, the Academy still was waiting for the WGA to respond to its request for a waiver. This year, if writers do come aboard the show, they will be arriving at the last possible moment.

In 1988, the situation was reversed. That year, the Oscars were scheduled for April 11. The WGA went out on strike March 7. The Academy requested a waiver, which was denied.

But when the strike was called, the three writers mapping out the show — Ernest Lehman, Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose — already had been hard at work plotting out the evening with the help of index cards spread across Lehman's pool table. By the time the three were forced to put down their pencils, they estimated they had already completed 80%-90% of the show's "book."

Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who produced that year's show, recalls that the writers already had done a lot of work to streamline the presenters' introductions, eliminating much of the comic banter that often had fallen flat in previous years. "The first thing we did," he says of the prestrike planning, "was cut that out of the show."

Once the strike forced the writers' departure, of course, the opportunity for last-minute rewrites was lost. But Goldwyn already had enlisted Chevy Chase as host, along with a lineup of presenters heavy on comic talent such as Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.

While the press at the time assumed that the comics were chosen for their ability to ad-lib off-script, Goldwyn says: "It wasn't a writing issue. We just wanted people who were instinctively funny."

As Crystal explained backstage after his appearance: "Those of us who write our own stuff were not allowed to use new material, only jokes that were written before the strike. That's why there was no topical stuff. It's crazy: I'm striking myself and picketing my own house."

While the WGA did send pickets, the police lines around the Shrine Auditorium, where the ceremony was held that year, kept them far away from the red carpet. "The Oscars are always being picketed by somebody — it's usually the religious groups praying for the souls of the people who make blasphemous films," Goldwyn says. "The writers and the religious people had to battle it out between themselves."

That year, though, SAG did not instruct its members not to cross the picket line. And, in fact, all the major winners were present: Michael Douglas ("Wall Street"), Cher and Olympia Dukakis (both from "Moonstruck") and Sean Connery ("The Untouchables"), who expressed a wish for an end of the strike in his acceptance speech. Even John Patrick Shanley, the best original screenplay winner for "Moonstruck," was on hand, voicing his support of the strike backstage by saying: "I'm in it, I'm on it, I'm of it. I embody it."

Lending his support to Gil Cates, who is producing this year's Oscarcast, Goldwyn predicts: "Gil is a good producer, and somehow the show will get through it all. It's a very hard thing because people work all their life for a shot at the Oscar. And the only real tragedy about this would be if people were denied their moment in the sun."