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An Oscar insider tells all

Bruce Vilanch gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the Academy Awards

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For 21 years, Bruce Vilanch has brought his quippy wit and signature blond shag to the Academy Awards, penning jokes for practically every Oscar host from Billy Crystal to Hugh Jackman. A longtime TV variety-show writer who had worked on the Emmys, the CableACE Awards, and countless others, Vilanch first started scripting for the Oscars by privately drafting banter for presenters like Bette Midler and Shirley MacLaine. But it wasn’t until producer Allan Carr hired him as a full-time writer for the 1989 ceremony that Vilanch got his first real taste of what it means to work on the big show. Over the past two decades, the 61-year-old has enjoyed a ringside seat to some of Hollywood’s best behind-the-scenes moments. Thankfully for us, he has a wonderful memory.

The Snow White Disaster
1989
Vilanch’s first Oscar ceremony was a memorable one — for all the wrong reasons. The show’s infamous opening number featured an off-key duet between a costumed Snow White and her ”blind date,” Rob Lowe, while aging luminaries such as Roy Rogers and Dorothy Lamour watched from an onstage re-creation of famed Old Hollywood hangout the Coconut Grove. The tone-deaf mishmash of a routine sparked widespread criticism; Disney even sued the Academy for unauthorized use of Snow White’s image (the Academy later publicly apologized, and the suit was dropped).

”When we were doing it, we thought it was dicey for other reasons. I felt bad for all these legendary stars who were being presented as if they were still 30 years old. They were all in their 70s, being gingerly helped across the stage by chorus boys. It kind of looked like a waxworks. I knew that it was going to get killed [in the press]. But we didn’t think that it was going to become notorious.

The number was no worse than three years before when Teri Garr was on an airplane wing, singing ‘Flying Down to Rio.’ But a couple of weeks after the show, Rob Lowe was discovered in a sex tape. I think there were some people who got the two things confused, that Rob Lowe humped Snow White. Why would she need it? She has seven dwarfs who could do that.”

Madonna Sings!
1991
Madonna performed ”Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy — which went on to win Best Song — decked out in full Marilyn Monroe regalia.

”Madonna was very nervous because Kevin Costner was sitting in the front row. She had dissed him thoroughly in her documentary Truth or Dare. She had Michael Jackson as her date; he was sitting in the front row too. She was literally quivering, you could see it. I was standing in the wings — she came off, threw herself into my arms, said, ‘Thank God that’s over,’ and then walked away. I think she meant the song, but she could have meant being in my arms. I don’t know. She picked the one person who didn’t know what to do with Madonna when he had her in his arms.”

Iron Man Jack Palance
1992
After 72-year-old Best Supporting Actor winner Jack Palance famously proved his virility during the ceremony by doing one-armed push-ups on stage, Vilanch and his fellow writers quickly churned out a stream of one-liners for host — and Palance’s City Slickers costar — Billy Crystal, including this one: ”Jack Palance just bungee jumped off the Hollywood Sign.”

”Every time it was a bigger laugh. After a while, Billy’s manager said, ‘How many of these are you going to do, because we have a pool going in the audience, and I’d like to win.”’

Billy Crystal Unzipped?
1993
Much of the talk leading up to the 1993 Oscars was about how much the show was going to acknowledge Best Supporting Actor nominee Jaye Davidson’s cross-dressing performance in The Crying Game.

”I campaigned religiously, up until the end, to open up the show with Billy [Crystal] in drag — he unzips his fly and pulls out an Oscar. We debated that and debated that and debated that. Billy looked at me and said, ‘Are you out of your mind?!”’

Letterman Bombs
1995
David Letterman’s one-time stint as host of the Oscars was widely panned, in part for being too much like the Late Show, with his reliance on late-night skits like ”Stupid Pet Tricks.”

”He never brought [his writers] to the show. They stayed in New York until a couple of days before, and then he flew a planeload of them out. They literally spent the evening in the plane in the hangar, waiting for him to return so they could fly back to New York. When I finally spoke to Dave many years later, he told me he had finally spoken to [frequent Oscar host] Johnny Carson about it. He said [that Johnny said], ‘Well, you know, Dave, when I hosted the show, I never did Carnac.”’

Queen Whoopi
1999
In her third stint as host, Whoopi Goldberg donned each of the nominated costume designs, starting with Queen Elizabeth — in whiteface.

”It was my idea, and I loved it. She said, ‘Good evening, loyal subjects. I am the African Queen,’ which is a joke you can only do on the Oscars. Unfortunately, they were having a problem seating the audience. There was chaos in the house, and a lot of people couldn’t see her. The gag didn’t land the way it should have landed. It felt awkward for her, but I was very happy with it. I just loved bringing her out in the slave outfit from Beloved with the huge Harry Winston diamond. It made a statement: ‘See, I’m a black woman, I can dress like a slave, but I own this jewelry.”’

Björk’s Swan Dress
2001
”I remember standing backstage and Björk was on a cell phone in her swan dress, speaking Icelandic. You couldn’t really see the phone. It looked like she was talking to her swan, speaking Swan. I thought, ‘Wow, she really carries it to new heights.”’

Woody Allen’s Top Secret Cameo
2002
For the first Oscars after 9/11, producer Laura Ziskin persuaded Woody Allen to come on the show to honor New York City — the only time the auteur has ever appeared on the Academy Awards.

”It was a gigantic secret — if he heard from anybody that he was going to be on the show, he was going to drop out. We had to keep it even from ABC. We said some average New Yorker was going to come out and talk about New York. This went on and on, this debate about ‘Well, who’s this average New Yorker?’

Allen said, ‘Don’t write anything for me. I’m just going to say some things myself about New York.’ He wound up doing stand-up. He seemed to be having a great time. He didn’t have to go through the red carpet, sit in the house, or even sit in the greenroom. He sat in Laura’s office. Every now and again, we’d pop in to see how he was doing. He was watching the show. He was laughing. It was pretty great.”

Michael Moore’s Shock and Awe
2003
The Iraq war began just four days before the 2003 Oscars, causing some in Hollywood to call for postponing or canceling it. (”Because Warren Beatty’s always organizing something, he tried calling people and getting them to back out,” Vilanch says, ”but they weren’t going to.”) However, Michael Moore used his acceptance speech for the documentary feature Bowling for Columbine to criticize President Bush for starting a war for what he called ”fictitious reasons.”

”It was a great grandstanding moment. When [Moore] started talking about the war, the people backstage began booing — the stagehands, principally, because they’re all dyed-in-the-wool red-state guys. I think some people out front who sympathized with them heard them, and they began booing. We were backstage with [host] Steve [Martin], so we started throwing jokes around. The one that we finally used three minutes later was ‘It’s so sweet backstage. You should see it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”’

On With the Show
2008
After a 100-day strike by Hollywood film and TV writers all but canceled the Golden Globe Awards that January, Hollywood breathed a huge sigh of relief when a deal was brokered before the Oscars — although only just before.

”We [created] the show in 18 days. People didn’t have a lot of time to look at the material and reject it. They often get the material and hand it off to everybody they know to see what they think. You get a call from somebody’s Pilates instructor, saying ‘Hi, so-and-so left the script in the gym and I don’t like it.’ You actually get those calls.”

Enter Wolverine
2009
For last year’s Oscars, the ceremony welcomed Hugh Jackman as the first noncomedian host during Vilanch’s tenure.

”We knew that he wasn’t a joke guy, so it freed us up to do a lot of other things on the show, like bring on five [previous] actor winners to present the acting awards. It was like an Oscar party back there. Of course, a party where you can’t touch anybody because they’re about to go on camera. No hugging or kissing.”