Jess Cagle shares his disappointment over last year?s Academy Awards and his hopes for a re-vamped and re-vitalized show

Dancers in fruit-bowl headgear. Merv Griffin singing ”I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts.” The infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White rendition of ”Proud Mary.” Let’s face it: Last year’s Oscar telecast was the worst in history. That’s not opinion; it’s a fact. Remember all the lovebird presenters? Bruce and Demi brought home-movie footage of their kid. Don and Melanie sported his-and-her haircuts. Dudley Moore reunited with the barely conscious — and barely remembered — Bo Derek. Even the winners got into the spirit. Did anyone understand Dustin Hoffman’s acceptance speech for Best Actor?

Well, it’s that time of year again. There will be another Oscar telecast Monday, March 26, on ABC beginning at 9 p.m. EST. And there’s nowhere to go but up.

To no one’s surprise, the person responsible for last year’s mess, Allan Carr, is gone, and first-time Oscars producer Gil Cates, who’s known mostly as a movie and stage director, is in charge of putting on America’s favorite one-night stand. Producing the Oscars means walking a tightrope, maintaining a proper balance between kitsch and class. The fact that it’s broadcast live from L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to a billion people in nearly 100 countries only adds to Maalox’s profits. No wonder director Norman Jewison, who ran the show in 1981, describes the job as ”an experience in terror.”

One of Cates’ first moves already has guaranteed that this show will be a marked improvement over last year’s: He hired Billy Crystal — one of 1989’s only bright moments — as solo host (see page 40). And to reflect the current warming trend in world politics, he has chosen an ”international” theme, featuring presenters beamed live via satellite from gatherings in five foreign countries.

Jack Lemmon and Natalya Negoda (star of the Soviet film Little Vera) will present the Foreign Language Film award from Moscow (the academy denies rumors that Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev will be there too). Husband-wife team Rachel Ward (Against All Odds) and Bryan Brown (Cocktail) will present the Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing awards from Sydney, Australia. Norma Aleandro (Gaby — A True Story) will stand by in Buenos Aires to present Best Documentary-Feature and Best Documentary-Short Subject. Glenn Close will present Best Art Direction from London. An honorary Oscar will be presented to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in Tokyo.

Cates maintains that a representative of the accounting firm Price, Waterhouse and Co. in each country will get the envelopes to each site on time. Because of time differences, some of the satellite presenters may get too bleary-eyed to read the winners’ names. Keep an eye on Moscow. The Soviet production executive there says he’ll be entertaining the crowd during the telecast from 5-9 a.m. Eastern Steppes Time ”with champagne and vodka.”

Despite Cates’ good intentions, his Oscar road is riddled with logistical potholes. Technical glitches could cause some satellite presenters to get lost in space. Just in case, there will be duplicate envelopes on hand in L.A. ”Maybe Billy Crystal will announce it if that happens,” says an academy spokesman. ”He could go on for 15 minutes about a mistake.”

The presenting pairs probably won’t be cooing, babbling, and giggling like last year, but some may engage in male bonding. Buddy teams scheduled to appear are Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. (Other presenters include Kevin Kline, Jessica Lange, Rick Moranis, Walter Matthau, John Candy, Gregory Peck, Geena Davis, Jodie Foster, Anjelica Huston, and Tom Hanks.)

”The biggest problem producing the show is getting people (to appear),” Cates says. Landing first-time presenter George Lucas, who never has won an Oscar, was a coup; it’s likely he’s doing it because one of hii film heroes, Kurosawa, is being honored. First-timer De Niro signed on ”because he just liked the idea behind this show,” Cates says.

OK, they have big names going for them. But there are inherent problems in making any awards show interesting. ”This is basically a three-hour news program,” Cates says. ”People watch it for the news, so that’s our first obligation. Next, we have to make it entertaining.”

To do that, he’s counting on Crystal, of course. He also has reinstated dance numbers built around all the nominated songs and has hired hot choreographer-singer Paula Abdul to give them some hip. The diminutive dancer has developed a routine for the Costume Design category, with 30 dancers in outfits from the five nominated films. Pity those in Valmont garb.

Set designer Roy Christopher, who has won three Emmys for past Oscar efforts, was told to scrap the Hollywood art deco style he usually applies to the show in favor of the global motif. ”At first I thought, ‘Oh, God, I hope they don’t want flags from all over the world or something,”’ Christopher says. They didn’t.

Six 25-foot-tall steel panels with a huge Oscar silhouette carved out of each will line the back of the set, and two 12,000-watt lights behind them will cast Oscar’s shadow over the proceedings. Christopher will flank the stage with two dozen 30-foot-high frosted-glass columns, each with a single filament of white or lavender neon shooting up the middle. Sort of the standard tasteful, simple look we’ve come to love.

Preparations aside, the production crew also has to anticipate any eventuality. For example, in case Ron Kovic wins the Adapted Screenplay award (with coscreenwriter Oliver Stone) for Born on the Fourth of July, a ramp for the Vietnam vet’s wheelchair will be placed over the steps up to the stage.

Overworked and nervous, Cates is receiving advice from everyone and his brother-even his own brother. Joe Cates (Phoebe’s dad), who is producing the Tony Awards show this June, knows what Gil is going through. ”He has taste,” Joe says. But Oscar tends to bring out the tacky in anyone, so Joe lays down this rule: ”Talk to people. If two people say it’s cheesy, then it’s cheesy, and don’t do it.

”And the Oscars don’t have to be cheesy.”