LOS ANGELES — Surrounded by stand-ins accepting plaster Oscar statuettes at the Kodak Theatre, the Academy Awards writing team surveyed cardboard versions of Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Renee Zellweger and other stars.
On Sunday night, these joke writers hope the flesh-and-blood versions will get laughs with the words they’ve written.
Hal Kanter, Alan “Buz” Kohan and Rita Cash are working on their sixth Oscar show together. Kanter is doing his 33rd show, Kohan his 18th and Cash her sixth.
“The faces may change, the names may change, but the challenges are always the same — to make it interesting, to make it humorous, to make it informative, to make it short,” Kohan said.
The trio is putting the finishing touches on copy for 24 categories (45 seconds each), two honorary segments (two minutes each) and descriptions of the five best-picture nominees (30 seconds each). Host Chris Rock has his own writers, who didn’t interact with Kanter, Kohan and Cash.
Once Oscar producer Gil Cates and talent wrangler Danette Herman assigned presenters to the categories, the writers divvied up the awards, based on who best knew the subject matter or who personally knew a presenter.
After the writers turned in a script, Cates and representatives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vetted the jokes and suggested some changes. Then each presenter was given their dialogue — along with the telephone number of the writer who handled that category.
“They have the option of calling you ahead of time and saying ...” Kohan began.
“‘Thank you’ or ‘How dare you!”’ Kanter injected.
“If you write 10 categories, you maybe get 12 calls,” Kohan said, as Cash cackled.
Some presenters insist on changing the copy. “They very seldom improve on what’s given to them,” Kanter said.
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Others take a line and make it better. Years ago, presenter Walter Matthau told viewers the show was being seen in 28 countries. “He said, ‘If my tailor in Hong Kong is watching, it still doesn’t fit.’ It got such an enormous laugh,” Kanter recalled.
One year, Harrison Ford told the writers that he wanted to introduce a category without any extra commentary. Another time, Johnny Depp asked for very little copy, explaining his poor eyesight made it hard to read the teleprompter.
“You can respect an actor who does that as opposed to one who waits and then has all kind of excuses why not to do it,” Kanter said.
Easiest celebrities to write for?
Cash singled out John Travolta, a presenter this year.
“He read me his copy over and over backstage. When he walked out there, he was on,” she said.
The truth is, some of Hollywood’s biggest stars are nervous wrecks being themselves in front of the worldwide Oscar audience.
“There are people who are not used to having one take and being live,” Kohan said. “They’re a little more difficult. Not because they’re mean, but because they’re fearful. It’s a very nerve-racking thing to come out and be themselves with someone else’s words in their mouth.”
Want to tick off the writers?
Skip rehearsals, then complain in front of millions about their copy.
“Don’t ever say, ‘I didn’t write this crap.’ That’s the cardinal sin of a presenter,” Kohan said. “If you didn’t write it and you didn’t like it, why did you say it? You also didn’t write all the things that got the big laughs and the applause.”
“You didn’t roll your eyes when you got a laugh,” Kanter added.
So what do the writers get for all this humiliation?
Union scale and a goody-laden Oscar gift basket. What they don’t get is the guarantee of a job next year.
“We could be unemployed by Monday,” Kohan said.
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