Looking at the roster of Oscar nominations, it seems like this year’s Academy Awards will be heavy on politics.
But Gil Cates, longtime Oscarcast producer — he’ll helm his record 13th come March 5th — isn’t convinced.
“You can go that way,” he says, ensconsed in his 39th-floor office overlooking the film world of Hollywood that this time of year is his kingdom. “But I’m not totally embracing it.”
He’s got something a little different in mind, and it is his mind, after all, that oversees what will surely once again be one of the world’s most-watched TV shows, the little party called the Academy Awards. He wants, he declares, an “educational, entertaining” show highlighting the best work in film — with or without the politics.
No politics? Even with a list of film and individual nominees that includes “Munich,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and “The Constant Gardener”?
“They’re thoughtful pictures. They’re pictures of substance. They’re pictures that really deal with cultural issues and issues of the country,” Cates says.
Besides, the Academy is “historically apolitical,” he notes.
A big ‘Daily Show’ fan
His chosen host, though, is completely political: Jon Stewart, a TV pundit who surely will riff on the issue-driven best-picture nominees and the real-world events that inspired them.
Cates says he and his wife TiVo Stewart’s “The Daily Show” every night — and did so even before Stewart got the Oscar gig. “Jon Stewart basically is good,” he says, “because he’s a very, very smart man and he comments on these things with great insight. He’s irreverent and not impolite and I’m sure he’ll make the most of it.”
And, besides, he add, Stewart “is a good Jewish boy from New York, as am I.”
There’s something else, too, Cates points out.
“It also takes a lot of guts. If you’re in a bad movie, no one sees it. If you’re in a bad TV show, a certain segment sees it. But the Oscars? It’s not only your agent, your family and the guy who cuts your grass — everyone sees it.”
As the man carrying the responsibility of the whole telecast, you’d think Cates would be feeling a bit pressure-laden himself. But this sunny Tinseltown day, the 71-year-old father of six and grandfather of six seems shockingly relaxed, kicking back on a brown suede sofa, bantering with visitors, peppering his conversation with Yiddish quips.
“Genuk!” he says halfway through an interview. “Enough already! It’s time for my nap.”
Even when academy president Sid Ganis strolls into Cates’ office unannounced, the veteran producer remains low-key.
“Hey Sid,” Cates chirps.
When it comes down to it, he says, putting on a show is putting on a show, whether it’s the Oscars or a production at L.A.’s 522-seat Geffen Playhouse, where Cates serves as producing director. “You prepare, you get out there and something happens.”
‘It's like camp’The first step is assembling a staff, Cates’ favorite part of the job. After doing a dozen Oscar shows together, his crew feels like family.
“It’s like camp,” Cates says. “Everyone gets together and finds out what happened over the last nine months.”
Then the brainstorming starts about how to spice up the stalwart show. He only has himself to top, but that’s still no easy task. His larger-than-life additions to the Oscars have included a horse co-presenter and a giant bear holding the winner’s envelope.
“Part of the fun, of course, is that he can kill you,” Cates says with a wry smile, recalling comedian Mike Myers’ fear when taking the envelope from Bart the Bear.
Another year, Cates sent an Oscar up in the Space Shuttle Columbia. When Steven Spielberg honored George Lucas during the show, a satellite camera showed the golden trophy floating in space’s zero gravity.
“That’s the excitement of doing the show,” Cates says. “It’s big enough that you can do those things.”
Last year, Cates tried presenting a few Oscars with all nominees gathered on stage, while other trophies were presented to winners in their seats.
How does he come up with such shtick?
“I got the idea for the Space Shuttle while I was in the shower,” he says.
He promises more crafty concepts this year, but is keeping the details secret until showtime.
He did reveal, however, that he won’t be repeating last year’s presentation stunts.
Bang a gongWith his staff and host selected, and fresh surprises brewing, Cates turns his attention toward creating a star-studded cast. Each time another presenter accepts his invitation, Cates bangs a golden gong hung just outside his office, to spread the news.
So far, Gil’s gongs have gone to Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx and Keanu Reeves, among others.
Working with sometimes tempestuous A-list celebrities is just part of the job, he says. At least, with the Oscars, there are no pesky contracts to sign.
“When you hire someone for the movies, you have a contract that’s 200 pages,” Cates says. “For the Oscars, people who agree to do it, agree to do it, and that’s it.”
Cates only asks that stars don’t use their presentation time to make political statements, no matter what films they’re introducing.
“Not only is it inappropriate, it’s really immoral,” he says.
Winners, on the other hand, can use their allotted 45 seconds of acceptance time to say anything they like. “They earned it,” he says.
Even if it turns out to be — gasp — political.
“I can’t control it,” Cates says. “I have nothing to do with it.”
Besides, by the time the curtain goes up on the live Oscar broadcast, Cates’ job is basically done.
“It’s a one-take show,” he says. “It is what it is.”