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The Oscars That Almost Went Down in Flames

Laura Ziskin somehow braved smoke and fire and nipples and Woody Allen to pull off a huge, crazy, historic Oscars the first year at the theater formerly known as Kodak

The stage of the brand new theater caught fire. The announcer walked off. The network demanded to know what was going on. The smoke alarms kept triggering. The budget soared out of control. Russell Crowe was a jerk. Will Smith went home halfway through the ceremony. Nipples showed. And the show went on and on and on, until it shattered all existing records for the longest Oscar show ever.

That was the Academy Awards 10 years ago. It also happened to be one of the most creative and historic Oscars of recent years, a crazy triumph snatched from the jaws of catastrophe by the late producer Laura Ziskin, who was suicidal after Friday night’s rehearsal and jubilant (if exhausted) after Sunday’s show. 

The 74th Oscars was the first show in the theater inaugurated as the Kodak. It had just been built for the Academy and definitely had some bugs that needed to be ironed out.

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It was the first one after 9/11, which meant finding a tone of both remembrance and celebration. It was the first for Ziskin, who was also in the homestretch with the first Spider-Man movie. And it was the first and only Oscar appearance for Woody Allen, whose booking to introduce a film package about New York City was kept so secret that at one point an ABC executive stormed into Ziskin’s office demanding to know why she was wasting so much time on Nora Ephron. (Ephron made the film that Allen introduced—and to keep Woody’s appearance a secret, her name was listed on all the rundowns and call sheets in place of his.) 

“I did about 75 percent of what I wanted to do, and I never get that percentage on anything I do,” Ziskin told me after the show. But it wasn’t easy. She had lots of ideas and was determined to fit them all in, including using Glenn Close and Donald Sutherland as announcers and putting a Cirque du Soleil performance in the middle of the show. (She did have to scratch a plan to have David Fincher direct all the commercials.) 

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Situated at the rear of a Hollywood mall, the Kodak itself turned out to be smaller and more cramped than the crew expected: “Retail came in, and it seems my stage left [became] a Krispy Kreme Donuts store,” grumbled director Louis J. Horvitz. The green room was one level below the stage, which was unacceptable—so a hallway used by Wolfgang Puck’s caterers was commandeered and turned into a makeshift green room. Impossible to solve was the fact that the Kodak only had two restrooms anywhere near the stage, so the area in front of them became the best place for star-gazing.

During rehearsals, stray smoke in an elevator shaft twice triggered the Kodak’s alarm system, which opened huge panels in the ceiling containing fans designed to suck the smoke out of the building. But with the doors to the loading dock open, the fans created winds that threatened to topple set pieces into the orchestra seats. 

Smoke was also a problem for Donald Sutherland, who abruptly walked off the set midway through one rehearsal because he smelled the smoke from a single crew member’s cigarette in the designated smoking area, a good 125 feet away from Sutherland’s station in the wings. Ziskin instituted a new decree: no smoking in the smoking section. She took it upon herself to inform Russell Crowe, who did not take it well. 

Then, during the Friday night rehearsal less than 48 hours before showtime, Cirque du Soleil set the stage on fire when it rehearsed its elaborate, multi-faceted routine. The brief blaze destroyed 17 of the tiles on the Kodak stage, and prompted panicky, heated discussions between the Oscar crew and the circus troupe.

That night, with the Cirque problem still unsolved, Ziskin went back to her room at the adjoining hotel and called her partner, Alvin Sargeant. “I said, ‘I am suicidal,’” she told me later. “I had more crap, more junk in that show. That was the first time we were seeing it all, and we couldn’t get through it.”

Also read: At the Oscars, It's 'The Kodak Theater' No More

Over the next day and a half, things gradually came together. Set designer Michael Riva ordered a round, flame-resistant mat to be laid over his floor for the Cirque performance, the staff endured one more smoke alarm, and then Paul McCartney showed up to rehearse and turned everybody in the building into swooning teeny-boppers. (Cameron Crowe, who wrote a 9/11-themed opening for Tom Cruise, asked for and received the rehearsal seat card sporting McCartney’s photo.) 

When the show finally started, the ABC censor spotted visible nipples through Cameron Diaz’s and Gwyneth Paltrow’s tops, and ordered Horvitz to shoot them in close-ups that wouldn’t reveal the offending nipples. He complied on Diaz but couldn’t on Paltrow, who had to appear in a two-shot with Ethan Hawke. 

But somehow, miraculously, it all worked. Woody Allen’s appearance took everybody by surprise, both in the auditorium and backstage; he delivered a priceless monologue, then immediately ripped off his tie and made a beeline for the exit. And the night turned historic when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were named Best Actor and Best Actress, the first time two African-Americans were so honored on the same night. (If Will Smith had won for Ali, he would have been notified by phone: He and his wife left midway through the ceremony because their daughter had been taken to the hospital with an ear infection.)

Of course, Ziskin’s ideas ate up time: The show ran four hours and 26 minutes, 15 minutes longer than the previous record-holder. But appreciative letters came in from the likes of Sidney Lumet, Harvey Weinstein and Hugh Jackman, and the producer shrugged off the marathon length. “We were hoping to get four standing ovations,” she said, “and we got eight.”

In the aftermath, the Academy passed new rules limiting the number of honorary awards to cut down on the show’s length, and tightened its financial oversight of the show. Ziskin produced the show once more before her death of cancer last June. The Kodak served as home for the Oscars for the next decade, though the Academy recently exercised an escape clause in its 20-year deal and is now free to entertain other offers. And during the 11 months when the Academy isn’t putting on its show, Cirque du Soleil now performs Iris on the same stage they once set      on fire. 

And Woody Allen hasn’t been back since.

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