Oscar has experience with strike-related uncertainty

Fri Feb 8, 2008 2:06am EST
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By Gregg Kilday

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's not quite deja vu all over again. But as the planning proceeds for the Academy Awards on February 24, it's worth flashing back 20 years to the last time Oscar had to deal with a writers strike.

The two situations aren't completely analogous: With a possible resolution to the three-month strike pending, the Academy hopes that writers, and the actors who support them, will all show up at the Kodak Theatre.

In 1988, the situation was reversed. That year, the Oscars were scheduled for April 11. The Writers Guild of America went out on strike March 7. The Academy's request to use union writers was denied.

But when the strike was called, the three writers mapping out the show -- Ernest Lehman, Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose -- already had been hard at work plotting out the evening with the help of index cards spread across Lehman's pool table. By the time the three were forced to put down their pencils, they estimated they had already completed 80%-90% of the show's "book."

Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who produced that year's show, recalls that the writers already had done a lot of work to streamline the presenters' introductions, eliminating much of the comic banter that often had fallen flat in previous years. "The first thing we did," he says of the prestrike planning, "was cut that out of the show."

Once the strike forced the writers' departure, of course, the opportunity for last-minute rewrites was lost. But Goldwyn already had enlisted Chevy Chase as host, along with a lineup of presenters heavy on comic talent such as Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.

While the press at the time assumed that the comics were chosen for their ability to ad-lib off-script, Goldwyn says: "It wasn't a writing issue. We just wanted people who were instinctively funny."

As Crystal explained backstage after his appearance: "Those of us who write our own stuff were not allowed to use new material, only jokes that were written before the strike. That's why there was no topical stuff. It's crazy: I'm striking myself and picketing my own house."   Continued...

<p>Oscar statues stand at the beginning of the red carpet as preparation for the 79th Annual Academy Awards continues in Hollywood, California, February 24, 2007. REUTERS/Fred Greaves</p>