Howard W. Koch caught the first glimmer of bad news while he was in the shower. Since he knew no one would come knocking on the shower door of such a big movie producer to ask how the water was, Mr. Koch felt a few pangs of anxiety when someone did. Dripping wet, covered with soap, Mr. Koch peered around the shower door to see veteran Hollywood reporter Army Acherd standing there.

"Have you heard the news?" asked mr. Archerd, a sly gleam in his eye. "The Indians are coming . . . . You're going to have a bunch of Indians on your show , and you'd better be ready for it."

The show was the annual awards show for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the Oscars -- and it was scheduled to go on the air in an hour. Mr. Koch, the producer for that and six previous Oscar shows, had just wrapped up a rehearsal and was taking a shower before changing into his tuxedo.

The year was 1973 and the problem was Marlon Brando, Mr. Koch explains during an interview in his office on the Paramount Studio lot. "Everybody though he would probably get the award [for "The Godfather'] and everybody knew his feelings toward the Academy" -- less than reverent --"and no one knew if Brando would show up and what he would say if he did," says Mr. Koch. The last-minute word from Mr. Archerdhs sources was the Brando would stay away and send Indians -- with whose cause he was actively sympathetic -- instead.

Of the seven Oscar shows Mr. Koch has produced, not one has come off without a hitch, though no hitch was quite so dramatic as Marlon Brando's nonarrival. so many things go on at once: there are egos to build and egos to soothe; minor melodramas over who get tickes, who presents what awards, and what press people get in; speculation over who will use the stage to say what, and who will receive the awards. There are hundreds of technicians to coordinate, and myriad other details to iron out (including language translators for the worldwide broadcast of the show). No wonder the unusual becomes the commonplace. Only the wits and talents of the producer and director stay unruffled. It is seat-of-the-pants entertainment at its very best.

The 53rd Academy Awards presentation coming up on March 30 means two things to the motion picture industry and the Hollywood community. On the hand, it is the acknowledgment of excellence by one's peers, the hallmark of progress for the art from that, according to the Academy, more people see than any other. But it is also the grandest public relations effort of an industry more adept than any at patting itself on the back, the most extravagant of all media event. It wasn't always that way.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started in 1926 when various movie mogusl and other Hollywood luminaries, 36 in all, organized the non-profit corporation to promote and enhance the motion picture industry. The first awards ceremony was on May 16, 1929, a chummy get-together dinner party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Fifteen awards were handed out, though people already knew the winners: "Wings" won best picture and Janet Gaynor and Emil Jannings took the acting awards. The press, initially, paid scant attention.

In 1941 the Academy went to the sealed envelopes to keep the awards a secret, and in 1953 it brought in the TV cameras. Even until 10 years ago, however, the production was pretty much a bush-league operation.

No more. Oscar night now ranks as the world's biggest TV show, playing to some 400 million people in over 50 countries last year, says director Marty Pasetta. (The Super Bowl brings in the most TV watchers of any domestic show, some 90 million Americans for Super Bowl XIV, compared with 80 million last year for the Oscars.) Twenty awards will be presented this year, from a field of 37 films nominated in one way or another. The show is one of a sparse handful of live television shows produced each year, and that fact makes it perhaps the most complicated.

During the presentation this year, Mr. Pasetta will watch 45 TV monitors fed by 17 cameras, requiring the pooled expertise of some 400 technicians, many of them handpicked. By contrast, the Emmy awards show or a TV variety special uses perhaps five cameras, says Mr. Pasetta, considered by many to be the best director of television. He must make split-second decisions, and if he cuts to a shot of a movie star yawning, where he had been laughing a moment earlier, too bad. No retakes.

And someone usually tries to do something with the show at odds with what the producer and director had intended. Marlon Brando, for example. Mr Koch was not quite sure what to make of reporter Archerd's news that Indians were coming. "About 10 minutes before the award for Best Actor, I was just about to say to the deputy sheriff in charge of the whole thing, 'don't let anybody in or out,' because no one had shown up for Brandohs seats. I looked up and coming down the aisle was Marlon Brando's secretary and an Indian girl," says Mr. Koch.

"So I ran all the way around the theater to them, and the secretary says, "If Marlon wins, we want to make a statement.' I said 'Who's "we?"' and she points to the Indian girl." The "statement" was a 15-page, typed treatise, obviously too long for the 30-second limit winners are asked to observe. "I told her she could have 45 seconds, and I hold her that if she went one second over 45 seconds, I would cut to a commercial and have her carried off the stage and bodily thrown out of the theater," recounts Mr. Koch.

Brando won, and Sacheen Littlefeather cut her statement off at 45 second on the nose, without benefit of a timepiece. She almost didn't make it that far, though. Backstage, six men had to restrain John Wayne from going to the podium and forcibly urging her to leave the stage. Presenter Roger moore, meanwhile, found the confusion such that no one would take Brando's Oscar off his hands. Not wanting to hand the statuette to just anybody, he kept it, taking it along on his vacation to Mexico and handing it over to the Academy on his return to Lost Angeles. It remains unclaimed.

Because of the Brando situation, the Academy no longer allows alternate acceptors for winners who don't show up. "It takes up too much valuable air time, and there is really no point to it," comments director Pasetta. What the Academy can do nothing about, however, is the actress who refuses to go on stage as presenter because she has lost the award she was nominated for; or the actor who throws another out of his backstage dressing room for smoking a cigar; or the dancers locked backstage in the scnery room as the band starts their number.

Clint Eastwood reportedly refuses to attend the show anymore because in 1973 Mr. Koch yanker him out of the audience and cajoled him into delivering lines onstage that were written for Charlton Heston, who was to give the opening speech. Heston was nowhere to be found. That would have posed no problem except that the lines read like Hollywood's idea of Moses delivering a sermon, a take-off on the movie role for which Heston is famous, and no one -- Eastwood included -- could quite figure out why Eastwood was talking like a Bible prophet. Heston, as it turned out, was stuck on a freeway off-ramp, hobbled by a flat tire, in a town where taxicabs show up about as often as snowstorms.

For Academy officials, though, most of his plays as a sideshow to the real purpose of the Oscars.

"I would love for people to feel, and I think a lot of them do, the real excitement that movies are. The more I travel abroad, the more I realize that they are the greatest ambassador for our country," says Fay Kanin, president of the Academy and one of Hollywood's premiere screenwriters. (Her credits include the Emmy Award-winning TV movie "Friendly Fire.") "People see us through our movies. It's a wonderful, exciting medium. It brings a knowledge of human behaviour, of history, of everything. Wherever i go, the Oscars are enourmously admired. . . .

"It's a time when we in the industry say, "These people did an extraordinary job.' I think it's great to have your colleagues say that to you."

From its modest beginnings, the Academy has grown to 4,348 members in 12 branches. One must be recommended by a member to become a member, but the membership list for the most part duplicates those of the various unions and guilds in the industry. Each branch votes to decide the top five nominees for its field -- the acting branch for best acting nominees, the editing branch for best editing nominations, etc. -- and the entire voting membership of the Academy (of which there are 3,765; the rest are associate members) votes for the final award in each category.

Since the acting branch has 1,069 voting members, the Oscars often reflect an actor's notion of good film editing or art direction, rather than the opinion of the film editors or art directors. "It generally works out that the popular pictures also pick up the technical awards," comments one member of the Academy's board of governors. "You could have the best edited movie in the world, but if it didn't do too well, then the chances of an Oscar are slim."

One Academy member referred to the technical awards as "the pretzel awards," meaning that when they are presented is when TV viewers shuffle out to the kitchen to refill the pretzel bowl. The public appetite notwithstanding, these categories (art direction, costume design, film editing, sound, and cinematography) are vital. Editing and cinematography, in particular, demand artistry as much as craft, although their role in the filmmaking may not be so obvious to film and Oscar watchers.

Editing establishes the rhtyhn of the picture, explains Ralph Winters, a member of the Academy board of governors and winners of the Editing Oscar for "Ben Hur," generally considered the classic of the art. The editor looks at all the film and decides which pieces to use and which to leave on the cutting room floor, where, all actors convinced, their best scenes live on. The director may shoot an actor reciting the same lines from three different camera angles. The editor decides how those different angles will fit together in the final product.

"I have always felt that what takes place among people is the most important thing in editing," says Mr. Winters. when someone says "I hate you," the editor makes the cut to the other person's reaction, decides how long to show that reaction and form what camera angle -- just the eyes, the whole face, the whole body, or a clenched first, perhaps. The classic editing scenes in "Ben Hur" occur in the chariot race: the camera cuts from racer to racer, to shots of their chariot wheels and their horses, to scenes of the crowd and the tension on the faces there."What I judge is how the editor executes his cuts, his finesse for slipping in and out of closeups," says Mr. Winters."If I think the audience can get into the rhythm of the movie without being conscious of the cuts, then I think that's fantastic."

Cinematography has become nearly as important as directing. The cinematographer commands the color hues in the film though his selection of filters, and his (there is one woman cinematographer in the union) decisions about camera placement and focus (what is and isn't in focus -- the "depth of field") make a film not only visually realistic but often give it impact beyond realism.

The sound editors look for a balance in the sound of a film when they vote the nominations for that category, says soundman Tex Ruddoff, a member of the Academy board of governors. "You don't want the sound to be grating or to be too loud. It's got to have the right mix, and if there is a loud sound it has to be there for a purpose."

The art direction award usually goes to two people, the art director and the set decorator. The art director selects and designs the sets -- both for outdooer and soundstage scenes -- and is responsible for their authenticity and their meshing with the mood of the scene. The decorator supplies the furnishings for a set, and makes sure a 1955 Buick doesn't sneak into a street scene set in the 1970s. Good art direction means that the audience is unaware that the scene is in a soundstage, particularly if the action has just moved from an outdoor setting.

There is always a mild controversy about whether the studios try to influence the voting of the Academy members. Between the nominations and the awards ceremony, the studios flood the trade papers and the Los Angeles Times with expensive ads touring their nominated features and personalities. Most observers seem to agree that the main effect is to keep the pictures in the minds of the voters, but not to influence their voting. There is some politicking during special screenings for the filsm, and one member of the board of governors commented that "Fox and Universal will do almost anything to get an Oscar," but the consensus seems to be that the voting stays relatively independent.

The acting Oscars, although generally revered by those who receive them, are not usually the objects of a competition. some actors will select film roles witht eh thought of an Oscar nomination uppermost in their intentions -- particularly if they have not been previously nominated over a long career -- and some have openly campaigned for the award, placing ads in the trade papers and personally wooing academy members.

The most flagrant example of the latter was Chill Wills, nominated for best supporting actor in "The alamo" (1961). Wills took out ads in the trades that opened with "Dear Cousin" and proceeded to ask fellow Academy members to essentially, vote for him. "The best part about that whole deal," says one member, "was opening the paper one day and seeing an ad that read 'Dear Chill: I'm delighted to be your cousin, but I'm voting for Sal Mineio [also a nominee] .' It was signed by Groucho Marx." Neither Mineo nor Wills made that final trip to the stage. Peter Ustinov won for "Spartacus."

Most of the acting community, however, seems to go along with the sentiments of Dustin Hoffman. Speaking after winning Best Actor for "Kramer vs. Kramer" last year, Hoffman said, essentially, that although it was an honor to be chosen for the award, he did not consider acting a competitive profession in the sense of having "beaten" the other nominees. He said that the competitiveness in acting stems from trying to give a better performance each time.

The real tooth-and-nail competition comes over who will present the big awards (Best Actor, Acress, Picture, and Supporting Actor and actress), not who will wim them.

"The main problem for thw show is casting it for the presenters. Eveybody wants to give the best awards," says Mr. Koch. "I'm always getting 'I don't want to give the art direction award' from people. The problem is to find someone viable to give the so-called lesser awards. . . . I have agents coming out of the walls trying to get their clients on. I still get calls.I tell them I'm not doing it this year, and they ask me to put in a good word with Norman [ Jewison, this year's producer]."

Only the master of ceremonies, the singers and dancers, and the technicians get paid for doing the show, but it is not unusual for an acress to ask the producer to buy her a dress in return for presenting an award. "Those dresses can cost up to $3,000," Mr. Koch says.

"And, you know, even though we give the presenters very specific instructions for one to move offstage left and the other stage right when the winner comes onstage, some of them always position themselves to be seen over the shoulder of the winner while he or she makes the acceptance speech," mr. Koch says. "It's a never-ending battle.

"It's not the only battle. Every year, somehow, despite a security force that resembles the Rocky mountains, people manage to crash both the auditorium and the backstage area.

"We hire these huge, beefy policement for security," one Academy official said, "but the problem is that they get so enamored with being backstage and seeing all the stars --'Hey, there's Bob Hope!' -- that they don't always pay attention to making sure only the people with passes are there."

Obviously, somebody was not paying too close attention in 1974 when a streaker ran across the stage.It took everything director Pasetta had to reveal the streaker from the waist up only, and it took remarkable with for the presenter David Niven to produce an ad lib line -- something about the streaker's shortcomings -- to shrug off the episode and keep the show rolling. (Not so ad lib, actually. Niven had the foresight to prepare a few ad libs for unexpected happenings, streakers included.)

Then there was the young man who stormed into Academy publicist Art Sarno's office. It seems he was unhappy about the quality of the publicity photos of home in the final stage number. The one where he was standing next to Liza Minnelli. Was he a dancer, asked, r. Sarno. Well, no, not exactly answered the young man. Then who was he and why was he onstage next to Liza Minnelli" Turns out the young man had "borrowed" someone else's credit card, rented a $300 tux, and crashed the backstage area (how, remains a mystery). All that aside, however, he wanted Mr. Sarno to order some new photos for him.

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