The Academy Awards show may seem merely a glitzy, star-filled party to vicarious television viewers. But Gilbert Cates, producer of ABC's Oscar telecast tonight at 9 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), sees the annual celebration as a time capsule.
"Whether they want to or not, the Academy Awards shows do hold a mirror up to what's happening in our society at a given time. . . . You really get a sense of that time," Mr. Cates says over the phone from Los Angeles (moments before ringing off from a lowly reporter to take a call from movie mogul Michael Douglas).
Every year the music, the clothes and the topics of the films being honored all reflect their time, the producer contends, for movies "are really the new art form of the 20th century.
"It's also one of the few things that we can see that our parents, our grandparents, even our great-grandparents probably have seen," adds Mr. Cates. He also produced the past two Oscar night telecasts for ABC, and won an Emmy for last year's edition. But he says this is his last show.
Billy Crystal returns for the third year as host of tonight's award presentation, which marks the 64th annual event. They have been televised since 1953, when Bob Hope made the first of his many appearances as host.
In preparation for his first production, says Mr. Cates, "I sat down and watched 30 years of shows."
And, in accord with his observation that each annual affair seemed anchored in time, he says, "I've tried to have the show reflect the world."
For example, he recalls his inaugural 1990 show followed shortly after the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall. Viewers may recall the Academy Awards presentations featured live remote celebrations from locations around the world, such as Australia and Switzerland, to reflect the sense of international freedom.
Last year's show came just after the war in the Persian Gulf, "and it seemed like we wanted to have a rebirth," says Mr. Cates. So the Oscar show revolved around the theme of celebrating 100 years of film.
So what in the world shapes tonight's telecast? "With the Soviet Union collapse, and the craziness in Eastern Europe, it seemed like a good idea to celebrate the fact that you can always escape to a movie," the producer explains, adding the show is intended to celebrate "the pure joy of the movies."
He suggests viewers will like the big musical production numbers, all being staged by actress/choreographer Debbie Allen.
"She is wonderful, and I think viewers will find the numbers are really going to be wonderful," says Mr. Cates. (Ms. Allen does not dance, however.)
In addition, many of the nominated numbers for Best Song will be performed by those who sang them for the original movie sound tracks. They include Bryan Adams singing "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" (from "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), Paige O'Hara, Richard White and Jerry Orbach doing "Belle" and "Be Our Guest" (from "Beauty and the Beast") and young Amber Scott reprising "When You're Alone" (from "Hook").
Among other highlights, George Lucas ("Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark") will receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an award that has previously been presented only 30 times. And Indian film director Satyajit Ray ("Apu Trilogy") will also receive an honorary award.
LIFE IMITATING ART? -- Remember "M*A*S*H" regular David Ogden Stiers' characterization of Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester 3rd as a stuffy lover of classical music? There is some truth behind the role, for the actor has training as a conductor and is coming to Baltimore next month to demonstrate.
Stiers is scheduled to conduct a concert of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra at 8 p.m. April 12 at Goucher College. Included on the program is the double role of conducting and narrating the Prokofiev classic,"Peter and the Wolf."
For ticket and other information, call (410) 887-2259.
Here is a list of nominees for tomorrow night's 64th annual Academy Awards presentations:
"Beauty and the Beast,"
"The Prince of Tides,"
"The Silence of the Lambs."
Actor: Warren Beatty, "Bugsy"
Robert De Niro, "Cape Fear"
Anthony Hopkins, "The Silence of the Lambs"
Nick Nolte, "The Prince of Tides"
Robin Williams, "The Fisher King."
Actress: Geena Davis, "Thelma & Louise"
Laura Dern, "Rambling Rose"
Jodie Foster, "The Silence of the Lambs"
Bette Midler, "For the Boys"
Susan Sarandon, "Thelma & Louise."
Supporting Actor:Tommy Lee Jones, "JFK"
Harvey Keitel, "Bugsy"
Ben Kingsley, "Bugsy"
Michael Lerner, "Barton Fink"
Jack Palance, "City Slickers."
Supporting Actress:Diane Ladd, "Rambling Rose"
Juliette Lewis, "Cape Fear"
Kate Nelligan, "The Prince of Tides"
Mercedes Ruehl, "The Fisher King"
Jessica Tandy, "Fried Green Tomatoes."
Director: John Singleton, "Boyz N the Hood"
Barry Levinson, "Bugsy"
Oliver Stone, "JFK"
Jonathan Demme, "The Silence of the Lambs"
Ridley Scott, "Thelma & Louise."
Original Screenplay:John Singleton, "Boyz N the Hood"
James Toback, "Bugsy"
Richard LaGravenese, "The Fisher King"