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War or no war, the Oscars must go on

HOLLYWOOD — As one of the strangest and most stressed-out weeks in Oscar history ticked down to its dress rehearsal Saturday, the old showbiz maxim was holding: The show must go on. But would it?

All week, the crazy calculus of staging the Oscars just as the United States was staging a war on Iraq had wracked nerves inside the Kodak Theatre, where, if all continues as planned, the 75th Academy Awards will take place at 8:30 p.m. EST Sunday.

Dark-suited private security swarmed the Kodak Saturday as, every 15 minutes, more stars trouped in: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Three generations of Douglases (Kirk, Michael and grandson Dylan). Last year's best actor, Denzel Washington, who clowned around a bit onstage. The memo of the day circulated, reminding everyone to expect security delays when they park. All in all, a professional and even light-hearted atmosphere prevailed.

But behind the scenes, getting to this point had required more fancy footwork than "Chicago."

The clock started ticking Monday, after President Bush announced his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. Before the week was out, there'd been a short-lived suggestion to hold onto the Kodak for a couple of days longer by buying out all the tickets for the incoming Scooby-Doo stage musical; a mad scramble to knock down rumors that A-list stars were bailing out; a last-minute decision to scrap the show-opening aerial shot of the theater that suddenly looked too much like a bomb's-eye-view of Hollywood; and a Friday-morning phone call from one of the Oscars' most interested parties — Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, up for 40 awards — to another, ABC, which stands to clear more than $25 million for televising the show.

"It has been a roller-coaster week and everyone has had different opinions as the week progressed, but the (Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) and the show always felt that it's appropriate that the show should go on," said Oscar producer Gil Cates during a rare break from rehearsals Saturday. "Of the 11 shows I've produced, it's the most difficult I've done."

And nothing has posed greater difficulties than trying to predict how the onslaught of news would play out come show time. As things stood Saturday, ABC was expected to air a news program related to events in Iraq before a pre-Oscar show and the regular Academy Awards telecast. There were no plans to run a news crawl at the bottom of the screen during the show, but anchorman Peter Jennings might show up during a few commercial breaks with updates on the war.

By Tuesday, with the prospect of Oscars host Steve Martin's monologue being upstaged by bombs over Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, the academy had begun contemplating its limited options. Its worst fear: that war would start just a day or two before the Oscars, almost certainly forcing a postponement. But the producers knew they could delay their program only a day or two; after that, most of the presenters, nominees and musicians all had to get back to work.

The academy briefly flirted with staying in the Kodak an additional week or so. But that would have meant buying every seat for all seven performances of "Scooby-Doo! in Stagefright" — the next show scheduled to play in the Kodak. The academy concluded that would be too costly.

With rumors flying that the show would have to be postponed, Cates gathered his production team Tuesday. Their discussions revolved around when the war might break out, how to address the rumors that big stars were begging off, and what to do with the red carpet portion of the ceremony.

Cates huddled with Frank Pierson, president of the Motion Picture Academy, and other academy officials to hammer out a statement. They all agreed that the red carpet — long an Oscar tradition — would be eliminated this year. They also nixed the temporary bleachers along Hollywood Boulevard where more than 300 fans were set to watch the stars arrive.

At the same time, the academy was facing its first major defection: Will Smith.

Smith, a best actor nominee for "Ali" and one of Hollywood's biggest box office attractions, had called his publicist, Stan Rosenfield, saying he was having second thoughts about attending the show.

"He said, 'I've decided not to be at the Oscars this year,' " Rosenfield recalled. "He said, 'I don't feel it's appropriate.' "

The show promptly replaced Smith with Brendan Fraser.

Rumors were now flying that Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman of "The Hours" was bowing out. Her representatives said she would show up. Meanwhile, a London paper published a story — strongly denied by his publicist — that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks would also be a no-show.

The producers did acknowledge that along with Smith, other no-shows included New Zealand director Peter Jackson of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," and Jim Carrey, who was replaced as a presenter by Matthew McConaughey.

On Friday morning, with the war full-blown, Oscar officials canceled the broadcast's planned opening: a dramatic, NASA-assisted sequence that began with an outer space view of Earth and ended up zooming in on the Kodak.

Friday, Cates, Pierson and the show's director, Louis J. Horvitz, and others, got a last-minute update about the war before going out onto Hollywood Boulevard for a noon news conference. Once again, Pierson reiterated that the show would go on. But he and Cates conceded that the broadcast was at the mercy of news events in Iraq and that the academy was checking with ABC on an almost hourly basis to see what the network planned to do.

At ABC, network president Alex Wallau had received a phone call from Miramax's Weinstein, who asked if the television network needed help in keeping the stars from opting out of the show.

ABC has sacrificed revenue by postponing its annual Barbara Walters interview special as well as locally produced pre- and post-Oscar programming on KABC-TV in Los Angeles. For ABC, the Oscars represent both a strong promotional platform for its programs — such as the third installment of "The Bachelor," scheduled to premiere Wednesday — and a financial windfall. Sources say the network has 58 commercial spots in the 3 1/2-hour telecast, which sold for a reported $1.35 million each. The network's license fee to the academy is just more than $50 million, meaning ABC clears a profit of more than $25 million.

Throughout the week, the network has been monitoring both events abroad as well as the scheduling practices of its competitors, noting that both CBS and NBC returned to a mix of news and regular prime-time programming with little complaint or fanfare. Jim Hamblin, an ABC special consultant, had been at the Kodak all week sitting next to a TV monitor that alternated between rehearsals of the show and news coming out of Iraq.

But late in the week, 61 Oscar winners, some of whom won before World War II, arrived for their rehearsal — a centerpiece of the show's 75th anniversary theme. Among them were Olivia de Havilland, 86, who had flown in from Paris, Luise Rainer, 93, from London, and Celeste Holm, 83, who arrived from Hong Kong.

Backstage, Ben Kingsley sat beside Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Jon Voight as Nicolas Cage and Anjelica Huston came up and chatted. Red Buttons was spotted giving Mickey Rooney a big hug.

On Saturday, some members of the latest crop of Oscar hopefuls — Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah, each nominated for best supporting actress — showed up to practice their dance routine. As they went through their paces, the TV monitors remained on, broadcasting an unfolding war into the Hollywood theater.