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It’s Great Theater The 69th Academy Awards Will Celebrate Role Of Movies And Movie Houses

Awards, awards everywhere, but only the Oscars retain the magic that has made them part of American folklore.

Nearly 70 organizations have presented hundreds of awards so far this season - most of them for film achievement.

Every weekend has brought a new spate of honors, usually presented at formal dinners in local hotels. Many of them, such as the Golden Globes, People’s Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards, appear on network television.

Is the august Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences worried about such a proliferation?

“I wouldn’t say worried,” replies Arthur Hiller, academy president. “More like annoyed. It gets to be too much. But the Oscar remains the premiere award. Why? Because the academy is the one organization that preserves the dignity of the reward of excellence.”

Former academy president Karl Malden comments: “The Oscar remains No. 1 because it is the only one that was started by the industry. The leaders got together in 1927 and decided they wanted to reward their own. And the sanctity of the process has been preserved down through the years.”

Another former president, Howard W. Koch, puts it succinctly: “It’s a class act.”

The academy will add one more chapter to its fabled history Monday night when the 69th awards are presented at the cavernous Shrine Auditorium just south of downtown Los Angeles.

The three-hour-plus ABC telecast begins at 6 p.m. After taking a few years off, Billy Crystal returns to host the festivities and deflate any untoward pomposity.

If all goes as planned, this year’s Oscar telecast will be a kinder, gentler ceremony.

The theme - at a time when more people seem to be tapping into the Internet by themselves and spending more time commuting in their cars alone - will be “the experience of going to the movies.”

“We’re celebrating the togetherness aspect of it all,” said Gil Cates, producing his seventh Academy Awards. “It’s a gentler theme then we’ve done before.”

“The thing that’s kind of wonderful about movies is that you watch them with other people. The only other areas where you do that, when you think about it, are religion and sports.”

The movie theater, he says, is “a wonderful place where you come together to laugh, to cry.”

The theme will not override the ceremony. In other words, popcorn will not be dispersed to the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium. Just imagine the butter oozing on those Armani tuxes and Bob Mackie gowns on Hollywood’s annual night of splendor.

Rather, Cates said, it will be a subtle theme strung throughout the evening with film clips and speeches.

While ringmaster Crystal was in preparations, he had little time to talk with the press, which panned his last appearance in 1993. Remember Crystal riding in on a giant Academy Award pulled, oxlike, by actor Jack Palance? It didn’t go over too well.

His three previous years at the helm, however, were widely applauded.

With 12 nominations to place it far ahead of the pack, “The English Patient” is expected to dominate the evening.

The film’s producer, Saul Zaentz, is already assured of an award: the Irving G. Thalberg bust for consistently distinguished production. He won previous best-picture Oscars for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984).

Monday’s multimillion-dollar Oscar production is a far cry from how the awards started out nearly seven decades ago.

“Back in those days, it was a family affair,” Malden says. “The people said, ‘Let’s get together at a hotel ballroom and have a party and give out prizes for the best achievements of the year.’ That’s how it was - strictly an industry affair.”

From all reports, those dinners from 1929 to 1943 were the most enjoyable of academy affairs. Most of the major stars turned out in all their glamour, and the dinner tables were jammed with famous names.

All had a few drinks - after the repeal of Prohibition, of course - to make the evening more enjoyable.

Formality went out the window. The winners and the losers were twitted by comedians such as Will Rogers and Bob Hope, and the guests went home feeling pride in the movie business.

Such intimacy began to erode in 1944. Because of wartime restrictions, the awards were held for the first time in a theater - Grauman’s Chinese. Never again would the Oscars have that air of a chamber of commerce dispensing its annual citations of merit.

But the big change came in 1953, when the awards were telecast for the first time. Forty-three million Americans were able to see Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed receive their statuettes and make their thank-yous.

Thus, the Academy Awards became a television pageant to entertain millions, not merely an industry affair.

Down through the years, the televised awards have provided those special moments that have kept the magic of Oscar alive:

Ingrid Bergman proudly holding her second Oscar after six years of being ostracized by Hollywood for her affair with Roberto Rossellini.

Jimmy Stewart breaking down as he paid tribute to his dying friend, Gary Cooper.

Elizabeth Taylor winning (for “Butterfield 8,” a movie she hated) after a near-fatal bout with pneumonia.

Cary Grant, who never won an Oscar, making a gracious speech after receiving an honorary award.

Marlon Brando refusing his “Godfather” award by sending a surrogate to protest the treatment of Native-Americans.

David Niven suavely dismissing a streaker with: “Just think, the only laugh that man will probably ever get is for stripping his clothes and showing off his shortcomings.”

Who could forget Louise Fletcher signing her acceptance speech for the benefit of her deaf parents? Or four-time winner Katharine Hepburn making her only academy appearance to salute her producer, Lawrence Weingarten? Or John Wayne finally winning his Oscar after 40 years in the business? Or George C. Scott’s no-show?

And a review of Oscar’s golden moments wouldn’t be complete without the images of Charlie Chaplin donning a derby after getting his honorary award; the aged, bewigged Mary Pickford receiving hers at home; Vanessa Redgrave drawing boos for her anti-Israel speech; Jane Fonda accepting the award for her ailing father, Henry.

The magic continues Monday night.