Cover photo from “Hollywood’s court jester”

Hollywood’s court jester


In the industry where image is everything – right down to the jokes you tell – one man has become synonymous with the most appropriate one-liners for the occasion: Bruce Vilanch. SASHA NAOD caught up with the Hollywood funnyman a week before his biggest gig – the Academy Awards.

Although Vilanch’s name probably only registers with that segment of the public who follow the minutiae of the Hollywood merry-go-round, or read industry bibles like Variety magazine, it’s something of a mantra to some of the biggest names in entertainment, whose material Vilanch often ghosts when they appear in concerts, and at awards shows and charity events.

Bruce Vilanch is a comedy writer, and he’s part of the legion of the entertainment industry’s behind-the-scenes personnel who are there to make the stars look even better than their airbrushed publicity shots. He is known in certain circles as Hollywood’s court jester. Whoopi Goldberg says that “he’s the man you call when you want to say something funny,” and actor Nathan Lane once quipped that Vilanch has “delivered more great lines to celebrities than a Hollywood drug dealer.” By his own admission, Vilanch has worked with everyone “from ABBA to Zadora,” and if you’ve laughed at Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Rosie O’Donnell or Robin Williams, then you’ll be familiar with his work.

Vilanch’s biggest gig airs next week – The Academy Awards. Seen by an audience in their billions, Vilanch occupies the position of head writer, one he has held for the last 15 years. Working with him are ten of the industry’s top writers and comics – seven dedicated to host Steve Martin and three to the rest of the ceremony.

In the process of writing, Vilanch says he and his team scan the last year in film for jokes, anecdotes and box office misses. The majority of writing takes place in the weeks after the nominees have been announced, and Vilanch even stays in the wings on the night, on-hand to make last minute adjustments.

“The Oscars are basically about what’s gone on for the past year as seen through the movies, and about how those movies have affected the public,” he says. “We always start with references to the movies that are being honoured, and then if we can put the rest of the world in, we do.”

Of this year’s line-up, Vilanch says that “it’s been a very violent year, it’s difficult to ignore. Gangs of New York. There are murderers, there are butchers, there’s the Holocaust, then there are people who just put stones in their pockets and just walk in the ocean,” he says, a reference to Nicole Kidman’s performance as Virginia Woolf in the much-hyped The Hours.

Vilanch has picked up two Emmy’s for his work when Billy Crystal was hosting the Awards, and this year he has enjoyed working with new host Steve Martin. “Steve’s like a science teacher who you had in high school, who you discover is slightly off outside of school. He has a strange, skewed view of the world, and that’s what makes him so interesting.”

“There is a ridiculous amount of unreality to it,” concedes Vilanch, “but that’s also part of the fun of it.”

This year is Oscar’s 75th anniversary, and Vilanch says that for the diamond jubilee Awards, we can expect exponential amounts of glitz and glamour. Among its highlights, he says, will be “a parade of Oscar winning stars from days of yore.”

“The stars are already spending their time getting basted and permed and sewn into their outfits and lacquered and curled,” says Vilanch. “They don’t want to move one way or another or their Botox shifts.”

“There is a ridiculous amount of unreality to it,” concedes Vilanch, “but that’s also part of the fun of it.”

Vilanch’s task is to make host Steve Martin and a swag of the world’s biggest stars look funny, erudite or serious – all at the right moment, and all the while balancing what is said with the particular celebrity’s public persona. “They’re not out there to do their acts,” says Vilanch. “They’re there to explain a lot of stuff to an audience who couldn’t care less, and who are just looking for movie stars.”

Oscars host Steve Martin opens the show during the 75th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California 23 March 2003. AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY
Oscars host Steve Martin opens the show during the 75th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California 23 March 2003. AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY

Vilanch’s greatest challenge this year is how to address the issue of war, which he agrees will almost certainly take place, but is hopeful of a delay until after the Oscars ceremony.

He says that anxiety at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the body which organises the Oscars, is palpable, and that security measures are the highest they’ve ever been since September 11.

“We don’t know what’s happening from one day to the next,” says Vilanch. “We just have to plan the show as if nothing’s going to happen and adjust accordingly,” adding that he and the other writers are “just going blindly forward” with their script.

If war breaks out before the ceremony, held next Sunday Los Angeles time, Vilanch says that the subject will have to be “avoided or treated with very boring dignity,” but admits that “if something’s happened and there’s some laughs to it, we might make a couple of jokes.”

Vilanch’s tips for the night include the film Chicago and lady of the moment, Nicole Kidman. “Chicago uses the vocabulary of film very well, it’s a very smart adaptation. I think Nicole has a really big shot. Actually she’ll win in unless Renee Zellweger gets caught in a Chicago scoop,” he says. Vilanch also thinks that Jack Nicholson’s film About Schmidt will win simply because The Academy “seems to love Jack.”

This article originally appeared in The Age.