I feel distinctly sad about the passing of Gil Cates, who died yesterday at the age of 77, and yet what I’m mourning isn’t precisely the sum of his career parts. A proficient, professional producer-director for screens big and small, he directed at least one fine film: “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams,” a brittle 1973 character study for which Joanne Woodward was Oscar-robbed. (I admit I’ve never seen his “I Never Sang For My Father,” which earned nominations for Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas.)
And yet it’s not these perfectly credible titles that are foregrounded in his obituaries: rather, it’s the less personal but no less demanding achievement of having produced a record 14 Oscar ceremonies between 1990 and 2008. It’s those dates that resonate with me: the 1990 Academy Awards ceremony was the first one I ever watched in full, and the first one hosted by Billy Crystal, arguably the most widely beloved Oscar host of my lifetime.
Crystal’s hosting was Cates’s innovation, as were subsequent emcee choices like Whoopi Goldberg and my personal favorite, Steve Martin. (Admittedly, he was also behind the less successful ceremonies hosted by one-offs like Chris Rock and David Letterman.) Hit or strike-out, however, he’s the man chiefly responsible for shaping the Oscar experience over the last two decades: what I now think of as standard ceremony customs were, in many cases. the result of his own production tweaks.
The Academy has tried out alternative producers in recent years — Brett Ratner is the latest in a recent line that includes Adam Shankman and Bill Condon — but none, for my money, have matched the practicality and good humor of Cates’s late-1990s Oscarcasts. They may not represent the ultimate model for the ceremony, but given my generational position, they’re what I’ll always think of as the sensible standard for this gaudy affair. I’ll leave it to others to make more informed tributes — the Academy itself has released a brief statement — but I sincerely thank him for what he brought to my nascent Oscar-geek years.