Is Crystal mimicking Marlon Brando? Has his role as a Mafia don's shrink gone to his throat? He orders warm water with lemon, so it's probably nothing more than the post-production flu. Further evidence of the stress and total immersion required of filmmakers occurs when one of us cracks a joke about Monica & Bill. "Who?" asks Billy Crystal, and he's not being funny. You can tell by the way his eyes dart, as he quickly catches up with the rest of us: "Oh yeah, sure." But he's got other things on his mind.
Still, if Crystal had to m.c. the Academy Awards, he would be swimming in Monica & Bill jokes.
"As soon as they announced the nominations, I'd wake up thinking Shakespeare jokes - Shakespeare in love, Shakespeare in heat, Private Ryan, General Ryan, Saving Shakespeare, Ryan in Love, y'know? Y2K jokes, impeachment, im-pear-ment - yeah, that!" He smiles and rolls his eyes about not getting the earlier reference to the exhausted and exhausting dilemma of the Oval Office.
"It's a demanding couple of months. I just couldn't do it this year," he keeps explaining, "not after doing this movie." This movie is "Analyze This," about a mobster in danger of losing his will to kill.
The way Crystal can't stop apologizing, it's clear that he identifies with the role of Oscar Boss more than he'd like us to see. "It's great - a great thing to do, and I've tried to make the m.c. job more than just an announcing spot - or even a commentary on the prizes, y'know? With the song-&-dance number at the beginning and the way we keep everybody involved and a little off-center, and all that. It's a lot of fun, and they give you an Emmy for it, but I just needed to step away - but not too far.
"Whoopie always says she's only leasing that job." He's surprisingly serious about something he does so lightly, so deftly. But then comedy is a very serious business.
"At some point I stopped stand-up because I didn't have something to say on a nightly basis. To be good, you need to believe in what you're doing. The Awards show is the same thing magnified by a gazillion."
Do you go over last year's show later to critique it? "I've never seen the 6 shows I've done. Never, because I..." He pauses, and he seems to watch an idea flit across the room, then turns back with a smile. "Well, why would I?" That's a rhetorical question, he explains. Who's asking rhetorical questions? - comes my response.
Billy Crystal will not do the Oscars. What will he do? "What will I do?" he repeats, turning to look over his shoulder at me to see if it's a serious question - or another one of those rhetorical things.
"I'll be with you guys," and he looks relieved. "Home. Y'know, the worst thing is when you don't want to do it. Or if you're not prepared. And one year I wasn't." He shrugs and doesn't explain that on that year, he happened to be running a fever and almost as sick as he looks right now, something he is trying to cover up as he sips his tea and occasionally strokes his adam's apple.
Crystal seems to be of the "never complain, never explain" school. So what will he be doing, now that he doesn't have to come up with four to six hours of jokes to entertain a mammoth audience throughout the world, as well as the elephantine egos of Hollywood?
"Spring training." He says it with a boyish satisfaction. "I really like to watch it, and I'll spend part of it with the Arizona Diamond Backs, a small team I like. And I'm writing a play - a one-man show that's very, very autobiographical, which ought to be ready by the end of the year."
So much relaxation ought to keep him from sleeping through this year's Oscars.
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