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THE LESS-THAN-GOLDEN MOMENTS

With nominations for the 77th Academy Awards five weeks away, we can only hope that the next Oscar ceremony will be as rich in mishaps, envy and vanity as those of years past.

Until then, we can content ourselves with "The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards."

Writing for Premiere, author Steve Pond has enjoyed unparalleled access to the Oscar production. Happily, he's finally unloading some of what he's seen for the book, due out next month.

For instance:

In 1991, while Madonna was getting ready to rehearse her "Dick Tracy" song "Sooner or Later," a female camera operator was seriously injured falling off the stage into the orchestra pit. Told of the delay, the puzzled diva is said to have asked, "But she's just lying there. Can't we just do this?"

Then there was the technician who fell asleep, ruining a bit where Her Madgesty's microphone was supposed to appear out of nowhere. Told of the goof, Madonna launched "into an astonishingly profane tirade, despite the fact that the area below the stage was also occupied by a group of children," Pond writes. "Furious, she grabbed (the bearer of the bad news) around the neck and lifted him bodily off the ground, not relinquishing her grip until the trapdoor opened and she began to rise."

Rehearsing with musical director Burt Bacharach for the 2000 awards, a disoriented Whitney Houston began singing "The Way We Were" -- even though Bacharach was playing "Over the Rainbow."

"Houston's voice was shaky, she seemed distracted and jittery, and her attitude was casual, almost defiant," Pond writes. "Finally, Bacharach (at wit's end) slumped over the piano, (putting) his head down on the keys."

Pulling her from the lineup, producer Lili Zanuck said, "We didn't want to work for six months for this to be a show about how (bleeped)-up Whitney Houston was."

Whoopi Goldberg hosted the awards four times, but only once, in 1996, was she the producer's first choice. ABC censor Susan Futterman would post notes on her dressing-room mirror reminding Goldberg to watch her mouth.

In 2002, producers scrambled to avoid shooting Gwyneth Paltrow's and Cameron Diaz's chests after they discovered that the blond goddesses were wearing outfits that turned see-through under bright stage lights.

In 2004, a worried producer called presenter Jamie Lee Curtis before the broadcast to ask, "Are your nipples covered?" Curtis responded, "Yes, my nipples are covered" -- but, backstage, couldn't resist flashing a breast at a friend.

In 2003, Hilary Swank, Renee Zellweger and Diane Lane were gossiping in the line for the ladies' room when Julie Andrews emerged. "Yes," quipped Andrews, "Mary Poppins really does go to the bathroom."

There's nothing like a new movie to revive an old grudge.

Leonardo DiCaprio, star of "The Aviator," and his buddy Tobey Maguire have been sued by a producer who claims the two actors blocked the release of a 1995 film they starred in.

John Schindler alleges the actors warned potential distributors that DiCaprio wouldn't work with them on other projects if they released "Don's Plum," a low-budget film about a group of friends hanging out at a diner.

The actors' reps had no immediate comment on the L.A. Superior Court suit, which seeks $38 million. In 1999, DiCaprio and Maguire settled a $10 million lawsuit with another "Don's Plum" producer, David Stutman, who was allowed to distribute the movie outside the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile, "Aviator" director Martin Scorsese has been thwacked with another batch of legal papers in Manhattan Supreme Court. Producer Gianni Nunnari says Scorsese owes him more than $42,000 in legal fees stemming from litigation over "Silence," a Nunnari project the filmmaker agreed to make in 1990.

Nunnari's lawyer, Richard Golub, says he racked up the fees trying to get the 62-year-old Scorsese to take a medical exam required for an insurance policy.

Golub alleges that Scorsese's own lawyer, James Janowitz, admitted the director "is difficult to deal with and doesn't care about contractual obligations."

Golub also charges that despite their court battle, Janowitz and "another uninvited individual" had the "brazen arrogance" to "crash" Nunnari's Oscar party in L.A. last February. Janowitz denies bad-mouthing his client and insists he was invited to the party.

Tribune Media Services

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