NEW YORK – Oscar producers -- already biting their nails over the possibility of postponing the ceremonies in the event of an Iraq invasion -- are also struggling to prevent Hollywood's big night from turning into one big fat anti-war rally.
Tinseltown insiders say the Academy wants to head off leftist political rants that might turn off the TV audience -- and give major agita to advertisers who have ponied up more than $75 million to buy advertising spots on the show.
"Political tantrums are inevitable," said Oscar historian Tom O'Neil, who hosts the goldderby.com Web site.
"You're dealing with a class of people who have unchecked egos and who are invited on talk shows to be experts on everything from high art to pop culture."
Such prominent anti-war voices as George Clooney and Susan Sarandon are absent from the list of awards presenters released so far by the Academy, which includes only one performer who has taken a stance against the Iraq invasion -- Salma Hayek, who is also nominated as Best Actress for Frida.
While Academy officials deny an unofficial blacklist, Oscar producer Gil Cates admits that a gag order of sorts will apply to those who hand out the awards.
"I'm asking them to present Best Animated Feature," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not asking them to talk about anything else other than that, and if they wanted to talk about anything else, I wouldn't ask them to present the award."
Political speeches by presenters grabbed the spotlight in 1993, when Sarandon and Tim Robbins raised eyebrows by appealing on the show for the U.S. to admit HIV-positive Haitians -- and Richard Gere asked China's leaders to end their occupation of Tibet.
The New York Post has learned that Gere -- who was on his best behavior when he accepted a Golden Globe award in January as Best Actor in Chicago -- has been invited back as a presenter for this year's show.
Even if Gere and the other presenters stick to their scripts, there's a real possibility that one of the winners will launch into a political speech.
Producer Cates says nothing can be done to stop it.
"If somebody wins the Academy Award and they have 30 seconds to say thank you, while I think it's inappropriate for them to do anything else, I don't think it's unethical," he told the Tribune.
At the 1975 awards, a producer of an anti-Vietnam war documentary read a letter from North Vietnamese leaders -- prompting co-host Frank Sinatra to deliver the only apology for a winner's speech in Academy history.
Experts say the loosest cannon among likely winners this year is avowed lefty director Michael Moore, who is believed to be leading the documentary feature category with Bowling for Columbine.
Moore thanked the French for not supporting the Iraq invasion when he won the award for best foreign language feature at the Cesar awards in Paris last month.
He drew loud applause at Saturday night's Writers Guild of America awards in Los Angeles when he let loose with an anti-Bush broadside after accepting an award for Best Original screenplay.
"What I see is a country that does not like what's going on," Moore said. "Let's all commit ourselves to Bush removal in 2004."