If all goes as planned, this year's Oscar telecast will be a kinder, gentler ceremony.

The theme - at a time when more people seem to be tapping into the Internet by themselves and spending more time commuting in their cars alone - will be "the experience of going to the movies.""We're celebrating the togetherness aspect of it all," said Gil Cates, producing his seventh Academy Awards. "It's a gentler theme than we've done before."

"The thing that's kind of wonderful about movies is that you watch them with other people. The only other areas where you do that, when you think about it, are religion and sports."

The movie theater, he says, is "a wonderful place where you come together to laugh, to cry."

The theme will not override the ceremony. In other words, popcorn will not be dispersed to the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium. Just imagine the butter oozing on those Armani tuxes and Bob Mackie gowns on Hollywood's annual night of splendor.

Rather, Cates said, it will be a subtle theme strung throughout the evening with film clips and speeches.

At the podium will be Billy Crystal, taking his fifth turn as Oscar ringmaster.

While Crystal was in preparations, he had little time to talk with the press, which panned his last appearance in 1993. Remember Crys-tal riding in on a giant Academy Award pulled, ox-like, by actor Jack Palance? It didn't go over too well.

His three previous years at the helm, however, were widely applauded.

Crystal did have time to issue one statement, making reference to MTV's animated duo, who will be Oscar presenters.

`We go way back. It means a lot to me to be working with Beavis and Butt-Head. I've known them since they were pencil drawings."

Real-life presenters include Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Chris O'Don-nell, Jodie Foster, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Spacey, Michael Douglas and Helen Hunt.

For those celebrities who hear their name after the envelope is opened, heed Cates' warning: Don't go over the allotted 45-second limit for acceptance speeches or you'll be swept off stage by the orchestra.

Cates would rather the winners take their cue from Al Pacino.

"I just wish that when people win the Oscar they do not do a laundry list of names. I love it when people talk about themselves. I loved when Al Pacino won the Oscar and he talked about a teacher that was very important to him. I love when people reveal themselves some way, touch us in some way.

"When they want to thank Sam,Sue, Margaret, Harry, you know people that only nine other people know . . . "

As usual, there will be renditions of the five Oscar-nominated songs. Madonna, whose "Evita" performance was snubbed by the Oscars, will perform "You Must Love Me"

from the movie.

Natalie Cole and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval will stand in for Barbra Streisand, who declined an invitation to perform "I Finally Found Someone" from her movie "The Mirror Has Two Faces."

Celine Dion will do "Because You Loved Me" from "Up Close and Personal"; Kenny Loggins will do "For the First Time" from "One Fine Day."

No one will sing "That Thing You Do!" from the film of the same name. Instead, it will be the night's big production number.

The ceremony, airing live at 7 p.m. EST Monday on ABC, will include salutes and honorary Oscars for producer Saul Zaentz and choreographer Michael Kidd ("Hello Dolly," "Guys and Dolls"). Zaentz will get the Irving G. Thal-berg Memorial Award. His current release "The English Patient" is up for 12 Academy Awards. He has won Oscars for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Amadeus" (1984).

Production designer Roy Christopher has created a 24-foot, black-white-and-gray Oscar as part of the stage design for the opening and closing sequences. The overall stage look, he says "is a very neo-classic, art-moderne style."