Run, Dave, run.
You'd think that a celebration of movies could zoom along entirely on its own cinematic energy. As year after year affirms, however, so goes the host, so goes the show.
Thus, many wondered, would the squinty savior from late-night CBS turn fish into loaves? Everyone was expecting so much from David Letterman that he couldn't possibly live up to the billing. And he didn't.
If a humor meter had been employed during Letterman's nervous monologue on Monday night's Academy Awards telecast, his jokes would have ranked beneath even those stupefying opening lines by Arthur Hiller, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Fortunately, Letterman's specially written material improved, and so did the ABC show. On came that Letterman bit using New York cabbies to mimic Robert De Niro ("Are you talking to me?") in "Taxi Driver." On came the amusing self-mockery that found star after star mouthing the same line from Letterman's forgettable cameo in "Cabin Boy." And on came the "dog that spins when you applaud."
There was nothing outrageous or head-turning here, nothing much even to spin about--just some nice, occasionally edgy comedy in an Oscar program from veteran producer Gilbert Cates that turned out to be pretty good television, if you didn't mind a marathon.
The stumbles--Paul Newman's botched delivery of the cinematography award, Oscar winner Martin Landau getting abruptly cut off by music (there has to be a less abrasive way to enforce the clock) and Letterman's nasty fat joke aimed at film critic Roger Ebert--were overshadowed by the more pleasing moments.
They included some nice montages and spirited renditions of Oscar-nominated songs, plus Jamie Lee Curtis' inspired entrance as a human special effect. And best of all was Tom Hanks, best actor winner for "Forrest Gump," who offered yet another primer on how to accept an Oscar with passion, dignity, humility and tenderness.
It's unrealistic to expect the Oscar telecast ever to match the best of the movies and the performances they exalt. Lowered expectations help. What you expect from local stations, though, you often get.
As always, the evening's most arresting stupid pet tricks came even before the ABC telecast began. They arrived via that venerable KABC-TV Channel 7 program, "An Evening at the Academy Awards," and its new pre-Oscar competitor, "Live From the Academy Awards" on KTLA-TV Channel 5.
These shows memorialize the occasions when Oscar nominees and other stars and their entourages face the media en route to the hall (this year the Shrine Auditorium), traversing a broad, seemingly infinite crimson walkway of frozen smiles and human oil slicks. It's here, on this carpet of ooze, where everyone looks just fabulous, is extraordinarily excited, loves everyone else and is tickled to death to be there.
Facing the VIPs Monday were not only the usual glad-handing Pam Thomson and critic-greeter Ebert for Channel 7 but also those babbling caffeine-heads Sam Rubin and Cater Lee (a Phoenix TV anchor) on Channel 5. Either Thomson and Ebert were more mellow this year or they just seemed that way in contrast to their new Channel 5 competitors. They were still gooey and shallow but, compared with Rubin and Cater, they looked like Will and Ariel Durant.
And in the studio, bagged in her own black sequins and standing defiantly with hands on hips while judging what the interviewees were wearing, was Channel 5's ace "fashion expert" Laurie Pike. Putting down the 1994 Oscars for having "too much beige," she came out strong for "shimmer" and "glimmer."
Meanwhile, the relentlessly inane Rubin and Lee were shimmering and glimmering in their own blather. Rubin asked Steve Martin what the Oscar nominees were feeling as the ceremonies drew close. "I think," a slightly perplexed Martin responded, "they're hoping to win."
Lee to Oscar nominee John Travolta: "Last time you were here, you were 23 years old. A whole different perspective." Travolta to Lee: "A whole different perspective." It was unanimous.
The dog wasn't spinning.