"Forrest Gump" may extol the virtues of a box of chocolates, but some critics and viewers of the Academy Awards ceremony Monday reacted as if they wished they had a box of rotten tomatoes for host David Letterman.
The much-touted appearance of CBS' late-night ratings champion drew a bevy of thumbs down from critics who felt his jokes and antics were stupid host tricks that failed to pump much life into the 3 1/2-hour proceedings on ABC.
The detractors complained that Letterman's comedy bits--ranging from his "Uma-Oprah" joke in his opening monologue to a routine with a spinning dog to a taped piece with New York cab drivers talking about movies--did not set the right tone for the event.
Michael Medved of the New York Post laid into Letterman, calling his opening monologue "embarrassingly inept and seemingly endless."
In the Orange County Register, Kinney Littlefield wrote that Letterman was "stuck in his own self-involved talk-show shtick" and turned the show "into an even slower and more painful event."
But Joyce Millman of the San Francisco Examiner was effusive in her praise of Letterman.
"Never before has the host of the Oscars been bigger than the Oscars, bigger than the movies--not Hope, not Carson and certainly not Billy Crystal," Millman wrote. "But Monday night, Letterman proved the recent Rolling Stone magazine headline right. It is Dave's world. We only live in it."
TV critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post thought the problem was the Oscars themselves, not the host.
"Whether Letterman will want to return to the Oscars next year remains to be seen," he wrote. "How enjoyable can it really be trying to push a 10-ton boulder up a hill? The Oscar show proved last night that it's not only entertainment-proof and excitement-proof, but Letterman-proof as well."
The controversy certainly wasn't reflected in the show's ratings. The telecast scored the highest ratings for an Oscar show in 12 years, ABC officials said Tuesday.
The program received a 32.5 rating, a 5% increase over last year. (Each ratings point represents 954,000 homes.) Executives said it was the most watched Oscars since 1983, when the show received a 38. About 81 million viewers saw all or part of this year's show, an increase of 7 million over last year, ABC said. (In the Los Angeles market, the telecast attracted 64% of the available viewers, compared to 53% nationally.)
The theme of the ceremony centered on "Comedy and the Movies," but there was one planned routine that audiences did not get to see.
A car was to have been raffled off during the show. Actress Sally Field was to have "won" the raffle, and would have come on stage to drive the car away.
But last-minute logistics and the presence of an actual helicopter that lowered Jamie Lee Curtis down from the rafters to the stage to present the award for special effects did not make the bit feasible, insiders said.
A more serious tone was also lent to the evening when Arthur Hiller, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and other participants used the show as a platform to rally support for the National Endowment for the Arts, whose federal funding is under attack by conservatives in Washington. Many wore two 32-cent stamps, representing the average annual taxpayer cost of arts funding.
Still, most of the post-Oscar focus revolved around Letterman.
About 2,000 people called in to the syndicated TV magazine program "American Journal" to register their opinions of Letterman's performance. Asked "How did Dave do?," 56% voiced approval while 44% were unimpressed. In response to "Should he be asked to return as host of the Oscars?," 51% said yes.
Viewer reaction on the Prodigy on-line computer service was mostly negative, with even Letterman fans unable to muster much enthusiasm.
"This was an off-night for Dave, unfortunately," wrote Connie Smalley of Los Angeles. "I think that it was probably not his fault--the stuffy old academy suppressed Dave's comedic instincts."
One writer termed Letterman's performance dismal and found it "all the more surprising because he and his writing staff had so much time to prepare."
Mike Littwin of the Baltimore Sun said Letterman was funny, but he wasn't sure Letterman worked as host of a show that is supposed to celebrate films. Crystal, on the other hand, "believes in Hollywood," Littwin said. "He makes these schmaltzy movies that make you know he believes. What does Dave believe in? Dave believes in Sirajul and Mujibur."
Letterman, who departed Tuesday for London to prepare for a visit that his "Late Show" will make there in May, was unavailable for comment.
But Gil Gates, producer of the Academy Awards show, had nothing but praise for Letterman.
"I thought Dave was terrific," Cates said in an interview Tuesday. "The pressure on a host is really unbearable. . . . It's crushing work, and it's even more crushing if you take a chance. When you have a spinning dog in front of a billion people, and you have two pieces of film with cab drivers and auditions, that's taking a tremendous chance. It takes a tremendous amount of courage."
Cates, who has produced seven Academy Awards broadcasts, added, "I absolutely think he should do the show again."
Cates said, however, that he might not have a say in the matter because this may be the last year he produces the show. The producer of the broadcast is appointed by the academy president, and a new president will be elected this year.
Times staff writers Jane Hall and Jerry Crowe contributed to this story.