Billy Crystal climbed back into the saddle as Oscar host Monday night after a four-year absence--just what the show seemingly needed in a film year destined to culminate in an independent's day.
After all, this was a ceremony presumed to be desperately devoid of star power, with nominees like Brenda Blethyn and Emily Watson, who remain, by their own admission, strangers to even much of the moviegoing public.
"Who are you people?" Crystal asked in his opening monologue.
Yet, despite the fact that Crystal found himself riding a horse with so many no-names, the failings in this year's telecast owed more to the production itself. Indeed, the few memorable moments belonged almost entirely to the recipients.
The 69th annual Academy Awards show thus offered the usual mix of magic and dumbfounding mystery--moments of genuine humor and emotion emerging sparingly amid the clunkers and miscalculations, rolled into one big commercial for the movie industry.
All told, this year the mystery far outweighed the magic, in a telecast that proved less compelling--indeed, during stretches more downright dull--than recent predecessors.
One had to question from the outset opening the show with Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Arthur Hiller--a puzzling choice given Crystal's past flamboyant entrances. Those in the Shrine Auditorium looked nearly as disinterested as many in the home audience doubtless were.
The show recovered quickly, thanks to the night's shimmering highlight--a clever montage incorporating Crystal into the best picture nominees. "I want you to explain to me the plot of 'Mission: Impossible,' " he pleaded of Tom Cruise during a locker-room scene culled from "Jerry Maguire."
Crystal slid back into the role of host with relative ease, demonstrating the assorted talents--comic, impressionist, song-and-dance man--that underscore why his previous outings were so well-received.
This year, however, things simply didn't click as in the past. The writing, for example, wasn't as crisp, and with few exceptions the jokes (dubbing Hollywood "the home of 'Secrets & Lies,' " or barbs aimed at former Disney executive Michael Ovitz and Vice President Al Gore) felt a bit forced and stale. David Letterman, aside from that "Uma-Oprah" thing, all is forgiven.
Not that Crystal was to blame. The production itself let him down, from a symbolic glitch involving the sound to the perplexing editing. Really, did we need a crowd reaction shot to every joke Crystal told?
Bouts of excitement did come from the winners themselves. Best supporting actor winner Cuba Gooding Jr. brought needed energy to the proceedings early on with his exuberant acceptance speech--filibustering through the music, literally daring director Louis J. Horvitz to cut him off.
It was, alas, a jolt the show could have doubtless used during its flabby midsection. Presenters on hand ostensibly for their comedic skills fell thuddingly flat, and even the unique talents of Beavis and Butt-head were wasted. When Jim Carrey--or, on the more serious side, a semi-spontaneous tribute to Muhammad Ali--couldn't rescue the festivities, it became clear this was not going to be a night to remember.
Choreographed numbers may have played well in the theater, but it was hard to get in the spirit watching them on television. Film sequences were a snooze as well and, three hours into the show, those still clinging to consciousness on the East Coast could doubtless have done without that lengthy montage of Shakespeare movies.
While "The English Patient's" early dominance left scant suspense about the night's ultimate winner, the show rallied somewhat behind enthusiastic responses to best actor and actress winners Geoffrey Rush and Frances McDormand--each of whom spoke with passion and eloquence.
History will mark this as the first Oscarcast to be rated under the TV industry's new system, receiving a TV-PG--although instead of "Parental Guidance," those letters could just as easily have stood for "Protracted Gushing."
That label certainly applied to the pre-show blather, which produced, as always, a few fabulous blunders. None surpassed critic Roger Ebert, who in greeting arrivals on ABC-owned Channel 7 turned from basketball star Dennis Rodman to his companion, Vivica Fox.
"What's your name?" Ebert blithely asked the actress, who not only co-starred in the blockbuster "Independence Day" but also appears in the new comedy "Arsenio" . . . on ABC.
Ebert's unabashed admiration for folks he did recognize was surpassed by fawning Channel 7 entertainment reporter George Pennacchio, who doled out "good-luck charms" to nominees, including beef jerky to "Sling Blade" writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton.
In terms of a gift being worthy of the giver, it was, perhaps, the night's most appropriate presentation.