No Titanic battles or small intrigues, no memorable acceptance speeches or ad-libs. Lots of shtick and once again, they held us hostage for close to four hours.
But the 72nd annual Academy Awards telecast was hipper than in years past, sleeker in look and edgier in tone.
It was still something of a chore to watch (it will always be something of a chore to watch), but the show, executive-produced by Richard and Lili Zanuck, and once again hosted by Billy (available for weddings and bar mitzvahs) Crystal, appeared to be inching toward the 21st century.
Safe little techno gimmicks helped--taking the camera backstage, for instance, or jazzing up the set and the lighting. The traditionally bloated, overproduced dance numbers for best original song nominees were jettisoned in favor of truncated versions. Finally, you thought, as if the Oscars had set up a customer-service center and listened to complaints.
The streamlined approach was threatened by a tribute to great movie music--featuring people like Dionne Warwick and Garth Brooks and Queen Latifah and Ray Charles singing the classics of Hollywood film. This looked to be a leaden part of the evening, but it was over soon enough. And the Oscars earned some credibility with younger moviegoers by giving such prominence to the nominated song "Blame Canada," from "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" performed by unabashed "South Park" fan Robin Williams.
This being the Oscars, there's still plenty to bellyache about. The Zanucks may want to work on the credulity of some of the introductions (presenter Ethan Hawke, for instance, was introduced as "a noted novelist"). The speeches were rote and uninspiring. Receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work in film, Warren Beatty rambled profundities, not unlike his neo-presidential political speech at the Beverly Hilton some months back. Novelist John Irving (just to be clear, he's a somewhat more noted novelist than Hawke) tried to inject some politics into the evening by paying tribute to Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion Rights League in accepting the best adapted screenplay award for "The Cider House Rules." Kevin Spacey kind-of-cried, thanking surrogate father figure Jack Lemmon and his friends for "pointing out my worst qualities," but otherwise the speeches were boilerplate Oscar stuff.
As always, Crystal proved the adept host. Sometimes the jokes thud, sure, but somehow that's the point--when one fails, there are 50 more just around the corner. Like Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," Crystal takes 20 or so minutes off the top. He overstays his welcome, but at the Oscars Crystal's also the perfect antidote to the entire evening's self-serious posturing, where on the arrival line actresses stand there in dresses that defy logic and gravity, saying that "it's all about the work."
With Crystal, it's all about the jokes, and the best of the evening could be found in a montage of gags in which Crystal time-traveled through a history of film, winding up across a table from Charlie Chaplin in an old silent. Crystal's punch line: "I see dead people."
For those who just want to gawk, it's all about the arrivals. And this year there were three different broadcasts to choose from, including the marathon coverage on the cable network E! featuring Joan and Melissa Rivers, and Roger Ebert and George Pennacchio on KABC. Thirty minutes before curtain, on came Tyra Banks, Chris Connelly and Meredith Vieira to take over for ABC. They screamed at the stars, screamed at each other, and Vieira ended things by taking the camera into the Shrine, where she deposited herself on Clint Eastwood's lap.
It was time for the circus of the stars to begin.