By their very nature, the Oscars are an orgy of self-referential splendor, but Sunday things got more than a little out of hand.
From the moment Morgan Freeman (a.k.a. the voice o' God) stepped out on stage to remind us of the importance of film, the telecast of the 84th Academy Awards hawked the magic of movies with the indefatigable and square-shouldered sprightliness of an ingenue down to her last decent audition dress.
"Let's go to the movies" was the evening's theme, and although it was expressed in ways that were funny (a Christopher Guest skit), amazing (a Cirque du Soleil performance) and even sweet (stars relating their first film experiences), the collective air was surprisingly elegiac, as if the industry truly felt the need to remind itself, and the world, that movies matter.
"Puppets, acrobats, we're a pony away from a bar mitzvah," cracked Billy Crystal about an hour into the show.
He, of course, being the most obvious attempt to evoke the glory days, to create something of an "Oscars Classic" brand. After last year's disastrous attempt to court a younger audience by casting James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts, Crystal rode the ever-swinging pendulum hard to the other side of the demographic spectrum.
"We've cornered the 70- to 85-year-old market," he said, "and, boy, do they spend."
With nary a word about how he came to host for a ninth time — he replaced Eddie Murphy, who withdrew after producer Brett Ratner, having made a homophobic remark at a screening, stepped down — Crystal pulled an "As You Like It," simply resurrecting the template that made him a hosting legend. First the film clip, in which he agonized over whether to host by "appearing" in the nominated films (kissed by George Clooney, dissed by Jonah Hill).
Then, looking slim and spiffy in white tie and tails, he cracked a few in-jokes — "Welcome to the Chapter 11 theater," known as the Kodak before the company's recent bankruptcy — and launched into a song about the nine nominated films. It wound up seeming much more bittersweet and, yes, boring, than retro-cool.
Some of the problem was one of content. Once again the host and producers were faced with applauding a list of nominated films that most Americans have not seen. And this year, the two most awarded films were celebrations of Hollywood, and old Hollywood at that.
"The Artist," which eventually won best director, actor and picture, and "Hugo" are bittersweet themselves, nostalgic love letters to those artists left behind when the technology of filmmaking changed, something that seemed very much on everyone's mind during the show.
"I prefer the big screen," cracked Crystal, "which is my iPad."
Even the winners seemed to hark to another age. Early on, "Hugo" had won so many below-the-line awards that the show seemed like a Martin Scorsese tribute. And though Christopher Plummer's win was a sentimental favorite (at 82, he is the oldest actor to win an Oscar), Meryl Streep beating out Viola Davis seemed very much a victory of Hollywood royalty over the new and exciting.
Intentionally or not, an indigo haze of "ah, the good ol' days" sentiment hung over the show, from Crystal's ironic jokes and the "cigarette girls" handing out popcorn to the gilt and red-velvet color scheme of the set. And while there is nothing wrong with playing things in a minor key — certainly reverence is a safer bet than, say, James Franco in drag — during a three-hour show it can drag things down just a bit.
This isn't to say there weren't a few shining moments, including and especially Streep's funny and amazingly humble acceptance speech ("When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, 'Oh, no! Oh, come on, why her? Again! But whatever.") The Cirque du Soleil performance was fabulous, having musicians in the balcony was cool, and Robert Downey Jr. wins the Best Presenter Ever award for coming out to present best documentary with film crew in tow for his documentary "The Presenter."
"I have to have this up live on Netflix by midnight!" he admonished co-presenter Gwyneth Paltrow.
Guest's skit satirizing a focus group for "The Wizard of Oz" was brilliant (offering more proof that Fred Willard should be in pretty much everything), and Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis wearing white tuxes and clanging cymbals before presenting best song, well, you don't see that every day.
Chris Rock's riff about how easy it is to voice animation also cleared the smoke of the holy incense for a few minutes, raising the question of how different the show would have been if Ratner had kept his lip zipped and Murphy had remained host.
But if Crystal and his bar mitzvah humor seemed a bit dated and occasionally weirdly racist — yes, that was him in black face as Sammy Davis Jr. during the opening number, and yes, he did make a joke about there being no black women in Beverly Hills — his hand was steady on the tiller, even if the waters were bathwater calm and very, very familiar.