(KRT) - It's official: Billy Crystal is the master and commander of Oscars, he's the Lord of the Center Ring. The 76th Annual Academy Awards returned to the show's old grandeur after last year's understated Iraqi war special and the post-Sept. 11 broadcast before that.
Crystal was back in charge, performing his staple film-clip satire of the year's nominees, romping through the mist as a bloated, naked Gollum, greeting Civil War-era Nicole Kidman and middle-aged heroes Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in the buff. This was followed by his great movie medley - "Old Man River" for "Mystic River," "Maria" for Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," "My Favorite Things" for "Lord of the Rings."
In years past, there's been too little color - all that boring, sensible, dinner-party black - so this year, almost as a backlash, we saw an obscene amount of almost unwearable, semitasteless shades: turquoise, Prussian blue, tangerine.
It's as if the actresses were saying to lesser mortals, "Hey, I'm so gosh-darned, good-looking I can wear anything, even this dreadful shade of turquoise," as was the case with Scarlett Johansson - who is about 12, OK 19 - in an Alberta Ferretti. Jamie Lee Curtis and a seriously-with-child Marcia Gay Harden appeared in harsh blue, while Jennifer Garner selected a one-shouldered, vintage tangerine Valentino. Vintage also was the choice of Samantha Morton in a 1951 strapless lilac-lace Givenchy.
The other option was to go with white or cool metallic shades. Supporting-actress winner Renee Zellweger was in a strapless white satin Carolina Herrera gown with a cathedral train. Oprah Winfrey was regal, as always; she wore a sweeping gray Gianfranco Ferre gown. An unusually subdued Angelina Jolie chose a white satin Marc Bouwer dress with a plunging neckline; Keisha Castle-Hughes was in age-appropriate pale pink; Patricia Clarkson went in a gold Michael Vollbracht for Bill Blass; Naomi Watts was in a strapless silver Versace; and Holly Hunter wore a pink Vera Wang.
The two towering, pale-blond goddesses, the whitest women in the world, Kidman in strapless metallic blue Chanel couture, squaring off against Charlize Theron in a spaghetti-strapped, 1920s-style silver Tom Ford design for Gucci, had 2 grams of fat between them. (Incidentally, the embroidery on the bottom of Kidman's gown - as if any viewer could see it - required more than 400 hours of labor.)
It's important to remember that these women are loved by Oscar for playing roles in which they look really, really bad and much older than their true ages. You know, like real people.
Tanya Barrientos: Right. They pay a fortune for Botox and cheek implants, and then sit in a makeup chair for four hours to look the way we do in the morning. That's dedication.
Karen Heller: Or Renee's having to gain weight to be a size 6 or something. Meanwhile, all the actresses of normal size and middle age aren't working. Of course, it is fun to see these otherworldly goddesses.
T.B.: You know why Renee had to wear that train, and Jennifer Garner, too? They're such whippets, they need ballast to stay upright in a breeze.
K.H.: Did you see "House of Sand and Fog's" Shohreh Aghdashloo? Born in 1952, hair down, scarlet gown. She has curves and looks fantastic. Imagine that. A grown woman at the Oscars.
T.B.: Why do I hate Catherine Zeta-Jones so much? It's the way she struts and looks down her perfect nose at us. She reminds me of that ad where the lady says, "Don't hate me for being beautiful." Except Zeta-Jones is saying, "Go ahead, hate me, you hag."
K.H.: Then there's Susan Sarandon, paramour of supporting-actor winner Tim Robbins, showing the greatest cleavage of the evening. And at 57! If you've still got it, flaunt it.
T.B.: Liberal poster boy Robbins has us trained to listen to his every word like Nipper the RCA dog, waiting for his political rant. And then he goes and plays it low-key, giving a tasteful plea for abuse victims to seek counseling.
K.H.: Crystal did an uncomfortable amount of Bush-bashing, and Robin Williams belabored the gay jokes. Documentary winner Errol Morris criticized the current war. It supports the right's deepest fears.
T.B.: As usual, after Crystal's fast start, the show started to drag. It seemed as if dead people got more airtime than live ones. You always forget how excruciating it can be.
K.H.: As the fashion editor Diana Vreeland said: "We all need a splash of bad taste. No taste is what I'm against!" The Oscars need some bad taste; I just hated to see it in the form of Diane Keaton. In "Something's Gotta Give," she looks so great.
T.B.: How far back into her closet did she dig to find her "Annie Hall" porkpie hat, men's tie, pinstriped vest? Maybe it's a good-luck thing, wearing the same ensemble as when she won best actress in 1977. La-dee-da, la-dee-da.
K.H.: Julia Roberts' introduction to the Katharine Hepburn tribute was an utter dud.
T.B.: Why was she selected? Julia didn't even know Hepburn.
K.H.: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson were shameless in their promotion of "Starsky and Hutch" - was anyone begging for this movie to be made? - beginning with their unfunny schtick during the pre-Oscar telecast, and then with Stiller's appearing in costume during the telecast.
T.B.: Speaking of the men, they definitely have superior highlights. Looks as if pretty boy Wilson inherited Robert Redford's colorist.
K.H.: Look at Johnny Depp with his auburn streaks and sheep-dog bangs. Of course he can pull it off. He lives in France. How about that Porter Wagoner black band around his collar? Every year, some brave men take a risk by doing something curiously odd around their necks. But I love Peter Jackson. He's from New Zealand. He doesn't care. He looks like the last man to close the bar.
T.B.: With Jack Black waiting with a six-pack in the parking lot.
K.H.: Those Hobbit lads with their spiky hair looked like a high-school garage band by way of "Queer Eye.
T.B.: The entire show - the nominations, the acceptance speeches, the low-wattage diamond necklaces - seemed low energy. Maybe it's because nobody in Hollywood is eating carbs.
K.H.: It's like Miss America or the presidential campaign, the buildup is always better than the real thing. The program is mercilessly padded with clips and montages so viewers can go to the fridge for another Atkins shake.
T.B.: Maybe it was the distinct kiwi feel of the evening. As Crystal said, "There's no one left to thank in New Zealand."
K.H.: This was a shortened Oscar campaign season, shrunk from six weeks to four. It diminished the anticipation.
T.B.: And all the awards seemed like a lock. What you really want are a lot of upsets.
K.H.: So you can't wait until next year?
© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.