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 Oscar night

Get complete coverage of the 76th Annual Academy Awards.

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From the Chicago Tribune

Crystal's no ball in tepid Oscar show



On a night when the awards provided almost no surprises -- except for that "Harvie Krumpet" win as best animated short, didn't you think? -- a viewer might have expected the telecast to pick up the slack.

It was, after all, the first Academy Awards back, after three years off, for Billy Crystal in the hosting role. It was the first Oscars and, indeed, the first television show to be produced by Revolution Studios chief Joe Roth.

It was the first recent Oscars to come in February, moved up from March. And it was the first recent Oscars broadcast to have a five-second delay, an after-effect of Janet Jackson's reveal at the Super Bowl, the lone American TV program that outdraws the Academy Awards.

Yet the show felt almost numbingly familiar and disappointingly genteel -- nearly bereft of politics, say, or outrage. There was no Michael Moore rant, except in a brief and ineffective parody. There was, sadly, no discernible need for a delay; the opposite, a fast-forward, might have been a better innovation. And when Tim Robbins got the first award, best supporting actor for "Mystic River," did the inveterate lefty rail inappropriately against his political opposites? No, he thanked his wife and kids and, very tastefully, called for abuse victims like his character to seek help.

Before that, Crystal came out and, instead of a surprise, immediately served up both of his trademark bits, the big filmed piece inserting him into nominated movies and the snappy songs riffing on the films.

The unfortunate twist was that the theme of the filmed piece, "The Return of the Host," celebrated Crystal himself more than the movies.

As opposed to Steve Martin's mostly graceful and low-key hosting turn two years ago, Crystal's opening felt damp with flop-sweat, a grasping performance of greatest hits rather than a new tune.

It was a shame, because when the comic got down to the business of riffing on what was happening during the show, he was good.

"It's now official," Crystal said, referring to the stultifying parade of "Lord of the Rings" wins, "there is nobody left in New Zealand to thank."

After revered documentarian Errol Morris finally won an Oscar, for "The Fog of War," his study of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the director said, to loud applause, that he fears America in Iraq is "going down a rabbit hole once again."

Crystal's response to this lone political moment was both funny and pointed: "I can't wait for his tax audit."

Roth's production had some highlights. The spiffed-up graphics were lovely to look at, the practice of having one presenting pair give out a couple of awards a nice way to move things along.

But three songs in a row is two too many, even if they feature the ethereal voices of Alison Krauss and Annie Lennox. The clips representing the best film nominees were ill-chosen. And the lengthy tributes to deceased Hollywooders Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, and Katharine Hepburn felt like a slight to the year's other dead.

In the awards-show spirit, here are as many more observations as we can squeeze in before the music starts:

Speech of the Night: After a Peter Sellers-inspired pratfall that didn't quite come off, director Blake Edwards' humorously low-key acceptance of a career-achievement Oscar was proof that he is right to think of himself, still, as a writer.

Non-host Comedy Bit of the Night: There weren't many. Even Bill Murray was off. But somebody had the bright idea that Will Ferrell and Jack Black deliver lyrics to the song that plays when speeches are going on too long: "No need to thank your parakeet / You're boring."

Unexpected Celebrity Lookalikes? There was time, as the coronation of "King" progressed, for idle thoughts along these lines. They included: Billy Crystal and, increasingly, Jackie Mason; Tom Hanks and Lyle Lovett by way of David Letterman; the "Return of the King" makeup winner and the nerd from "American Splendor."

Nice Win, Charlize: But America doesn't give two whits about your agent and publicists.

Thank You, Billy Crystal: His best line sounded like a throwaway, but it needed to be said. Tweaking her for the few dollars she makes pitching products, the host introduced Catherine Zeta-Jones with, "She's the reason I bought 12 cell phones." The line kept coming back to us as we endured all those Dennis Haysbert ads for Allstate, or saw the M&Ms inserted into "The Wizard of Oz." After all, what better venue to disrespect moviemaking than the Oscars?




   
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