It was a jolly good show, probably as good a show as any that lasts more than three hours and is obliged to run commercials for GCB and which bestowed its biggest awards upon a movie only a tiny percentage of the TV audience has seen. This year’s Oscar telecast was a comforting affair, starting with host Billy Crystal. By now, Crystal has achieved that status of being as reassuring as he is funny — you feel relaxed watching him, knowing he’s in charge and alert to the mood of the house. (The house, in fact, the former Kodak Theatre, became a Crystal running gag, renamed things like “Chapter 11 Theatre” and “the Your-Name-Here Theatre.”) Crystal’s opening filmed segment, inserting himself into some of the front-runners, was both funny by itself and funny just because he’s done it before and we like seeing him do it again. (My favorite line here: Billy, in place of Brad Pitt in Moneyball, telling the coaching table, “Clams you’re giving me, clams!”)
For once, even the big production number worked well: the Cirque du Soleil’s movie-salute performance was impressively startling in its nonstop athletic grace, and didn’t overstay its welcome. As for unexpected pleasures, certainly the taped bit about the focus group for The Wizard of Oz, featuring a Christopher Guest mini-reunion that included Guest, Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Jennifer Coolidge, was the most clever, concise, witty, and laugh-out-loud funny.
With Hugo taking many of the early technical awards and The Artist most of the high-profile later ones, it can’t be said there were too many surprises among the winners. Certainly even Meryl Streep seemed startled to take the best actress Oscar over the performer widely speculated as the favorite, Viola Davis.
No, it remained for the presenters to provide a few surprises, as well as a few head-scratching moments. Sandra Bullock pulled a fine poker-face speaking German after announcing she’d be speaking Mandarin Chinese. Emma Stone went charmingly over-the-top with Ben Stiller (“Perky gets old fast with this crowd”). In those taped segments in which various stars talked about what they loved about the movies, Morgan Freeman made me want to see The Outlaw Josie Wales again.
But why was Angelina Jolie thrusting out a leg so aggressively that co-winner Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on Community) felt inspired to mimic the gesture when he arrived on stage to co-collect the Best Adapted Screenplay Award? And was anyone else at home feeling a ringing in your ears from the tinny feedback of the microphones, a flaw I figured the show would repair during a commercial break, but took a long time doing so?
Natalie Portman and Colin Firth had to continue the unfortunate tradition of speaking directly to each Best Actor nominee while reciting stilted, scripted praise: It’s awkward for presenters, the nominees, and for us watching, and ought to be abandoned. At the other extreme, the calculated spontaneity of presenters Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis — in white tuxes, clanging cymbals — was a pretty funny joke that ended up being more broad than anything Crystal did.
Circling back to the host: I like the way Crystal embraced the old-fashioned, kill-‘em-with-volume approach to hosting; it wasn’t just in keeping with his own previous Oscar appearances, but also very much in the tradition of the Bob Hope Oscar years. Gone was any trace of the Oscars chasing after a younger audience; Crystal’s line about “slamming the 78-84 [year-old demo]” was notable for both its light candor and for Billy Crystal using the term “slam” in this context.
I have to add that the biggest thrill I got watching the Oscars this year was seeing the great children’s book author William Joyce win for his gorgeous animated short, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” Joyce has given the world such great art (George Shrinks; Dinosaur Bob) that his reward was exhilarating.
Overall: You couldn’t really say that anyone was robbed of an award he or she should have won (though I sure as hell wish more people had seen Nick Nolte in Warrior), and any Bill Crystal song parody that includes the phrases “Hanks is a memory” and “What’s it all about, Malick” has to be counted as a good night.