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Review: Host Martin makes Oscars a great escape from grim reality

Monday, March 24, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Despite the gloomy national mood, Oscar host Steve Martin single-handedly remade the "75th Annual Academy Awards" into a much-needed respite from global events.

Martin radiates class and wit, something often lacking in awards show hosts. From jokes about the allegedly scaled-down ceremony to reaction to his return to the Oscar stage ("Everyone has been supporting my hosting this year except France and Germany"), Martin entertained consistently.

Few of his jokes bombed as Martin gently mocked Hollywood to the delight of celebrities in the audience and, no doubt, plenty of viewers at home.

Just as his monologue threatened to turn into a musical medley, Martin got going on his best riff.

"A movie star is many things: Tall, short, thin or skinny. They can be Democrats... or skinny. A movie star can be young [Haley Joel Osment pictured], middle-aged [Natalie Portman] or old [Reese Witherspoon]."

If Martin was the best thing about the telecast, the old standbys -- too many montages, tributes and clips from Oscar shows past -- were again the worst, but even the montages seemed tighter and less tedious. One new addition to the list of time-wasters: Replays of winners from only moments earlier.

Thankfully, backstage announcers in what looked like an Oscar coat check were eliminated since last year's show. And the telecast moved at, for Oscar, a breakneck clip: Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") was announced as the year's best actor before 11 p.m.

Acceptance speeches were pretty run of the mill, save for Michael Moore, who won for the documentary feature "Bowling for Columbine." Love him or hate him, Moore woke up the crowd. When his name was announced, Moore got a standing ovation, but within moments, he was being cheered and booed for denouncing President Bush, the War in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded security threat levels.

Despite the somber backdrop of war and sobering news about American prisoners of war, there was no reason for ABC to postpone the Oscars. Even on Saturday, a low-rated night for TV viewing that lends itself to pre-emption, networks mostly stuck with regular programming in prime time.

On Sunday, ABC's traditional pre-Oscar Barbara Walters celebrity interview show was pulled for war coverage. Instead of Babs making a celebrity cry, 25 minutes before ABC's Oscar pre-show, Peter Jennings interviewed a tearful mother who said her son was being held as a prisoner of war.

"We apologize for bothering you," Jennings told the woman.

It was a sad juxtaposition -- the tears of actors replaced by the tears of a worried mother.

Another awkward echo: ABC's Oscar pre-show occasionally carried a countdown clock similar to the one some TV stations used last week prior to the start of the war.

Once an hour, Jennings returned with brief war updates. They seemed planned, but when returning to the Oscars after the first news break, Martin had already launched into the beginning of a joke.

Now we'll launch into awards of our own:

A Rivers Runs Through It Award

It wouldn't be an Oscar night without Joan Rivers and her hellspawn on E! They were kept off the red carpet due to security concerns, but Mama Rivers didn't hold her tongue.

"There's Kathy Bates," she said. "No, it's just another Town Car with sensible shoes."

Bates also took a ribbing from Martin.

"It's been a big year for Jack [Nicholson]. He got in a hot tub with Kathy Bates," Martin said, "but hey, who hasn't?"

Bad Timing Award

During an opening cavalcade of clips showing past Oscar winners, producers used a scene from "Lawrence of Arabia" of Peter O'Toole shouting, "No prisoners! No prisoners!" Bad timing given the day's news from Iraq, although what could be perceived as in poor taste was likely unintentional (clip packages are usually put together well in advance of the telecast).

Best Joke About Beefed-Up Security

Coming back from the first commercial break, Martin said, "It's been a great night so far, if you don't count Julie Andrews getting pistol-whipped at security."

Shameless Synergy Award

Jennifer Garner, star of Disney-produced "Alias" on Disney-owned ABC, presented an award for best animated short film alongside Disney-owned animated character Mickey Mouse during the Oscars on ABC.

Most Bizzarre Greeting

Matthew McConaughey, space cadet extraordinaire, greeted the audience, saying, "And a healthy evening to all of you."

Most Audacious Joke

Following the annual memorial tribute to those who died in the past year, Martin said, "Later we're doing a montage of people you think are dead but aren't."

Best Newcomer Award

Actor Adrien Brody was shocked he won the best actor Oscar, but not too shocked that he didn't take the opportunity to give presenter Halle Berry a long, deep kiss on the lips.

"I bet they didn't tell you that was in a gift bag," he told her afterward.

Best Retort

"According to fashion experts, this year cleavage is in, so welcome Academy president Frank Pierson," Martin said in his introduction.

The president of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, trumped Martin, replying, "That's the last time I share a dressing room with him."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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