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Average Oscar telecast needed more laughs

Monday, March 01, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bring back Steve Martin!

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
Host Billy Crystal sings during his monologue to open the 76th annual Academy Awards telecast.
Click photo for larger image.

Sorry, Billy.

It's not that Billy Crystal was a bad Academy Awards host. He was fine, but just fine. Where Martin generated genuine guffaws a year ago, Crystal rehashed old shtick -- appearing in scenes from the past year's movies, singing a song about each film nominated for Best Picture. It was amusing but by no means hilarious.

The funniest moment in his special effects-heavy introduction came courtesy of Michael Moore, who caused ripples with his President Bush-bashing acceptance speech at last year's ceremony. Moore appeared during a "Lord of the Rings" battle sequence railing against "this fictitious war" before getting squashed by an elephant-like creature. Brilliant!

There were some smart, funny lyrics in Crystal's songs ("Lord of the Rings" had "more epic battles than Gest and Minnelli"), but they flew by so fast, it was difficult to catch them all.

One of Crystal's best bits was also his briefest, showing slides of celebrities and naming their favorite films of 2003, including Martha Stewart ("Runaway Jury"), Hillary Clinton ("Kill Bill Vol. 1"), Donald Rumsfeld ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") and Saddam Hussein ("Holes").

The show was low on memorable moments, and the stars' acceptance speeches didn't improve matters. Renee Zellweger rattled off a list of "thank yous" with all the emotion of a cold mountain. When the most heartfelt thank you comes from a relative unknown, "Finding Nemo" writer/director Andrew Stanton, you know it's an uninteresting night. Stanton thanked his wife, to whom he wrote a note in the eighth grade. "And now I can say it to you in front of a billion people, 'I love you.' "

We didn't love the Oscars this year, but we did muster enough enthusiasm for a few awards:

The "They've Got Your Number" Award: It's no secret that E! squawk box Joan Rivers knows as much about celebrities and pop culture as someone who reads only two issues of People magazine every decade, but only Julia Roberts had the courage to call her on it.

"I could tell you I'm nominated and you'd say, 'Congratulations!' " Roberts said to Rivers, who proceeded to ask if Roberts were on a diet. She's not. "You don't have to yet," Rivers said. "Trust me, we'll tell you [when it's time]."

The Some Improvement Award: After several years of pathetic attempts to stage a half-hour Oscar pre-show, ABC decided to script much of this year's edition, including Ben Stiller in a mock snit after his "Starsky & Hutch" co-star Owen Wilson stole his thunder. It was better than flailing, but they'd still be better to scrap the whole thing and just start the awards a half-hour earlier so viewers can get to bed.

Worst moment: Correspondent Maria Menounos told Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, "You guys are quite the lovers." How does she know?

Most Predictable Political Joke No. 1: Crystal said it had been 13 years since he first hosted the Oscars, noting, sarcastically, that much had changed: "Bush was president; the economy was tanking; we'd just finished a war with Iraq." Inevitably, the director of the telecast cut to a shot of liberal actor Tim Robbins yukking it up.

Award for Classier Commercials: The Oscar folks promised less tawdry commercials than the Super Bowl, and they delivered. A computer commercial aped "School of Rock" with children rocking out. An AFLAC ad looked like a scene from a film noir. Celebrities also appeared in several spots, including Jason Biggs hawking Diet Pepsi and Martin Scorsese touting American Express.

Most Predictable Political Joke No. 2: Crystal thanked the Academy Award organizers for letting him "come and go as I please. It's kind of like being in the Texas National Guard."

Award for Nipple Ripples: Jokes relating to Janet Jackson's breast-baring during the Super Bowl halftime show were well-represented. Presenter Robin Williams pulled his jacket to the side, revealing nothing, but prompting Crystal to say, "This is the reason for our five-second delay." He also joked, during a riff on what's going through the stars' minds during the show, that Julie Andrews was thinking, "This sunburst nipple broach is killing me."

And maybe the Jackson imbroglio is the reason Crystal appeared nearly naked throughout his opening filmed bit? Or is he just an exhibitionist?

Worst Timing Award: As Tom Hanks introduced a tribute to the late Bob Hope, the first memorial tribute of the evening, the Oscar telecast director cut to a wizened Mickey Rooney, seen earlier in the evening lurking in the background hoping for an interview with Joan Rivers on E!


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.

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