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Steve Martin takes over as Oscars host

Thursday, March 22, 2001

By Lynn Elber, The Associated Press

Steve Martin is an actor, comedian, musician and author. On Sunday, he has the chance to add the title of Oscar hero -- or goat.

Serving as the ceremony's host is risky business, as David Letterman and Whoopi Goldberg can attest. Even Billy Crystal had one or two less-than-stellar years.

Gil Cates, producing his 10th Academy Awards ceremony, expressed confidence in first-timer Martin.

"I think he's going to be great," Cates said. "He's smart and analytical. Kind of a precision instrument, as someone described him. And he's very, very funny. That part is good."

Crystal's reign has set the bar for funny very high. Last year, in his seventh outing, the show opened with another masterfully witty sequence in which Crystal was digitally inserted in classic films.

He sought counsel from Don Corleone in "The Godfather" in one scene and sang in "West Side Story" in another: "Tonight, tonight, there'll be no dance tonight, and yet this show will still run too long."

Crystal also knows how to keep his running wisecracks smart and tasteful, qualities that have sometimes eluded other hosts.

At the 1996 show, after Vanessa Williams sang the Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind," Goldberg quipped, "The question I really want to answer: What color is MY wind?"

Letterman flopped painfully the year before. A low point was his attempt to lead his glamorous audience in an impromptu chant of "Uma, Oprah," playing on the names of Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey.

Viewers may have longed to summon Bob Hope or Johnny Carson, Oscar hosts of the past, out of retirement.

An Academy Awards master of ceremonies, in general, is expected to be smooth; funny but not too biting; ready with a quick quip if things go awry and always mindful of the ceremony's sentimental nature.

That last point is key, said awards expert Thomas O'Neil, author of "Movie Awards."

"The reason Crystal and Hope and Carson are the greatest hosts is they know it's a family affair, all about hugs and jokes that have to be targeted in an affectionate way," O'Neil said.

Letterman, he said, committed the sins of trying to upstage the event and being too cynical. Goldberg was warm but needed better material.

Martin, whose comedy has veered between slapstick and high-brow, must strike the right note of accessible humor. He has the advantage of being a member of the Hollywood film family with credits including "All of Me" and "Father of the Bride."

And Martin did make a memorable appearance as an awards show winner, O'Neil noted: In the 1970s, Martin accepted a comedy album Grammy wearing a smile -- and no trousers.

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