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A Clean and Boring Sweep

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2004; Page C01

A lack of star power, a glut of dour and gloomy nominated movies and the usual pompous verbosity of the winners helped bog down the 76th Annual Academy Awards on ABC last night long before it finally ended. But the return of Billy Crystal as host helped lift the sagging spirits of the more than 31/2-hour ceremony and energized an otherwise doleful and logy show.

What final presenter Steven Spielberg, just after midnight, called "a clean sweep" for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" didn't help, as it made the show seem repetitiously monotonous. The film won 11 Oscars to tie the record first set by "Ben-Hur" in 1959. Winners who worked on the "Rings" trilogy in New Zealand thanked so many people, including their children and parents and associates, that Crystal at one point told the crowd, "People are moving to New Zealand just to be thanked." Earlier he joked, "It's now official: There's nobody in New Zealand left to thank."

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The much-discussed "five-second delay" applied to the live telecast to avoid any obscenities or near-obscenities from going out over the network seemed to kick in only once, during lighthearted remarks by actor Owen Wilson to co-presenter Ben Stiller. It couldn't be determined what allegedly offensive word or words Wilson used, however, and the bleeping may have been a technical glitch rather than an intentional edit. There were a few comic references to the five-second delay during the show.

That someone was sitting with a finger poised on a sanitizing switch suggests in itself that we are to have a new wave of heavy-duty censorship in America and all caused by the exposure of one breast -- Janet Jackson's on the halftime show of this year's Super Bowl. That single unveiling seems to be fostering a climate of suppression and fear the likes of which no hard-core porno film was ever able to engender.

In addition to a joke or two from Crystal about the Jackson incident, Robin Williams, standing next to Crystal as they presented the animated film award, kept reaching inside his tuxedo jacket as if about to reveal one of his own nipples, with Crystal imploring him not to do it. In another bit of topical humor, Crystal said of the two tuxedoed men standing together, "Look at us -- a San Francisco wedding cake," a reference to the explosion of same-sex marriages in the city to the north.

Hoped-for or dreaded political protests were almost nonexistent, which really only added to the torpor of the show. Finally Errol Morris, the celebrated documentary filmmaker who won for his "The Fog of War," about Robert McNamara and Vietnam, implicitly compared George W. Bush's war in Iraq to the Vietnam quagmire. Morris told the audience, "I fear we're going down the rabbit hole again."

He was applauded -- not jeered or shouted down as was the case last year with fellow documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who displeased much of the crowd with a tirade against Bush and his pursuit of the war. If things like five-second delays are going to be used to edit politically incorrect or unpopular remarks out of live telecasts, we are in even more trouble than it seems, but that didn't happen last night.

After Morris's remarks, Crystal ad-libbed, "I can't wait for his tax audit." It was one of many much-needed laughs that the still-agile and engaging Crystal sprinkled throughout the evening, although his opening monologue -- really a combination film and song medley -- ate up 20 minutes at the top of the show, an excess that turned out to be an omen. Twenty minutes of fun followed by three hours of boredom isn't really a good formula for a television program.

Insanely, even as the clock approached midnight and the show had passed its assigned closing time of 11:30, the producers and the network still inserted padding that prolonged the production, like a replay of the announcement that Charlize Theron had won the Oscar for Best Actress and a protracted tease for the upcoming Best Actor prize -- which we'd see right after seemingly thousands of more words from our sponsors.

Viewers who sat through the whole show saw more Cadillacs than at a Mafia funeral, so plentiful were ads for the luxury car. But there was also a stunning new animated ad for United Airlines scored to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which is 80 years old this year (and which United bought the rights to years ago, for commercial use only). It was one of the most gorgeous pieces of filmmaking on view all night.

The show would pick up momentum now and then -- as with a funny slapstick gag tied to the presentation of an honorary Oscar to director-writer Blake Edwards (he or a stunt man sped across the stage in a wheelchair and crashed through a wall) -- and then all the air would go out of it, as during a seemingly interminable musical interlude featuring three of the melancholy ditties nominated for Best Song. The only song with any spirit was from a little-known animated feature called "The Triplets of Belleville," which was sung later and didn't win. A mournful ballad from "Lord of the Rings" won instead.

There was a time, perhaps when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, that actors and other winners at big award shows tried to come up with smart and clever remarks when they made their acceptance speeches. It was almost a competition in itself. The practice has dwindled to almost nothing. Mostly people come out and simply recite long, boring lists of names -- lists and lists of lists -- that ironically or not help make the program listless. There is probably no way the practice can be stopped, and winners will continue to thank their relatives, lawyers, first-grade teachers and anyone else whose name pops into their heads instead of attempting to be witty.

It is about as entertaining as watching Jell-O congeal, and it helps dispel whatever vestige of excitement remains in the doling out of the Oscars. The show was moved up earlier on the calendar this year in part because there are so many other programs handing out showbiz trophies on television. The Oscarcast should probably be put back where it was, because when it's the last or almost last of the award shows, it at least has a sort of climactic sensibility to it, and that helps one tolerate the torture.

Dramatic emotional moments were few, but one of the most memorable came near the end of the show when, as expected, Theron won the Best Actress prize for her portrayal of a serial killer in "Monster." Expected or not, the award seemed to overwhelm Theron, who just as she started to become tearful loudly told herself, "I'm not going to cry." Sean Penn, bad boy turned respected actor, got a standing ovation from the crowd when he won for his acting in the Clint Eastwood-directed film "Mystic River." Penn, too, appeared moved by the honor.

The presenters were presentable, as it were, but the evening somehow lacked glamour; the melancholy nature of many of the nominated films infested the whole enterprise with an off-putting solemnity. Even a tribute to the late Bob Hope, though engagingly introduced by Tom Hanks, kind of fell flat, maybe because Hope never really was a truly beloved figure in Hollywood. Jim Carrey, attempting to be funny when presenting the award to Edwards, came across as merely childish.

Technical problems, perhaps complicated by the five-second delay, plagued the program. The clips for the Edwards tribute were blurry and looked like inferior prints of his films; they didn't even seem properly centered on the TV screen. Oddly, the ABC logo, which normally sits in the lower right corner of the screen, was absent except during promos for ABC shows. Perhaps the Motion Picture Academy, which owns the production, banned the "bug," as it's called, from the screen.

The director of the telecast repeatedly cut to a reaction shot in the audience of director Peter Weir (whose film "Master and Commander" was multi-nominated but won almost nothing), but he was not identified for viewers at home, and his hardly constitutes a household face in this country. There were awkward pauses and several times when voices of the technical crew seeped onto the airwaves. Near the beginning of the show, Crystal could be heard asking "here?" after moving to a different position on the stage.

Crystal acknowledged the Oscar tradition of wretched excess in his opening remarks when he said the show would air "tonight -- and well into tomorrow." It went into "tomorrow," all right, but it didn't do it well.


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