"Things Have Changed" isn't just the name of the Bob Dylan song that won an Oscar last night, it also serves as a happy verdict about the whole show. Although as usual it was far too long, lasting more than three hours, the celebration really did seem celebratory for a change.
Wittily hosted by Steve Martin -- the best Oscar host since Johnny Carson -- the show seemed never to drag, or at least it dragged less often than usual, and the producers also restored to the telecast a great deal of the class and stature which faded away in recent years. At times, the show was almost too dignified for its own good, yet it remained exciting and entertaining even at its loftier and more pretentious moments. It was the best Oscar show in years, and Martin would be a good choice to be permanent host for as many years as he's willing to do it.
The 73rd Annual Academy Awards, live on ABC from Los Angeles, had a "2001" theme and included an appearance late in the evening by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the story on which the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" was based. Clarke spoke from Sri Lanka, emphasizing the international nature of the event, probably the most global Oscars ever, what with Taiwan's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" winning many prizes (including Best Foreign Film); Italy's Dino De Laurentiis winning the prestigious Irving Thalberg award; Dylan piped in from Australia to sing the nominated song for "Wonder Boys" and accept the Oscar; and Australian-born Russell Crowe winning the Best Actor Oscar for "Gladiator," which was named Best Picture when the show finally came to an end.
Martin, hosting for the first time, maintained a classy tone that did nothing to hamper his comedic prowess. "Please hold your applause unless it's for me," he told the audience in one of many remarks spoofing himself as a creature of Hollywood. Martin did almost no political jokes, instead concentrating on the movie business and myths about the mythmakers. The show was being watched by roughly a billion people around the world, he said, "and everyone is thinking the exact same thing: That we're all gay."
This was early in the show. Martin looked at his watch and said, "Let's see how we're doing on time -- oh, we've got five hours."
Later Martin made a joke out of reported attempts to kidnap Crowe. He said the FBI had finally released the name of the suspect -- "and all I can say is, 'Tom Hanks, you should be ashamed of yourself.' " At this point, director Louis J. Horvitz cut to a shot of Hanks in the audience, and the actor, going along with the gag, prolonged the laughter by looking sheepish and remorseful.
The telecast began daringly with a stunt that could have gone horribly wrong. After a taped "outer space" introduction that featured voices and faces from past Oscar shows (with Carson unforgivably absent), Martin was introduced live from 235 miles above the Earth. Astronauts in the orbiting Destiny space station module ejected a large photo of Martin and then Martin himself appeared on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium. He told the audience that the outer-space sequence had cost the federal government a trillion dollars and said, "There goes your tax cut."
Although Julia Roberts, winning for Best Actress, went on far too self-indulgently with her acceptance speech, most of the speeches were kept tight and brief. Peter Pau, who won for his cinematography on "Crouching Tiger," made a joke out of the time restrictions by rattling off seemingly dozens of Chinese names in less than two minutes -- also dedicating his Oscar "to the people of Hong Kong and to Chinese people all over the world."
Legendary cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff, recipient of another of the night's honorary prizes, began his speech by asking, "Where's the Oscar?" Presenter Dustin Hoffman held it up and said, "It's here." Cardiff playfully snapped, "Well, for God's sake!" And Hoffman hurriedly handed it to him. Cardiff has photographed some of the most beautiful color films ever made, among them "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus."
How classy was the Oscar show? It was so classy that musical artists Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma played a medley of themes from the nominated film scores. Production numbers showcasing the five nominated songs seemed less tacky and definitely less overblown than usual. Dylan was particularly impressive as was Icelandic singer Bjork, who sang "I've Seen It All" from "Dancer in the Dark."
Viewers had hardly seen it all by that point, however, as the Oscarcast would continue for another hour or more. Although it was fast out of the starting gate, with three Oscars given out in the first half hour, the apparently inevitable bloat did set in. One factor: The stage was so huge that it took both winners and presenters too long to walk across it. Roberts's dress was so tight she had to be helped up the steps to the stage. Among other moments both classy and moving was an honorary Oscar to the amazingly prolific screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The award was presented by a still-gorgeous Julie Andrews, who starred in "The Sound of Music," one of Lehman's films (others include "North by Northwest" and "Sweet Smell of Success"). Although Lehman fumbled a few words on the cue cards, most of his speech went smoothly.
As always, the Oscarcast was a fashion parade and a cleavage festival. Cameras came in tight on Jennifer Lopez, perhaps to disguise the fact that the top of her dress was transparent; this became obvious during the pre-Oscar show from outside the hall. Britney Spears, always only partially dressed, starred in a spectacular PepsiCola commercial -- really a music video built around a product -- that stopped the show for home viewers not once but repeatedly. The second time it aired, the costly ad included shots of people watching it on TV around the world -- among them former senator Bob Dole and even workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Most everybody seemed to take a cue from Martin and strived to be at their best. Even Dylan was remarkably lucid in accepting the Oscar from Australia, telling the audience, "God bless you all with peace, tranquillity and goodwill."
Martin spoofed the current rage for TV "reality" shows when he told the crowd, "At the end of the night, we're going to vote someone out of show business." The end of the night was, as always, a long time coming, but at least the show was much more of a pleasure to sit through than it has been for what seems like ages. Steve Martin has a new job if he wants it, and let's hope he does.