Memo to Jon Stewart: Keep Your 'Daily' Job

By Tom Shales
Monday, March 6, 2006

"Crash" was not only the film chosen Best Picture at the 78th Academy Awards last night; it was also the sound made by the show itself as, metaphorically speaking, it drove into a wall.

It's hard to believe that professional entertainers could have put together a show less entertaining than this year's Oscars, hosted with a smug humorlessness by comic Jon Stewart, a sad and pale shadow of great hosts gone by.

The movie "Munich" was represented in one category, musical score, by a clip in which suspense built over a bomb that didn't go off. The Oscar show on ABC, televised live from Los Angeles, was a bomb that did.

Film buffs and the politically minded, meanwhile, will be arguing this morning about whether the Best Picture Oscar to "Crash" was really for the film's merit or just a cop-out by the Motion Picture Academy so it wouldn't have to give the prize to "Brokeback Mountain," a movie about two cowboys who fall reluctantly but passionately in love.

"Mountain" won two of the major awards leading up to Best Picture: Best Screenplay Adaptation (co-winner Larry McMurtry wore baggy jeans with his tuxedo jacket) and Best Director, for Ang Lee. In his acceptance speech, Lee said the movie was not just about a homosexual affair but about "the greatness of love itself."

But the Academy ran out of love for the film at that point, making "Crash" the surprise winner. To its credit, "Crash" (which won two other Oscars) deals with important social issues too, especially racism in American society.

Among the more beguiling acceptance speeches was that given by Reese Witherspoon, who won for playing country singer June Carter in "Walk the Line," the story of Johnny Cash. "I never thought I'd be up here in my whole life," she said with ingenuous charm. She also quoted June Carter's succinct philosophy of life: "I'm just trying to matter."

The program looked gorgeous in high-definition television from the Kodak Theatre, but it was filled with so many clips -- piles and piles and miles and miles of clips from films present and past -- that the visual luster was squandered. The audience at home does not want to look at clips. It wants to look at big-time movie stars.

Unfortunately, those are in increasingly short supply. When Jack Nicholson strode out to give the Best Picture prize at the evening's end, there was not only an ovation but a huge sigh of relief in the audience -- a sense of the whole crowd saying, "Oh yes, we still have giants in the business."

This point was made earlier as well when Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin did a masterly, breathless impression of a film by special honoree Robert Altman, replete with overlapping dialogue, half-finished thoughts and constant interruptions. This was a piece of presentation that must have taken weeks to master in rehearsal; it was a double virtuoso performance.

Stewart began the show drearily, loping through a monologue that lacked a single hilarious joke with the possible exception of "Bjork couldn't be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her."

That was about it -- and Stewart had five months, working with his legions of writers from the "Daily Show" on Comedy Central, to come up with good material. It goes to prove that there's still a big, big difference between basic cable and big-time network television after all.

The liveliest moment of the night was contributed by the hip-hop ensemble Three 6 Mafia performing a nominated song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from the film "Hustle & Flow." The group practically brought the house down, leading Stewart to ask, following the riotous performance, "How come they're the most excited people here tonight?" He said more Oscar acceptance speeches should be as rollicking. But it's the host's job to generate excitement, too, and Stewart generated none.

There was a cute taped bit before he appeared in which past hosts turned the job down. Billy Crystal and Chris Rock said no because they were sharing a tent a la "Brokeback." Even David Letterman, who has joked for years about flopping as an Oscar host, made a gracious reappearance as if to say "no hard feelings."

Letterman's hosting gig, however, was better than Stewart's by far.

For some strange reason, ABC decided to play music under most of the acceptance speeches, instead of just having music interrupt winners when it was time for them to walk off. Perhaps the music was there to facilitate the use of a 10- or 15-second delay, part of the new morality inflicted on TV by the FCC, which levies fines for naughty words even when they are spoken spontaneously and with no malice aforethought on shows like this.

Among other highlights: Jessica Alba's dress; Jessica Alba; a handsome Plexiglas lectern that facilitated some dramatic shots from just in front of the stage; the usual tastefully done "in memoriam" montage for film figures who died since the last Oscarcast; and Jennifer Lopez looking particularly attractive.

Winners of Best Documentary Feature for the film "March of the Penguins" had the clunky bad taste to bring stuffed penguins onto the stage with them. It was a joke that laid a penguin-size egg.

The epitome of honesty perhaps came when Stewart muttered "I am a loser" into the microphone. He was speaking not only for himself but for the whole show.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company