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Oscarcast 2009: Golden Statuettes, but Leaden Television

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By Tom Shales
Monday, February 23, 2009

One of the most talked-about moments at the 81st Academy Awards was bound to be Ben Stiller's bold and hilarious lampoon of a recent spaced-out and monosyllabic appearance by heavily bearded actor Joaquin Phoenix on "Late Show With David Letterman." Thus a major highlight of an alleged celebration of film had very little to do with movies and much to do with television.

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The whole Oscarcast, live from Hollywood last night on ABC, really had more to do with television than movies, but maybe it always does, as producers of the show struggle against tradition to make it good TV. They failed again this year, but a few earnest attempts were made to liven up the program -- one of them the hiring of multitalented movie star Hugh Jackman as the show's host.

Jackman, who also appeared on the Barbara Walters special that preceded the Oscars, proved again that he's a versatile and energetic talent, but as an outsider from Australia and a mere hired hand, he appeared to have little if any emotional investment in the proceedings. An opening comical medley of songs built around the titles of films nominated for Best Picture was pointless and flat, for all of Jackman's workmanlike efforts to enliven it.

Later he appeared in a lavish but clumsily disjointed salute to the Hollywood musical, a hodgepodge put together by Baz Luhrmann, director of "Moulin Rouge," which was itself a hodgepodge. But hodgepodgery was very much the order of the night, as the ceremonies were once more bogged down in montage after montage of clips, clips and more clips.

Of course when many of the nominated films have gone unseen by the vast majority of those watching the show, it may make good business sense for the movie studios to expose as much of their footage on the air as possible, in the hope of beefing up box office and DVD sales. But people tune in the Oscars to see stars in the flesh, not to see clips of stars in roles they have already played.

One certifiably emotional moment came about midway through the show when Jerry Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (named in honor of a veteran character actor) from the Motion Picture Academy. Long overdue for some sort of honorary recognition, Lewis said he felt "staggering humility" (whatever that might be) on the occasion. The award was presented mainly for Lewis's years of charitable work on behalf of children with neuromuscular diseases, a cause for which he has worked tirelessly.

The award was presented by Eddie Murphy -- of another comedic generation -- while the orchestra played a musical theme written by Charlie Chaplin, one of comedy film's founding fathers. Thus were three disparate eras joined together. Lewis did not look well, however -- walking unsteadily and breathing with apparent difficulty.

Still, it was the kind of moment that has grown increasingly scarce in the last 10 or 20 years of Oscar shows.

Although Jackman was a competent host, he was by no means an inspired choice. Ironically, there was an obvious inspired choice staring the producers right in the face: Tina Fey, one of the great comic talents of our time, and Steve Martin, venerable and still inventive, who were extremely funny together as presenters of the Oscars for screenplays.

The winner in the category of Best Original Screenplay gave one of the night's few genuinely moving acceptance speeches. Dustin Lane Black, who won for "Milk" -- about gay rights crusader Harvey Milk, as played by Sean Penn -- spoke with tears in his eyes about the American dream "to fall in love and one day get married," something denied gay couples in most states.

Without pontificating, Black said he looked forward to the day when gay men and women would have "equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours."

Also moving was the acceptance of the late Heath Ledger's Best Supporting Actor Oscar (for the Joker in "The Dark Knight") by his father and other members of his family, who came to the show obviously assuming that Ledger would win. He was easily the favorite among oddsmakers and a sentimental shoo-in for the Oscarcast.

Yes, there were highlights, but the 81st Oscar show, which clocked in at 3 hours 23 minutes, was anything but a television highlight for the year so far or even for the week. The Oscar ceremony has been televised since the early '50s, but they still haven't gotten the bugs out.

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