TV review: At Oscars, the kids were all right and the 'Speech' was well-prepared

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:20 AM

Anne Hathaway hosted the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on ABC Sunday night, as scheduled. And her co-host, James Franco, did what exactly? (Besides be handsome? Besides a little Marilyn Monroe drag? And besides shouting "NYU, whassup!" to the Best Live Action Short winner? What, that's not enough?)

Don't get me wrong. The kids are all right, and all that. I like pushing the Academy Awards in whatever next-gen direction will get people's attention, and, probably like the rest of your Oscar-watching party, I long ago gave up hoping for fantastic television and decided to revel in the attempt to lift that immovable boulder off of Hollywood's deadened extremity. Oscar had part of our attention. It had the minimum amount.

Good thing. While charming in parts and clocking in at an unusually and blessedly brisk 3 hours and 11 minutes, the Hathaway/Franco show resulted in a fairly predictable array of awards: Best Picture went to "The King's Speech," for which the speech was more than prepared. Best Actor went, of course, to a very elegantly humble Colin Firth for his role as King George VI in that film. Best Director was also a "King's Speech" moment for Tom Hooper.

Best Actress went, as everyone thought it would, to Natalie Portman for "Black Swan."

(RELATED: Complete list of Oscar winners)

As for your hosts, Hathaway worked her derriere off and Franco came off like that lacrosse boy you wish your daughter didn't hang out with so much, sort of heavy-lidded and smirky and ... well, let's give him credit for being James Franco, the 23-hour-a-day workaholic/grad student/filmmaker/soap-opera/not-Best Actor wunderkind of his generation.

Turns out hosting Oscars is when the dude decides to take a rest. The only required trick for Franco and Hathaway was to manage to not look like they were doing one of those flirty commercials for a phone plan. (He's so laid back! She's so hyper! And now they get unlimited 4G downloads and texting! etc.)

Instead, like first-graders at a Thanksgiving pageant, they waved to their relatives. Hathaway's mother stood up in the audience to urge her daughter to stand up straight; Franco's grandmother was given a lame Marky Mark joke to make about "The Fighter's" Mark Wahlberg. Sweet jokes, yes, but not the youth revolution that Oscar's month of hot-new-hosts hype had promised. What's with the moldy "Back to the Future" shtick and the six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon line? "Inception"-ing Alec Baldwin's dreams in order to figure out how to host the Oscars? Here's a revolution: Host the Oscars and shaddup about it. Skip the self-referencing. Wasn't the idea to lean forward?

It's such a her and him thing. She spent the evening trying hard to really sell it (with iffy results) and then, late in the night, it was her job to tell him what a good job he was doing, and he's all, like, 'lax, bro.

Viewers, it was written this way. Young women of America, take note: It's going to be like this the rest of your lives. (And if you make it to the red carpet, the likes of Giuliana Rancic and Kelly Osbourne will refer to you as "girls" instead of women in the still deliciously awful E! pre-show.

Oh, Oscar people - the more you try to make this thing appeal to the young, the more interesting you make the old. The best moment came in the show's first half hour, when 94-year-old Kirk Douglas gave the Best Supporting Actress award to a flabbergasted 50-year-old Melissa Leo for her role in "The Fighter."

Those old showmen like Douglas - you wince when they bring them out, watching them dodder to the microphone, and then the joke's on us: Douglas was delightful. And Leo seemed to be the evening's most humble winner - "Golly, there's people up there, too" she said, looking way up to the rafter seats in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre - and its most foul-mouthed, making use of ABC's panic-button time delay.

"I'm not going to drop the f-bomb like she did before," said her "Fighter" co-star and Best Supporting Actor winner Christian Bale. "I've done that plenty," he joked, referencing a much-heard recording of his 2008 outburst on the set of "Terminator: Salvation" sequel.

David Seidler, who will be 74 this year, accepted the Best Original Screenplay award for "The King's Speech," adding to the idea that watching the Oscars is indeed an activity best reserved for those who have seen a lot of movies. (Forty-nine-year-old Aaron Sorkin, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay for "The Social Network" tipped the long-memory hat to another "Network" and writer Paddy Chayefsky.) Hooray for old movies and old people who've been around forever, right? Randy Newman! Celine Dion! "Gone with the Wind!" The Roosevelt Hotel! Gwyneth Paltrow!

"My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer," Seidler told the audience. "I have heard I'm the oldest person to win this award. I hope that record is broken quickly and often."

All of that expertise, sense of career accomplishment? Sort of swept away with auto-tuned hijinks from Harry Potter and the Twilight films.

Brilliantly, most of the technical awards were doled out lickety split and the show tried something new with a finale rendition of "Over the Rainbow," from those adorable little Staten Island public school imps who are always on YouTube. There was a particularly populated In Memoriam reel, for which there were 233 dearly departed candidates jockeying for five minutes of reflection time. Was anyone left out? Tweeters demanded to know and mustered a wan outrage at the absence of '80s teen star Corey Haim.

I'm strangely at peace with that omission - they got Dennis Hopper, Lynn Redgrave, Blake Edwards and "The Empire Strikes Back" director Irvin Kershner, so we're good. And Lena Horne got a little something special, thanks to former Best Actress winner Halle Berry.

In 2005, after the telecast kept inching down each year toward (and even below) the 40-million-viewers mark, Chris Rock hosted the show and broke the decade-long, repetitiously rotating cycle of Billy Crystal/Whoopi Goldberg/Steve Martin as hosts (a cycle interrupted once, in 1995, by David Letterman's turn at hosting, which is generally remembered as a flop).

Since then the quest for the perfect Academy Awards host - Jon Stewart; Ellen DeGeneres; Jon Stewart again; Hugh Jackman; a nostalgic reappearance by Martin, joined by Baldwin, last year with 41 million viewers - could be seen as an ongoing experiment. Maybe we'll never find the right one.

Instead, the quest has become the thing itself. The Oscars benefit from trying a new host (or hosts) every year, tossing someone new into the sacrificial Oscar volcano and seeing how crispy they emerge.

Or in Franco's case, how stoned-seeming. 'Lax, bro. On you, it works.

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