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  The Oscars Really Put on a Show

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 1998

Life apparently begins, or rebegins, at 70 – at least for the Academy Awards. The 70th annual Oscar show, live from Los Angeles on ABC last night, seemed born again and revitalized, one of the most entertaining and painless Oscarfests in years.

The hugely enjoyable show reaffirmed the Oscar ceremony as still the classiest and most important of TV's crowded and ever-expanding universe of awards show.

It probably helped that Hollywood was feeling fat and rich, coming off what was a very lucrative year for just about every studio but Warner Bros. And then there was the smash "Titanic," up for many Oscars, now considered the most successful movie of all time. It's likely the ratings for last night's show improved over previous years because the top contender was a huge populist hit, not some quaint, arty or mediocre "personal" film.

From the start, everybody was in vibrant top form, including host Billy Crystal, who got the show off to a roaring and funny start and probably logged his best hosting gig ever. His appearance onstage was preceded by a cleverly edited montage in which Crystal's image was cut into scenes from the leading contenders; for example, it was he, not Kate Winslet, who posed nude to be drawn by Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic."

Among Crystal's quips as the show went on: "To think that a year ago the White House was complaining about too much sex in Hollywood."

The show, produced by Gilbert Cates, was a savvy combination of comedy, spectacle, emotional moments and sheer showmanship. Minor awards were doled out quickly and efficiently, and the big moments paid off rewardingly for fans at home, like Jack Nicholson accepting the best acting Oscar for "As Good as It Gets" or Kim Basinger being recognized as best actress for "L.A. Confidential" and saying, "If anyone watching has a dream out there, just know that I'm living proof they do come true."

In reference to "Titanic," Nicholson said upon winning, "I've had a sinking feeling all night right up to here."

What could have been a stiff and stuffy tribute to Stanley Donen, the great musical director who received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, turned out to be another highlight of the show when Donen said that words failed him at such a moment and broke into song: "Cheek to Cheek," dancing with the Oscar statuette. Martin Scorsese introduced Donen after a montage of clips from his films ("Singin' in the Rain" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" among them).

Seldom have Old Hollywood and New coexisted in such a winningly celebratory way. Novice screenwriters and actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon accepted the best screenplay Oscar for their hit "Good Will Hunting" from venerable oldtimers Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (Damon: "Whoever we forgot, we love you"). Fay Wray, 65 years ago the girl in King Kong's grasp, stood up from the audience to take a bow; the show's finale, just before the announcement of Best Picture, offered what was billed as the largest gathering of Oscar-winning actors ever on one stage – from Anne Bancroft to Teresa Wright, in alphabetical order.

It was an astounding sequence for movie buffs of all ages and generations. The stars included Shirley Temple, Sidney Poitier, Luise Rainer, Claude Jarman Jr. (who won as a child actor in "The Yearling" in 1946), Robert DeNiro, Cher, Sean Connery, Patricia Neal and Harold Russell, a World War II veteran who lost both his hands and played such a man in "The Best Years of Our Lives."

The show had already run well past its scheduled three hours but this was worth waiting up for.

Of course, a viewer was bound to wish less time had been wasted on trivial things up to that moment. As a way of shortening the air time given to nominated songs, which tends to be deadly, they were presented in two medleys. Better idea: condense them down to one medley and just sing one chorus of each. Everyone knew that "My Heart Will Go On," the song from "Titanic," would win anyway, and it did.

For the most part, the performers – with the possible exception of a giant trained bear – behaved with civility and sophistication. There were a few technical fluffs, but you need a few to prove it's a "live" show. Most of the women were beautifully but not scantily dressed; it was not a great night for fans of cleavage. The only performer who looked like a freak was Madonna, who gave out the Oscar for best song.

But 12:30 a.m. came and went and the Best Picture had still not been announced. This represents a failure by the producers to rehearse the show adequately. Few of the accepters babbled at interminable length, so the excessive length has to be blamed on those who planned the show. It's a pity that many people probably went to bed before that gathering of stars was convened.

Finally, Connery appeared again to name the Best Picture, which turned out to be, much as expected, "Titanic." It was bad news for fans of "L.A. Confidential" and "Good Will Hunting," the two most popular underdogs, but basically this was one Oscar evening with very few apparent miscarriages of justice. Considering that Hollywood once got all thrilled and tingly over a total $4 billion box office for an entire year, a movie that's going to make $1 billion all by itself is understandably considered heroic and wonderful in Tinsel Town.

Cameron, accepting the Best Picture Oscar, asked the audience for "a few seconds of silence for Titanic," meaning the ship and not the movie. It was quite moving, even at the late hour.

Anyway, the big victor for the night besides "Titanic" was Crystal, who pretty much earned the job as Oscar host for as long as he wants it, though he's often claimed not to want it. He proved himself worthy to follow in the footsteps of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, who were annual hosts for many happy years. "Well good evening and welcome to 'Titanic,'" Crystal said at the outset, but this Oscar show turned out more to be more on the order of as good as it gets.

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Academy Awards nomination list courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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