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  Oscars coverage

  Oscars: So Much Time, So Little Life

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 1999

"We know it's long," said Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg at the outset. "Tough."

Four hours later, she was feeling more apologetic: "While you were watching this show, another century has gone by," she told the crowd in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the audience watching at home.

Billed as the last Oscars of the millennium, the 71st Academy Awards, televised live from Los Angeles last night, threatened to go on into the next one. Though starting a half-hour earlier than usual (and moving from Monday to Sunday nights for the first time in the TV era), the show wasn't over until after 12:30 a.m., when the last thank you's had been gushed and the last hugs hugged.

Insufferable at such length, the Oscar show did at least contain a few gratifying emotional highlights, as when Gwyneth Paltrow, accepting the Best Actress Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love" (which also won Best Picture), broke down in tears mentioning members of her family.

The classiest acceptance speech was probably given by Judi Dench, who won Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth in the same film. "Eight minutes on the screen, I should only get a little bit of him," she said, clutching the statuette.

As for the heavily ballyhooed political protest over giving the Governors' Award to famous director and stool pigeon Elia Kazan, it was a trivial fizzle. Only a few of those in the hall refused to applaud when Kazan tottered out to accept the honorary prize from Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Far more people not only applauded but stood up as Kazan took his bows.

Kazan kept his career intact during the era of the Hollywood blacklist by naming names of friends and associates with alleged communist ties. The new Hollywood doesn't have much of an institutional memory, and very few of the celebrities in the audience took the opportunity to register displeasure. Besides, Kazan seemed befuddled and harmless.

"I think I can just slip away," he said, in what seemed to be the conclusion of his remarks. Then he asked Scorsese and DeNiro if he should say more. He couldn't because, thank heaven, the band was playing, so he was ushered off the stage and back into retirement whence he came.

The honorary Oscars slowed down the show as usual, though the Irving Thalberg Award seemed richly deserved by director-producer Norman Jewison, who told young filmmakers who might be looking in to ignore the grosses and the demographics and "just tell stories that move us to laughter or tears and perhaps tell us a bit about ourselves."

Goldberg did not distinguish herself as host. She spent a great deal of time laughing at her own jokes, many of which were dirty. Somebody had the not-very-bright idea of parading Goldberg out in costumes from each of the five nominated "Best Costume" films. One such costume was of a slave woman from "Beloved." Thus what had been merely time-consuming also became tasteless.

Roy Rogers and Gene Autry made charming Western films in their day, but that day has been over for decades. Surely both could have been included in the necrology of the year along with other filmmaking figures who died. Instead, the two American icons were given a tribute of their own to the tune of "Cowboy Heaven." There were so many tributes to the departed that it began to seem like the Night of the Living Dead.

The show drowns in its pre-taped, pre-planned segments; what people want to see, crave to see, are surprising and unscripted moments. There were far too few of the latter and an uncountable, punishing number of the former.

Elizabeth Taylor sounded the rather sad theme for the night when she appeared in a sensational interview on a Barbara Walters special that preceded the Oscars. She said tapes had been sent to her of nominated films but implied she hadn't been able to watch many of them and said there was "not a whole batch of really stunning films this year." Taylor was stunning, though, and a reminder of all that the term "movie star" once conveyed.

To prove that she had recovered fully from surgery to remove a brain tumor, and on a dare from Walters ("Let's see you get up and move a little"), Taylor rose from her chair and danced around the room, flattered by whatever light happened to hit her. It was as magical as anything that happened at the Oscarcast – probably more so.

The producers of the Oscar show should realize that after three hours, the show begins to reveal itself as the self-indulgent and provincial banality that it is – the banality of banality. At times, the ponderousness of the telecast was saved by the liveliness of the commercials, some of which really did show good filmmaking at its best. The new Gap khaki ads were certainly stunners, as was a commercial inviting viewers to "see the USA in your Chevrolet" and take a trip back through time in the process.

This commercial had more of a sense of the century about it than the Oscar show did, no matter how much looking backward was done during the telecast.

John Glenn showed up to take a bow, introduced by Tom Hanks, who by this time has done his space bit seven times too many. Glenn introduced a montage of movies about historical heroes – nice, maybe, but the clock was ticking, and deafeningly. Every now and then the director cut to a shot of Steven Spielberg sitting in the audience. He looked like he was praying not only for himself but to himself.

Roberto Benigni, the antic Italian filmmaker ("Life Is Beautiful") who makes Robin Williams look like an introvert, livened up the show by mugging and leaping and even walking on the backs of chairs in the auditorium. But these were short livenings indeed. By the time Goldberg paid a tribute to the late film critic Gene Siskel, weary Oscar viewers may have been wishing they could join him, wherever he is, just to get away from this dreadful, horrible television show.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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