The jokes weren't so bad, the production numbers weren't so bad, the acceptance speeches weren't so bad, but the movies weren't so good. Maybe that's why the 63rd annual Academy Awards, live from Los Angeles last night on ABC, fell pretty darn flat.

It was all somehow very very recessionary. Through a glass, weakly.

There was an absence of truly excruciating catastrophes, nobody attempted any daffy political gestures, nor were there extraordinary examples of horrendous bad taste, unless of course you consider the whole self-congratulatory ordeal to be in bad taste. And, indeed, the show, as produced by Gilbert Cates, hummed right along with few glitches. But it also ho-hummed right along.

The lows weren't very low, but the highs were.

Billy Crystal was the host for the second year in a row, and ended his opening monologue with a new version of the amusingly hokey medley of Best Picture titles that he introduced last year, but he didn't have one corker of a joke. Worse, he followed many gags by instantly rating the reaction of the audience, as if it were up to them to please him instead of the other way around.

He got one of his biggest laughs with a joke about how the FBI won't rest until the entire cast of the ill-fated TV series "Diff'rent Strokes" is behind bars. Then Crystal ruined it by timing the audience's laughter.

Choreographer Debbie Allen's opening number, in which dancers popped into and out of a movie screen filled with clips from film history was dazzling and amusing. Another knockout moment occurred in the first hour, when that luminous scamp Madonna slinked onto the stage to sing "Sooner or Later," the winner of Best Original Song from "Dick Tracy."

Madonna was not in especially good voice, but she was in especially good form. Good good goodie good form.

Her performance was partly a parody of the already parodistic style of Marilyn Monroe. Backless, strapless, pink and blond, Madonna added a timely touch when she purred a` la Monroe, "Talk to me, General Schwarzkopf, tell me all about it."

There were many many references to the Persian Gulf War throughout the evening. Maybe the Oscars seemed more of a fizzle than usual this year because we all have just come through a war, a television event whose outcome was obviously of much more consequence than whether smug, smirky-faced Kevin Costner would win a stupid old Oscar.

One of the most electric sights of the evening was not on the stage but in the audience -- Madonna next to Michael Jackson. Yes, it was electric, but it was a little eerie too. Nevertheless, they appeared to be the reigning royal couple of the event.

When it comes to pizazz, the music industry's glammy Grammy Awards, sad to admit, now probably outglitz the Oscars.

Certainly this year's Oscar show did have its moments. Chuck Workman contributed a short film in which movie greats remembered or tried to remember the first movies they'd ever seen -- Katharine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Macaulay Culkin, Ronald Reagan.

The film was introduced by Bob Hope, who in his sly old way got nearly as many laughs in a few minutes as Crystal got all night. "I couldn't be here in spirit, so I'm in person," Hope said. Remember he used to emcee the show each year? Those were the days.

People always tune in to see the outfits, and this year, both men and women dressed fairly sensibly, more stylish than flashy, but with no one quite equaling the appearance Julia Roberts made last year in that still-memorable dress. The attire was generaly not garish or weird. But the hair, the hair. How about that frowsy Richard Gere. That stringy Nicole Kidman. That messy Daniel Day-Lewis.

The acceptance speeches, for the most part, were mercifully brief, none mercifully briefer than Joe Pesci's. Winning as Best Supporting Actor for "GoodFellas," Pesci said only, "My privilege. Thank you."

Whoopi Goldberg was emotional and eloquent upon winning for Best Supporting Actress in "Ghost." Myrna Loy accepting an honorary Oscar from her apartment in New York, said simply, "You've made me very happy. Thank you very much."

Producer David Brown, who with former partner Richard D. Zanuck won the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, said, "Frankly, I am simply overwhelmed. Simply, I am frankly overwhelmed."

But as for fatuous and sanctimonious blather, the champ may have been Michael Blake, who brought a Native American woman onstage as he accepted a screenplay Oscar for the over-awarded "Dances With Wolves." After hailing his own script as "something beneficial," he referred to the movie as a "miracle." What gall. As usual on Oscar night, the only miracle was staying awake to the bitter end.