Forget the clothes; that's what the red-carpet specials are for. And the recent, disastrous Golden Globes proved that even the awards themselves could easily be dispatched in a simple press conference. But for an industry in a constant state of self-congratulation over how entertaining it is to actually entertain the public for three-plus hours, all while congratulating itself over how entertaining it is … For that, you need a show.
What you don't need, it seems, is more than 10 days to pull it all together. That's what Jon Stewart and his crew had available to them between the end of the three-month writers' strike and Sunday night's Oscars broadcast. But there was no sense of panic and little indication that the show was hobbled by the lack of prep time. If anything, the compressed time frame might have precluded anything particularly elaborate, which may have worked to Stewart's advantage. As it was, his second go-round as host topped his first.
The strike was the elephant in the room, but if Stewart's opening monologue seemed a little too inside-baseball for anybody not actually in the Kodak Theatre, he occasionally struck gold by returning to the topic. Commenting on what a writerless Oscars would be like, he offered up time-filling montages like "Bad Dreams: An Oscars Salute," which subtly, hilariously highlighted a hoary cinematic cliché. Also an Oscars cliché, which was made clear later when Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie" character, unaware of the irony, presented a flat montage of bee scenes.
Stewart took another jab at the formulaic nature of movies when talking about the Democratic candidates, saying, "Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty." And he fired a major shot across the Academy's bow when he congratulated "Norbit" for its nomination in the makeup category: "Too often the Academy ignores movies that aren't good."
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Stewart scored with a riff about Cate Blanchett's versatility, suggesting that the actress, nominated for playing both Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan, also had a part in "No Country For Old Men" as the dog attacking Josh Brolin. He also pulled off the by-now obligatory Jack Nicholson joke, suggesting that the actor might impregnate numerous women by the end of the evening. Somehow, it wasn't creepy when Stewart said it.
The host wasn't the only one who benefited from the writers. In addition to being a funhouse-mirror glimpse of eventual big winners Joel and Ethan Coen, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill (from "Knocked Up" and "Superbad") served as a reminder that funny people who work well together make for better co-presenters than people who've never met before and who may or may not know how to do comedy. (A simple lesson that clearly needs to be said more often.)
Introduced as Dame Judi Dench and Halle Berry, their peevish rapport over which would one was which was funny right down to Hill's constant (and possibly accidental) mispronunciation of the name as "Holly" Berry. But they were almost trumped by winning sound mixer Scott Millan, who, clearly remembering his Oscar history, asked if he could kiss whichever one was Ms. Berry.
It's those unexpected moments that make for the most satisfying and entertaining portions of any awards show broadcast. After beating out Blanchett (who grimaced through her "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" clip), Best Actress Marion Cotillard delivered the most purely joyous acceptance speech of the night, shaking with disbelief as she shouted "Thank you, life! Thank you, love!"
Slideshow: 80th Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, took the Helen Mirren Saucy British Lady Award with a mildly ribald speech suggesting that her "Michael Clayton" costar (and onetime Batman) George Clooney continued to wear his rubber-nippled superhero outfit under his clothes and hung upside down on the set between takes. And when Daniel Day-Lewis kneeled in front of Mirren herself after she presented him the Best Actor prize, the erstwhile Queen gamely knighted him with his trophy.
And then, of course, there were the unintentional bits of editing that resulted in moments of awkward amusement. "There Will Be Blood" cinematographer Robert Elswit said that he owed his award to "Paul," so the camera found director Paul Thomas Anderson and then settled on actor Paul Dano, possibly just to cover its bets. And when production designer Robert Boyle accepted his honorary Oscar and thanked Nicole Kidman for his introduction, the camera switched to the actress and then lingered for a few seconds too long, so reluctant was it to return to the unglamorous 98-year-old man being honored.
But the best moment of the show had nothing to do with accidental comedy or a hilariously mismatched pair. (The closest the show came was having human cartoon Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson present the award for Best Visual Effects, but that was probably done on purpose.) And it certainly wasn't a recap of Oscar ceremonies past or an elaborate, sodden production number like two of the three songs from "Enchanted." (Amy Adams's "Happy Working Song" was the cheerful exception, theatrical but simple and effective.)
No, the show's highlight was an echo of Stewart's shining moment from the 2006 Oscars, when he shared his delight in Three 6 Mafia's excitement over winning Best Original Song. Clearly charmed by Glen Hansard's humble acceptance for the song "Falling Slowly" from "Once," he made a point after the next commercial of bringing Hansard's costar and songwriting partner Markéta Irglová back to the stage to deliver her own speech, which had been cut off by the orchestra before she began.
Right then, Stewart earned his keep as an Oscar host. Sure, he kept a notoriously long and draggy show moving at a comfortable pace, giving the audience some solid chuckles along the way. But no matter how much he deflated the self-seriousness of the ceremony, he believed in its importance to the people being honored. And he wanted to make sure that each winner got her moment. That's pretty much why we watch the Oscars in the first place.
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