LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedian and talk show star Ellen DeGeneres returned as Oscar host on Sunday in an appearance many saw as calculated to project a lighter, more affable tone for Hollywood's biggest night after the provocative performance of her immediate predecessor, Seth MacFarlane.
While veering away from the ribald streak that marked MacFarlane's widely-panned stint as emcee last year, DeGeneres showed in her opening monologue she was not above poking fun at some of the film industry's biggest names.
She zeroed in early in the show on supporting actress nominee, and last year's best actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence, who famously tripped on the stairs on her way to accepting last her Oscar in 2013.
Lawrence, 23, who is nominated for her role in "American Hustle," also stumbled on the red carpet on Sunday.
"If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar," DeGeneres dead-panned, as the audience, including Lawrence, erupted in laughter.
Turning to June Squibb, whom she noted was the oldest performer ever nominated for an acting Oscar at age 84, DeGeneres congratulated Squibb for her role in "Nebraska." She then raised her voice to address Squibb as if she were hard of hearing, adding, "I'm telling everyone that you were wonderful in 'Nebraska.'"
She joked that long-haired actor Jared Leto, a candidate for best supporting actor for his role as a transgender woman in "Dallas Buyers Club," was "the prettiest" nominee of the evening. Moments later, Leto was declared the night's first winner.
DeGeneres saluted the attendance of the real-life individuals portrayed in the Oscar-nominated films "Captain Phillips," and "Philomena."
In the edgiest moment, the camera cut to veteran actress and singer Liza Minnelli in the audience, and DeGeneres saluted "one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have ever seen in my life. Good job, sir."
Minnelli, 67, who is expected to take part on Sunday in a tribute to her mother's movie, "The Wizard of Oz," lit up social media site Twitter while on the Oscars red carpet earlier on Sunday, looking shaky, with a blue streak in her hair, and apparently bra-less under her blue silk pants suit.
Seeming to betray her personal opinion for which film most deserved to win best picture, DeGeneres declared that the final outcome of the Oscar race would have two scenarios - "Possibility No. 1, '12 Years a Slave' wins best picture. Possibility No. 2, you're all racists."
Making her entrance dressed in a black tuxedo and white ascot, DeGeneres, 56, noted the lengthy interval between her two Academy Awards emcee gigs.
"I hosted seven years ago, and I'm so honored and flattered that they had me back so quickly," she said.
DeGeneres, who made broadcast history in 1997 as the first openly gay lead character on U.S. prime-time television, debuted as an Oscar host in 2007.
The star of her own daytime TV talk show, DeGeneres earned an Emmy nomination for her first Oscar hosting stint, which included several forays in the audience. Some critics complained then that DeGeneres was too playful for the traditional decorum of the Academy Awards.
But DeGeneres showed she was apparently unfazed by such criticism, stepping down from the Oscar stage again on Sunday to hand a faux consolation prize - a pair of lottery tickets - to supporting actor nominee Bradley Cooper.
DeGeneres' second turn as Oscar emcee comes a year after MacFarlane, the creator of the animated sitcom "Family Guy," drew critical groans for a provocative performance that included jokes often aimed at the biggest stars in attendance and a musical tribute to female frontal nudity called "We Saw Your Boobs."
(Reporting by Steve Gorman, editing by Jill Serjeant)