They played it safe, and who could blame them?
The 83rd Academy Awards opened with hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco taking an "Inception"-inspired journey through the dreams of former host Alec Baldwin, dreams that turned out to be clips from nominated films into which Hathaway and Franco were inserted, in a rather astonishingly seamless way. The jokes ranged from the sublime — "I loved you in 'Tron,'" Franco tells Jeff Bridges in "True Grit" — to the ridiculous — Hathaway's "dance of the brown duck" in front of "Black Swan's" Natalie Portman. But it was clever, colorful and suffered not at all from its merciful lack of song-styling.
For the rest of the evening, however, the two seemed to be following the directive to "first do no harm," as if they knew they couldn't score as big as Jimmy Fallon did with the Emmys but were determined to avoid becoming morning show fodder like Ricky Gervais was after this year's Golden Globes. The result was a show that moved along, with a few draggy bits and high notes, like precisely what it was: a very long and fancy awards show.
Unlike virtually every other host in recent memory, Hathaway and Franco took the stage at the Kodak without anyone hoping they would fail. Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ellen DeGeneres all brought with them enough artistic and cultural baggage to trip over; even Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin had to cope with the irrefutable fact that they are not Billy Crystal.
But Hathaway and Franco, so young, so talented ... who could wish them anything but well? Their "hosts in training" promo spots were adorable and the show itself, produced by first-timers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer, promised to be a balance of the solidly traditional — universally beloved front-runners (Colin Firth, Natalie Portman) with the possibility of a few equally acceptable upsets (Annette Bening, "The Social Network") and the modern — backstage online streaming, a new Oscar app.
"You look so young and hip," Franco said to Hathaway after they walked out on stage.
"You look very appealing to a younger demographic yourself," she replied.
It's difficult to imagine that they created a new generation of Oscar telecast fans, though no doubt the pair inspired many a rom-com pitch. As a couple, they were an interesting contrast. Hathaway appeared much more comfortable, maintaining eye contact with the camera in an aggressively Miss Congeniality manner while Franco often seemed distracted, his gaze occasionally doing that Hollywood over-your-shoulder-wander, which brought up the question: Who on earth was he looking for? Everyone was sitting right in front of him.
Still, the two delivered precisely what was expected of them — Hathaway took "young" so much to heart that she actually "woo-hooed" on more than one occasion while Franco sank further and further into grinning slacker-guy torpor. And Cohen and Mischer more than hedged their bets with plenty of oldsters. The ghosts of hosting past lingered — Hathaway changed her outfit innumerable times a la Whoopi Goldberg and paid tribute to Hugh Jackman's non-sequitur musical moments as host — until they finally took center stage. At the show's mid-point, Billy Crystal showed up to pay tribute to Bob Hope, reminding everyone for a moment what the standard is and who set it. Come back to us Billy Boy.
The presenter list likewise was stacked with the tried and true. No Miley Cyrus, no Justin Bieber; Justin Timberlake was as far down the demo scale as Mischer and Cohen were willing to go. Early on and for what seemed like a small eternity, the show was hijacked by the vital but still stroke-impaired Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, who presented the award for supporting actress. He paused three times between reading the nominees and announcing Melissa Leo as the winner. Leo appeared so shocked by her win that she dropped an f-bomb, and thank goodness too; it became the evening's sole running joke.
Overall, the evening had an oddly business-like feel, a mind-numbing evenness that was exacerbated by the relentless predictability of the winners, and the fact that none of the acting winners were played off no matter how long their "thank-yous" went.
Still, there were moments. Luke Matheny's speech after he won for his live-action short "God of Love" was fresh and fabulous — "I should have gotten a haircut" — (as was his hair), and a clip in which "Toy Story 3," "Eclipse" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" were turned briefly into musicals will no doubt be a YouTube sensation. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law were, not surprisingly, a high-energy pair, as were, more surprisingly, Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. Best director winner Tom Hooper's story about how his mother told him about the unknown play she had just encountered at a play reading, called "The King's Speech," was among the most poignant — the other being Natalie Portman's, because who can watch a weeping, beautiful pregnant woman in a dazzling dress and fail to be moved.
For all the winking reference to all that is hip and young, including PS 22's show-closing and charming rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the evening's best line was uttered by the 73-year-old screenwriter David Seidler, who won for "The King's Speech."
"My father always said to me," he told the audience, "I would be a late-bloomer."