Crystal's Oscars lack sparkle, despite star kibitzing


Richard Gere talking Tibetan politics, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon analyzing U.S. immigration policy, Geena Davis wearing a dress only she could wear plus wooden tributes and lots of kitsch.

The telecast of the 65th annual Academy Awards last night was very, well, Hollywood in its stranger and flakier moments. But, more than anything else, it was a surprisingly flat TV show.

Maybe it was just that expectations were so high after Jack Palance's one-armed pushups and Billy Crystal's brilliant running commentary on Palance and the pushups last year.

Part of the wooden feeling in the show's early moments was the decision to try to make something happen with Crystal and Palance again. First, they paired up for Crystal's entrance -- he rode a giant Oscar statuette pulled by Palance -- which wasn't exactly a show stopper. Then Palance returned as presenter for the Best Supporting Actress award. Well, let's just say there was way he was going to come up anywhere but short compared with last year.

Crystal's opening monologue was full of funny stuff, like the description of his tuxedo as "Armani meets Jiminy Cricket." But his parody of the traditional, overblown opening production number has lost a lot of its sass since the first time he did it three years ago.

The new wrinkle in Crystal's performance in the early going was in his comic delivery. Instead of addressing his jokes to the camera, and therefore to the viewers, he directed most of them to the stars. Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and a few other Hollywood heavy hitters sat in the front rows and smiled -- or squirmed.

At one point, Crystal walked down and shook Nicholson's hand. During his medley, he sat in Eastwood's lap. It was the kind of kitsch only Crystal could get away with in a TV event of this magnitude.

In TV terms, Crystal's approach of talking to the stars in the audience instead of the viewers at home is dangerous. Viewers can feel that they are being left out of a very inside event.

But the let's-talk-to-Jack approach seemed to be working for Crystal. Instead of feeling left out at home, it felt more as though we were being allowed to eavesdrop on some big-league and very bright kibitzing between Crystal and the big boys. But it's an approach likely to leave some viewers cold.

Overall, what the broadcast lacked most was emotion. The "Tribute to Women in Film" was all glossy pictures and no punch. And Audrey Hepburn deserved much better than the Academy gave her. Federico Fellini was gracious in accepting his tribute. But graciousness is not the stuff of morning-after water-cooler buzz.

Part of the problem with last night's telecast might be simply that Crystal is no longer the un-host -- the puckish, irreverent and oh-so-welcome antidote to the show-biz safe and slick humor of former Oscar hosts Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. Crystal and his Baby-Boomer sensibility is now the establishment in Hollywood. And the status quo gets old real fast in the trendy world of TV.

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