After edgy start, telecast loses steam

Despite the high number of daring and socially conscious films nominated at last night's 78th Annual Academy Awards, the telecast was surprisingly lackluster.

Don't blame host Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When he came to Hollywood to host the awards, he did not leave his political humor at home.


Referring to the gargantuan Oscar statue behind him, Stewart said: "Do you think if we all got together and pulled it down, democracy would flourish here in Hollywood?" - a sarcastic reference to the Bush administration's belief that democracy would be embraced by Iraqis once Saddam Hussein was out of power.

His opening monologue certainly set the stage for an edgier broadcast. And after fewer than usual of the nod-to-big-celebrity jokes, Stewart began to get political.


"A lot of people say this town is too liberal," Stewart said. "They say that Hollywood is out of touch. ... I don't really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that."

When George Clooney took that remark and ran with it after winning the first Oscar of the night as best supporting actor for Syriana, it looked as though it was going to be a lively night on ABC.

"I would say that we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while," Clooney said. "I think it is probably a good thing. We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was being whispered. And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. This Academy - this group of people - gave Hattie McDaniel an Academy Award in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be part of this Academy. I'm proud to be part of this community. I'm proud to be out of touch."

But the show's edginess never picked up steam, and it became one of the most uneven and contradictory Oscar telecasts in years. Playing to the social relevance of the major nominees - like Crash and Brokeback Mountain - the telecast featured two montages celebrating "confrontational" films that "changed America." However, each film journey along the high road offered by the images from such films as Philadelphia Story and To Kill a Mockingbird were undercut by heavy-handed statements from film industry spokespeople decrying the rise of DVDs - and urging viewers to continue to go to theaters.

There were some awkward moments as well - from Lauren Bacall's struggles with the teleprompter to repeatedly strange audience reaction shots.

The best moment of the night came with the award for best original song, which went to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from the film Hustle & Flow. Three 6 Mafia showed some genuine enthusiasm in accepting the award.

Memorable Oscar telecasts are few and far between for a good reason: Essentially, each show consists of successfully blending two different genres - and the producer has no control whatsoever over who wins an award.

The telecast begins - and maintains itself throughout to some extent - as a variety show. The opening monologue and big production numbers are the key components to this half of the equation. Stewart & Company did OK on this count.


But as much as morning-after analysts might yea or nay a broadcast strictly on the performance of the host, in the end, none of the jokes or songs matter as much as the awards-show portion of the evening.

The telecasts that earn a place in shared memory are those in which the awards ignite emotions in the hall and at home - that connect with larger cultural movements in American life.

The most recent example of such an Oscar telecast came in 2002 when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won as best actress and best actor, respectively - on a night when Sidney Poitier was given an honorary Oscar for his celebrated career.

Berry was the morning-after buzz as much for her moving acceptance speech as the fact that she was the first African-American performer to win best actress honors. She did it with a standout performance in Monster's Ball. But Washington's speech was just as powerful - particularly in the way he acknowledged Poitier's work paving the way for him and Berry to stand as tall as they did on that night. The emotional power of the evening came from African-American achievement being honored, as it had never been by Oscar.

Last night's telecast never caught that kind of fire, and it made for a forgettable night at the Oscars.