Billy Crystal headlines confident, competent Oscar telecast

It seems to be an unspoken rule of television executives that 18-to-49-year-olds only want to watch other 18-to-49-year-olds on screen. As a member of that target demographic, I’ve never understood that assumption. By that reasoning, this year’s Oscar telecast shouldn’t have been for me. It was hosted by Billy Crystal, a 63-year-old man taking his ninth turn as emcee, and the Best Picture winner was “The Artist,” an homage to a long distant era of cinema that few people in 2012 were even alive to remember.


Yet I liked it. This was not a great Oscar telecast. Innovation was minimal. Surprises were few. And Crystal’s opening routine – a few pre-taped movie parodies and a song-and-dance number touting the nominees – was deflated a bit by its over-familiarity, but from that point forward the show and its host settled into a comfortable rhythm and I felt I was in the hands of an old pro.

Unlike the previous few ceremonies, this telecast didn’t feel like it was trying so hard to impress its grandkids. In our host we had neither a young, hip celebrity (like Anne Hathaway and James Franco) nor an edgy-cool comic (like Jon Stewart or Chris Rock), but rather an experienced entertainer who knows his audience and plays well to it.

Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens weren’t invited to perform, apropos of nothing. Robert Pattinson wasn’t on hand to present. The only hint of pandering was an appearance by Justin Bieber in an opening film parody, but his presence was cleverly used as an acknowledgment of – and perhaps apology for – the Academy’s recent youth-pandering stunts.

Okay, there was also an unfortunate moment when, during a fairly inexplicable montage of past films, a clip from “Twilight” found its way in amidst “Titanic,” “The Godfather,” and other movies far out of the league of those sparkly vampires.

Meanwhile, the award presenters, usually subjected to banter so awful a gift bag could only begin to repay it, were actually quite entertaining. Tina Fey achieved the impossible by making the craft of film editing funny. Robert Downey Jr., in a bit that would have sunk most actors, presented Best Documentary Feature with Gwyneth Paltrow while followed by his own intrusive documentary film crew. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis took to the stage banging cymbals and in an inspired bit of physical comedy fumbled with their props while trying to announce the winner of Best Original Song.

Elsewhere, the “Bridesmaids” cast, presenting the short-film awards, did a great call-back to a joke they started at the SAG Awards, where they took a drink at any mention of the name “Scorsese.” But surprisingly the best presenter was Emma Stone, who executed her elaborate routine – the first-time presenter brainstormed ways to make her presentation more memorable – with perfect mock-enthusiasm and comic poise. It had the polish not only of good presenting but good acting.

In contrast, Natalie Portman struggled as she presented Best Actor. At the 81st Academy Awards three years ago – the best telecast in recent memory – the acting categories were reinvigorated by having previous winners directly address each nominee. This year, Portman was enlisted to do the same, and she appeared uncomfortable as she glanced back and forth between the nominees and the teleprompter reminding her of the kind words she had to say to them.

But that was a minor quibble compared to the appearance of Cirque du Soleil. While it’s impossible to fault their acrobatic skill, it’s equally difficult to understand why they performed at all, or what their performance – which ostensibly tried to capture the experience of the movies – had to do with the Oscars. This is a lesson Oscar producers seem stubbornly unwilling or unable to learn: Interpretive dance segments don’t work. Ever.

The show was well paced. Presenters announced multiple categories. Winners were mostly pithy. Arbitrary montages and taped sketches were kept to a minimum – though I think I enjoyed the “Wizard of Oz” focus group, featuring Christopher Guest and his usual troupe of actors, better than most people did.

This allowed time to show clips of the nominated performances, as well as equally loving packages touting the nominees in the underappreciated technical races. Few winners were played off, and eloquent champs like Meryl Streep (Best Actress, “The Iron Lady“), Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor, “Beginners“), and Asghar Farhadi (Best Foreign Language Film, “A Separation“) were given their proper moments in the spotlight.

Overall, there have been better Oscar shows, and there have been worse, but hopefully this year’s ceremony will be a template for future telecasts. Less is more. Keep it moving. Invite smart, funny presenters who are comfortable on the Oscar stage. And be less concerned with the age of your audience than with the quality of your event. You should take my word for it, because I’m 18-to-49.

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