Perhaps the first tipoff that this was destined to be a yawner of an Oscarcast was the fact that the biggest mystery going in had nothing to do with who stood to win the Big Ones but how Billy Crystal was going to open the show.

Perhaps the first tipoff that this was destined to be a yawner of an Oscarcast was the fact that the biggest mystery going in had nothing to do with who stood to win the Big Ones but how Billy Crystal was going to open the show. During a ceremony when even Stanley Donen invoked the “Titanic” name in his magical honorary Oscar acceptance speech/soft-shoe, the utter lack of suspense cast by the blockbuster film’s immense shadow helped create a night to nod off to.

But don’t blame Billy. He did what he could as host, even if many of his off-the-cuff one-liners sank faster than the great ship herself. If he didn’t quite eclipse the brilliance of his impossible-to-top opening last year when he inserted himself into clips from all five of the best picture nominees, Crystal still turned in his usual inspired, cleverly written piece of pointed foolishness.

Crystal continues to be easily the best thing about the Oscars, even if his opening borrowed liberally from last year’s theme. There he was getting spit on by Jack in “Titanic,” having his head stuffed into the toilet in “L.A. Confidential,” dropping his pants in “The Full Monty” and even playing Sammy Davis Jr. on the doomed ocean liner.

The trademark best picture medley was given a different spin, with Crystal stretching it out into more stand-alone numbers. The standouts were his sendup of “Titanic” (sung to the theme of “Gilligan’s Island”) and “Full Monty” (to “Hello, Dolly!”). And later, Crystal turned to the inevitable Washington scandal jokes (“Years ago, the White House was complaining that there was too much sex in Hollywood”).

However, there was only so much that Crystal — who plugged his forthcoming pic “My Giant” only once during what might be termed “My Giant Gig” — could do for a technically sharp (good marks to director Louis J. Horvitz) but largely ponderous telecast that lasted more than an hour longer than it took the Titanic to sink.

That noted comic Madonna no doubt said it best after opening the envelope awarding “Titanic” the original song statuette. After glancing at the winner, she quipped, “What a shocker.” Indeed. The only true shocks during a virtually upset-free ceremony were that there appeared to be several categories on Monday in which “Titanic” wasn’t nominated. Someone should be made to pay for that oversight.

On the up side, the sophomoric repartee of presenting couples was given the deep-six this time. Donen’s singing and dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” was as magnificent as Crystal’s introduction of Fay Wray was awkward. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s acceptance for their original screenplay win recalled Cuba Gooding Jr.’s youthful zest, passion and just plain joy last year. As was the case in 1997, this Oscarcast peaked fairly early –roughly at about the time that Crystal stepped down from center stage. There were surely some other genuine highlights, like Kim Basinger’s radiance and Robin Williams’ exuberant energy in their acceptances.

By the third hour, you could practically hear the crowd pleading for the Soy Bomb guy to run up onstage and fire a little life into the oddly muted proceedings. That was particularly true during Celine Dion’s umpteenth performance of the Oscar-winning “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic,” a tune seemingly destined to become the “Feelings” of the 1990s. A companion tune Monday night might have been called, “This Show Will Go On … and On.” At 3 hours, 45 minutes, it stretched some 30 minutes beyond the length of the film itself. Just when we were certain the kudocast would never end, up popped the 70-years-of-Oscar-highlights reel. It was plenty swell but was dropped in with little regard for pace or continuity, a problem that plagued the Oscarcast all night. There didn’t seem to be a true theme guiding producer Gil Cates’ choices except to string together as many vintage clips as possible in the shortest amount of time.

The class picture of Oscar performance winners near the end was a sweet, classy touch of nostalgia. Still, whose idea was it to toss the lengthy introduction into the fourth hour of what was once allegedly a three-hour ceremony? Dubious planning, at best.

What Cates, Horvitz and company couldn’t do anything about, however, was the virtual “Titanic” sweep that reduced the competition to a coronation, albeit one punctuated with a poignant touch in director James Cameron’s request for a moment of silence in honor of the 1,500 who perished on the great ship.

The 70th Annual Academy Awards

Awards show; ABC; Monday March 23, 6-9:45 p.m

Production

Produced live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Producer, Gilbert Cates; associate producer, Michael B. Seligman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Hal Kanter, Bruce Vilanch, Buz Kohan, Rita Cash, Billy Grundfest, Ed Driscoll, Billy Martin, Dave Boone, John Macks, David Steinberg;

Crew

Film sequences supervisor, Douglass M. Stewart; special film material, Chuck Workman, Jon Bloom, Mike Shapiro, Phil Savenick, Tom Sherren, Troy Miller; costume designer, Ray Aghayan; fashion coordinator, Fred Hayman; music director, Bill Conti; art directors, Steve Olson, Keaton Walker; production designer, Roy Christopher; choreographer, Daniel Ezralow; technical directors, John B. Field, Kenneth R. Shapiro, Rick Edwards; audio director, Ed Greene; lighting designer, Bob Dickinson; engineer in charge, Tad Scripter; executive in charge of talent, Danette Herman. Running time: 3 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Host: Billy Crystal Presenters: Ben Affleck, Antonio Banderas, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Binoche, Neve Campbell, Sean Connery, Matt Damon, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Djimon Hounsou, Samuel L. Jackson, Ashley Judd, Jack Lemmon, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Walter Matthau, Frances McDormand, Mike Myers, Geoffrey Rush, Meg Ryan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martin Scorsese, Elisabeth Shue, Denzel Washington. Performers: Celine Dion, Trisha Yearwood, Elliott Smith, Michael Bolton, AAliyah.

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