Presenters: Tim Allen, Ellen Barkin, Angela Bassett, Annette Bening, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert De Niro, Matt Dillon, Sally Field, Mel Gibson, Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Andie MacDowell, Steve Martin, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Julia Ormond, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gregory Peck, Keanu Reeves, Tim Robbins, Rene Russo, Susan Sarandon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Denzel Washington, Sigourney Weaver, Oprah Winfrey.
Performers: Elton John, Randy Newman, Patty Smyth, Ernie Sabella, David Alan Grier, Hinton Battle.
Oscar is as Oscar does, and even a talent as original and irreverent as David Letterman, apparently, can’t change that. Despite tailor-made elements like his Stupid Pet Tricks and a special top 10 list, Letterman blended in rather than stood out during a relatively mundane Oscarcast that offered little spontaneity, few magical moments and several awkward ones.
Part of the problem stemmed from sheer pacing, with the show getting off to a lackadaisical start from which it never entirely recovered, running well over its allotted time. Producer Gilbert Cates had to sprint to the finish line, hardly a surprise after only two awards — supporting actress and costume design — were handed out in the first 47 minutes.
Letterman seemed just a bit shaky with his opening monologue, never the latenight host’s long suit. He settled in comfortably after that but was ultimately constrained by some of the stuffier Oscarcast trappings and ambience, complete with largely uninspired production numbers and tepid political overtones in what amounted to unscripted public service announcements plugging the National Endowment for the Arts.
The host did provide some bright spots skewering Hollywood and the ghosts of Oscar past. He didn’t reach too far, for example, in joking that the show would wrap up “by noon tomorrow,” and when the politically conscious Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon came out to present an award, Letterman introduced them by saying , “Pay attention: I’m sure they’re pissed off about something.”
Yet Letterman also seemed to be working a little too hard to sell the jokes, in part because the material wasn’t quite there. In addition, the host’s latenight gimmick of beating a joke into the ground — such as his frequent references to Janet Reno Monday — felt somehow inappropriate here.
Letterman, however, was hardly the problem, but part of a general malaise. Taped pieces lacked the impact of past Oscar shows, the “tribute to comedy” theme never quite came together, and some creative choices were downright puzzling — among them using clips from unrelated movies during some nominated songs, but nothing from “The Lion King” while Elton John performed “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” one of the night’s highlights.
The show did pick up a bit as the night dragged on, starting with Steve Martin’s amusing presentation of the film editing award and a segment featuring various stars auditioning for Letterman’s cameo in “Cabin Boy.”
Despite an impressive lineup of presenters, little memorable emerged from their ranks. As for acceptance speeches, the night actually belonged to the musicians, with singer John providing a moving tribute to his late grandmother and Hans Zimmer exhibiting glee, both accepting awards for “The Lion King.”
Tom Hanks could hardly equal the emotion of last year’s remarks for “Philadelphia,” yet he maintained his image as Hollywood’s No. 1 nice guy who keeps finishing first in a tearful moment in which he took pains to laud his fellow nominees. On the flip side, Martin Landau prattled on a bit in receiving his honor for supporting actor and was abruptly cut off, though he does deserve honorable mention for thanking the press before he got to his agents.
With so little suspense surrounding the major awards, oneof the more affecting segments honored not the living but the dead in a moving necrology recognizing the likes of Burt Lancaster, Jessica Tandy and Raul Julia.
By contrast, the evening’s opening number — a mixed-media rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh” by the likes of Tim Curry and Kathy Najimy — proved to be a real groaner, the sort of tedious exercise Oscar critics love to ridicule.
Academy president Arthur Hiller’s NEA pitch was dispensed with early, though several other recipients and presenters sounded the same battle cry.
Letterman played to that sentiment as well when he took an opening shot at Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, which was met with enthusiastic applause, about the night’s only political overtone.
In the opening, Letterman — out of deference, he said, to his bosses in New York — also wryly informed TV viewers that “CBS has signed off for the evening.”
Letterman certainly wasn’t off, but neither he nor the telecast were quite on , either.