The scenario that many feared inevitable did not materialize Sunday night at the 71st Annual Academy Awards: To the relief of many — and for the first time in recent memory — Celine Dion did not sing “My Heart Will Go On.” Oh, yes, there was that other potential controversy, the one that someone dubbed, “Saving Pariah Kazan.” But they need not have worried. In a record-setting marathon night that featured many costume changes, the film industry wound up doing a fairly convincing impersonation of a class act.
The unrepentant Elia Kazan gave a brief, heartfelt acceptance speech, complete with embraces of presenters Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro that concluded with, “I think I can just slip away. (Then turning away from the microphone, he added, “Do I need to say any more?”)
It was, perhaps, foolish to believe that Kazan was going to get booed off the stage by those protesting his naming of names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
On TV anyway, the reaction of the crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion seemed downright genteel. Roughly half the audience seemed to give Kazan a standing ovation, and only a few, notably Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, stared stoically ahead, arms folded, disgusted for all they were worth. (Many, including Steven Spielberg and wife Kate Capshaw, applauded from their seats.)
So much for upstaging the Oscars.
At worst, the presentation was awkward; at best, muted and anticlimactic. The Kazan segment took up only about five minutes during a typically ponderous telecast that at times threatened to honor every film industry legend who has ever fallen ill. Frank Sinatra, Stanley Kubrick, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers all got tribute montages. It all grew pretty wearisome as things moved into hour four. And who needed to see John Glenn introducing a segment devoted to film biographies?
For a change, though, let’s not blame Whoopi Goldberg. In her fourth Oscar hosting gig, she trotted out — and tried on — enough glittering rags to turn the broadcast into her own “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”-inspired fashion show. She would make nine fullscale outfit changes, appearing onstage in everything from ornate queenly gowns to bird-feathered frocks.
That Whoopi’s outfits grew increasingly annoying as the hour grew long is almost irrelevant. At least she gave it a good try. Indeed, even as Goldberg’s jokes fell flat (“Live from Hollywood — the town that invented lying about sex” … snore), she nonetheless proved a spunky, lively hostess, with a smooth, sparring style and charming way with an ad-lib.
Roberto Benigni also did his best to keep everybody awake after his “Life Is Beautiful” won Oscars for foreign-language film and best actor. Whatever this man is looped on, let’s all get some. He was so pumped and so ebullient — dancing on chairs and hopping up stairs — that he made Robin Williams look like Gloria Stuart. But his enthusiasm was such that it had to send most hearts soaring into space.
Yet there’s clearly some excess baggage to unload when the show rolls past 240 minutes — which is exactly what it would take to sit through a double bill of “Shakespeare in Love” and “Life Is Beautiful.” And the surfeit had nothing to do with reigning in acceptance speeches. Gwyneth Paltrow is still thanking her butcher and her accountant, but it’s such a heartfelt utterance that it deserves to roll as long as it must.
On the other hand, what was with that wacky interpretive dance thing honoring the dramatic score nominees? A “Saving Private Ryan” tap dance? It brings fresh new meaning to the term “War is hell.” And what exactly was Val Kilmer doing leading a horse around the stage? You don’t see us driving a car on the horse trails, do you?
Next year, Gilbert Cates and company might just bag some of the earnest-but-leaden tributes and leave the focus where it belongs — on the winners.