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The 73rd annual Academy Awards

Neat and clean, tasty and cheery. Even spiffy. Change the host and for once the show changes with it. The 73rd annual Academy Awards telecast was an affair so bright that it's almost no surprise that one of the special tributes went to a man known for his revolutionary use of color. And on a night with no goofball humor, special effects or added hokum, the subversive and biting Steve Martin cheerfully tweaked Hollywood's most self-congratulatory moment.

Host: Steve Martin

Neat and clean, tasty and cheery. Even spiffy. Change the host and for once the show changes with it. The 73rd annual Academy Awards telecast was an affair so bright that it’s almost no surprise that one of the special tributes went to a man known for his revolutionary use of color. And on a night with no goofball humor, special effects or added hokum, the subversive and biting Steve Martin cheerfully tweaked Hollywood’s most self-congratulatory moment.

Sure, Martin puts on a smiling face like all the other hosts, but usually as a device to misdirect, to warm the heart moments before a remark pushes a knife in the back. His humor struck deep nerves and for the most part avoided the cheap and easy sexual innuendo unless, of course, there’s a darker subtext to his commentary. The Hollywood m.o.’s he mocked are easy-to-digest truths — the whole “loved your movie!” small talk, for example — giving his material the legs to stand up in middle America where, as Martin said, the audience is united in thinking everyone at the Oscars is gay.

Far-removed from the comedian whose zaniness won over auds in the 1970s, Sunday’s host duties were handled by a careful orator of the written word, one whose command of the author’s pen has pulled him away from the live stage he once commanded. Yet he was skillful and at ease as he joshed with the celebs, even bringing out dip to a carrot-munching Danny DeVito.

Martin eyed the audience, found targets and gave an illusion of impromptu zingers, wittily turning the humor back to himself. “I love welcoming young stars,” he said upon spying 21-year-old Kate Hudson. “It reminds me of my own death.” Bull’s-eye.

When it came to talking about the Hollywood-ization of his novel, he put it bluntly: Money talks. Martin played cheerleader in a few rushed introductions, suggesting compliments don’t come easy for him; then again, he was probably genuine when he spoke highly of Goldie Hawn.

Even without Martin there were plenty of oh-so-special Oscar moments. DeVito eating that carrot while watching Bob Dylan perform via satellite from Australia, looking like a cross between Vincent Price and Salvador Dali; a rambling Julia Roberts telling conductor Bill Conti to take a seat; Russell Crowe delivering an inspiring and humble speech; and Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma performing the nominated scores in a simple and spare setting that is certainly one of the Oscars’ musical highlights of the last several years.

Telecast began with a space-travel visual accompanied by famous sound bytes ranging from Bob Hope to James Cameron and scores of winners between them. Nothing elaborate or even remotely Billy Crystal-ish cluttered up or even attempted to tickle the at-home aud — then again, it is the 73rd show, two away from that next big anniversary when producers pull out all the stops.

The tributes to cinematographer Jack Cardiff and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were the rare collections of clips that dutifully drove home their points without sentiment or didactic dialogue. Interesting that in this low-key setting, the honorees — Dino De Laurentiis was another — were all responsible for some of Hollywood’s most majestic epics.

Snappiness of the telecast was enhanced by the flexible set, its enormity captured by side views and its functionality evident in the unobtrusive movement of backdrops, steps, facades and podiums. Framed by two cutouts of Oscar shapes and a giant statue in the middle, the most commonly seen backdrop consisted of rectangles painted in a stark 1970s color scheme of browns and blues, a nice low-key use of a moving high-tech wall.

Bob Dickinson’s lighting splendidly enhanced the telecast, especially the musical perfs. Bjork’s haunting performance on a bare stage bathed in deep blue added to the song’s metered uneasiness; an elegant series of orange hues stoked a calming flame for Coco Lee’s singing of “A Love Before Time.”

Ceremony writers do need to work on some of the introductions. It seems that if a performer has never been nominated for an Oscar or they are known for more than one talent, the introductory adjective is the understated “talented.” As in Sarah Jessica Parker.

The night did witness one hideous invention: the “pre-commercial.” During the red-carpet fashion show that ABC bills as a pre-telecast, Pepsi informed audiences that they should watch their commercial during the kudocast. At the first break, Pepsi unveiled its Britney Spears spectacular in which she dances her way through cliched musicvideo moves until Bob Dole’s dog gets aroused; it was immediately upstaged by a clever Jerry Seinfeld apartment remodeling spot and later on by a touching Kodak ad.

A nice ode to the fact that it is 2001 was the inclusion of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke from Sri Lanka where he presented the adapted screenplay award. An over-the-top reference was the use of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” as a musical cue in several spots. Clearly they didn’t consult the subversive mind of Martin. He would’ve picked, one likes to think, the “Blue Danube.”

The 73rd annual Academy Awards

ABC; Sun. March 25, 5:30 p.m.

Production: Broadcast live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles by ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Producer, Gil Cates; associate producer, Michael B. Seligman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Hal Kanter, Buz Kohan, Bruce Vilanch, Rita Cash, Jon Macks, Andy Breckman, Steve Martin, Rita Rudner.

Crew: Production design, Roy Christopher; lighting, Bob Dickinson; sound, Ed Greene; music, Bill Conti. 3 HOURS, 23 MIN.

With: Host: Steve MartinPresenters: Ben Affleck, Julie Andrews, Annette Bening, Halle Berry, Juliette Binoche, Nicolas Cage, Arthur C. Clarke, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Goldie Hawn, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lopez, Mike Myers, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kevin Spacey, Ben Stiller, Hilary Swank, John Travolta, Michele Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Performers: Sting, Randy Newman, Coco Lee, Bjork, Susanna Hoffs, Bob Dylan, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma.

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