If Sunday’s showcase wasn’t quite a Rock or Oscars for the ages, it was a smooth and appealing telecast — and somehow the republic, red and blue states alike, seems destined to survive it. For all the hand-wringing about the awards descending into the muck, the 77th Academy Awards proved a classy affair, with precious little red meat to satiate Hollywood bashers. Even the potentially awkward decision to bring some nominees onstage had a salutary effect, investing the presentation with a rather collegial feel.
After all the tumult surrounding his selection as host, Chris Rock didn’t live down to the hype, delivering a funny opening monologue complete with a few clever barbs directed at the Bush administration that didn’t draw blood.
Rock’s best bit of material, using the cadence of his stand-up act, saw him counseling Hollywood, “If you can’t get a star, wait,” which turned into an indictment of Jude Law’s ubiquity last year (later drawing a retort from Sean Penn). Rock also appeared in an excellent taped piece from the Magic Johnson Theaters, where patrons expressed a preference for “Saw” and “The Chronicles of Riddick” over “Sideways” and “The Aviator.”
Still, hoopla notwithstanding, Oscar hosts inevitably contribute only so much to the proceedings, and after the opening, Rock wasn’t a major factor. This show benefited from several inspired moments, scripted and otherwise.
Those included a Johnny Carson tribute and Yo-Yo Ma’s accompaniment to the annual necrology as well as the quiet nobility of several acceptance speeches, beginning with supporting actors Morgan Freeman and Cate Blanchett and culminating with “Ray” star Jamie Foxx’s nod to his late grandmother.
Although initiated primarily to speed up the award-giving process, bringing onstage the nominees in documentary, special effects, costume design and art direction provided an opportunity to recognize them en masse, not just the winners. Wisely, producer Gil Cates and director Louis J. Horvitz didn’t show anybody up, quickly zeroing in on the recipient.
The one thuddingly flat twist saw the best makeup and short films Oscars presented in the middle of the hall, as winners uncomfortably stood with their backs toward much of the audience. More than anything, it looked like something out of “Let’s Make a Deal,” minus Monty Hall.
“Next year they’re gonna give out Oscars in the parking lot,” Rock smartly quipped, after one long-winded honoree for documentary short was unceremoniously played off.
Beyond that, though, there was much to like scattered amid the back patting. Compared to past Oscarcasts, the evening moved briskly, a full half-hour shorter than last year’s show.
One winner, cinematographer Robert Richardson, actually thanked those treating his hospitalized mother. Robin Williams delivered a sharp riff on animated characters being gay, and a radiant Beyonce belted out three nominated songs — including one in French, which generated more heat within the Kodak than “The Ten Commandments'” pillar of fire.
Even the ebb and flow of the awards unfolded to the telecast’s advantage, as “The Aviator’s” early dominance began to quaver as “Million Dollar Baby” — and the immensely popular Clint Eastwood — came on toward the end. And since the Oscars have become a marketing platform just short of the Super Bowl, kudos to Pepsi for a hilarious “Spartacus” spoof incorporating footage from that classic.
As for the arrival madness, reservoirs of fashion babble and fawning were dangerously depleted by concurrent coverage on E!, TV Guide Channel, and Los Angeles stations KABC and KTLA.
Despite the return of Joan and Melissa Rivers on TV Guide, E!’s Kathy Griffin proved even more annoying — and unfunny — with a litany of snarky and sometimes-crass gags that meshed uncomfortably with Star Jones Reynolds’ gee-whiz red carpet persona.
The elder Rivers, however, yielded the biggest howler by asking Imelda Staunton if she had met the character she played in “Vera Drake,” “or is she dead now?” An embarrassed Staunton had to explain that Drake was fictional.
ABC’s pre-show moved so quickly virtually no one was able to complete a thought, a formula that mercifully rendered “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush less obnoxious than usual. The honesty award, meanwhile, went to co-host Chris Connelly, who Warren Beatty called “very kind” for referring to him as handsome.
“That’s what I do for a living,” Connelly responded.
So true. And for the Oscars this night, anyway, the living was easy.