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The 79th Annual Academy Awards

The most prominent award shows have been undergoing a kind of collective nervous breakdown, wondering what concessions to decorum must be undertaken to stem declining ratings and stand out amid the kudocast glut and "American Idol" era.

With:
Host: Ellen DeGeneres Presenters: Ben Affleck, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jessica Biel, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Emily Blunt, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, George Clooney, Francis Ford Coppola, Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Deneuve, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr., Kirsten Dunst, Will Ferrell, Jodie Foster, Al Gore, Eva Green, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hanks, Anne Hathaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hugh Jackman, Diane Keaton, Nicole Kidman, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Lopez, George Lucas, Tobey Maguire, James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Jack Nicholson, Clive Owen, Gwyneth Paltrow, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Jerry Seinfeld, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will Smith, Steven Spielberg, John Travolta, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Kate Winslet, Reese Witherspoon.

The most prominent award shows have been undergoing a kind of collective nervous breakdown, wondering what concessions to decorum must be undertaken to stem declining ratings and stand out amid the kudocast glut and “American Idol” era. Against that backdrop, this year’s Academy Awards ultimately proved a stately if unspectacular-bordering-on-dull affair, with host Ellen DeGeneres’ traditional shtick feeling a trifle small for the industry’s biggest stage. As is so often true, the show also exhibited a peculiar sense of time management — rushing through certain promising elements and awkwardly lingering on others.

Oscars LXXIX, to cast the 79th edition in Super Bowl-like grandeur, did start on an elegant note, showcasing the nominees in a taped segment and then panning the room to find them all standing, basking in the warm adulation of their peers. It was a feeling, alas, that couldn’t and didn’t last.

At times, the Oscarcast vaguely resembled a middle-aged guy trying to squeeze into hipster clothes — working to drive traffic to its Oscar.com web site, for example, where winners could address a “thank you cam” without the threat of play-off music. When pre-show host Chris Connelly bumped into Tom Hanks backstage and said there was “more fun to come,” Hanks assumed a properly mocking tone by gushing, “You bet, Chris, more fun!”

For the most part, though, the Oscars have trumped efforts to innovate, and the 2007 telecast was generally no exception.

Initially wearing a peculiar western-looking suit, DeGeneres’ monologue riffed predictably on the nominees, and her impromptu strolls through the audience — pitching a script to Martin Scorsese and cozying up to Clint Eastwood — had a been-there, seen-that sense for anyone familiar with her work at the Emmys or in daytime. Unlike Jon Stewart or Chris Rock, DeGeneres’ comedy is perfectly non-threatening, making her a safe choice, if a bland guide through the night’s festivities.

DeGeneres’ introductory remarks underscored this effect. Only a passing reference to Al Gore drew much reaction, and the most pointed joke proved half-assed: She celebrated the night’s international and ethnic diversity in light of negative remarks but left the stars responsible for those regrettable outbursts, Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, unmentioned. “If there weren’t blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars,” she said.

When Jerry Seinfeld presented best documentary — referring to the five “incredibly depressing” nominees — he instantly made you wish he was hanging around a little longer.

Other aspects of the show didn’t translate well to TV, from a dance troupe reenacting nominees against a screen to a tedious bit featuring a “sound-effects choir,” which fell as flat as the gospel choir that punctuated DeGeneres’ opening.

Nor did it help in terms of getting the evening rolling that the first 50 minutes were devoted strictly to lower-profile categories (art direction, makeup, animated and live-action shorts, sound editing, sound mixing) before viewers saw their first recognizable winner, Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”

On the plus side, Arkin’s surprise win — quickly followed by “Happy Feet” as animated feature — suggested that this year’s awards might not adhere to a preordained script, even if Arkin did precisely that by reading his speech verbatim.

Among other acceptance speeches, hastening Jennifer Hudson’s exit as she tearfully claimed her prize for “Dreamgirls” seemed misguided — especially after her dazzling duet with Beyonce — and the scads of praise heaped on Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth’s” environmental message will doubtless give the rabid right plenty to rail against regarding Hollywood’s left-wing sensibilities.

Spontaneity, however — the precious hallmark of any good awards show — remained in short supply, beyond Martin Scorsese’s overdue coronation as best director and his embrace of Jack Nicholson. Granted, that’s through no fault of the big winners: Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker oozed class and charm, but they have garnered too many honors for “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland” to convincingly feign shock.

Most of the themed film sequences were too broad in scope, so perhaps the strongest produced moment came early, when Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly teamed on a sprightly song about being “a comedian at the Oscars.” The sentiment cleverly summed up criticism that relatively few recent nominees enjoy widespread, crowd-pleasing appeal.

ABC’s half-hour arrival show delivered the traditional mix of breathless fawning and hyperventilating fashion nitwits, though nothing within it rivaled the E! net’s Glam-a-Strator, allowing style mavens to scribble on attendees’ outfits as if this were a football game.

On that score, the Oscars moved the ball downfield and eventually reached the end zone. Too bad they went overtime, and viewed solely as a TV event, to paraphrase “The Magnificent Seven,” only the filmmakers won.

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The 79th Annual Academy Awards

ABC, Sun. Feb. 25, 5:30 p.m. PT

Production: Broadcast from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Producer, Laura Ziskin; supervising producer, Michael B. Seligman; co-producer, Danette Herman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Bruce Vilanch, Dave Boone, Billiam Coronel, Carrie Fisher, Carol Leifer, Jon Macks.

Crew: Special material written by Ellen DeGeneres, Karen Anderson, Vance DeGeneres, Mike Gibbons, Alex Herschlag, Karen Kilgariff, Jeff Stilson, Alison Balian, Liz Feldman, Kevin Leman; production design, J. Michael Riva; music director, William Ross. Running time: 3 HOURS, 51 MIN.

With: Host: Ellen DeGeneres Presenters: Ben Affleck, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jessica Biel, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Emily Blunt, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, George Clooney, Francis Ford Coppola, Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Deneuve, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr., Kirsten Dunst, Will Ferrell, Jodie Foster, Al Gore, Eva Green, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hanks, Anne Hathaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hugh Jackman, Diane Keaton, Nicole Kidman, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Lopez, George Lucas, Tobey Maguire, James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Jack Nicholson, Clive Owen, Gwyneth Paltrow, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Jerry Seinfeld, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will Smith, Steven Spielberg, John Travolta, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Kate Winslet, Reese Witherspoon.

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