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84th Annual Academy Awards

After last year's rightfully mocked experiment with youthful hosts, the 84th Academy Awards pivoted entirely in the opposite direction, into the comforting arms of Billy Crystal.

With:
Presenters: Christian Bale, Sandra Bullock, Rose Byrne, Bradley Cooper, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman, Zach Galifianakis, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, Ellie Kemper, Melissa Leo, Jennifer Lopez, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Ben Stiller, Emma Stone, Meryl Streep, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson

Oscar telecasts always wage an internal struggle — balancing tradition and stateliness against the perceived need for risk and edge to attract younger viewers. After last year’s rightfully mocked experiment with youthful hosts, the 84th Academy Awards pivoted entirely in the opposite direction, into the comforting arms of Billy Crystal. The result could hardly be called exciting, but after the pre-telecast fireworks Academy mavens were perhaps slightly relieved to be a little bit boring. If that was an unspoken goal — other than some unscripted moments displaying genuine emotion — they got their wish.

Crystal and producer Brian Grazer were safe, familiar choices for the Oscars after Brett Ratner verbally torpedoed his stewardship of the ceremony and Eddie Murphy subsequently withdrew as host.

Yet all the media buzz notwithstanding, Oscar hosts only get so many opportunities to shine, and the opening is clearly the most significant one. So having distinguished himself with past tributes to the nominees, could Crystal — looking tan, rested and ready — deliver in his ninth Oscar assignment?

Frankly, the whole introductory sequence felt like a pallid sequel — a ghost of Oscars past — and not solely because the host had to labor to incorporate nine nominees.

Crystal didn’t acknowledge the controversy that led to him being belatedly tapped as emcee (that task fell, obliquely, to Academy prez Tom Sherak), but he proceeded to build his musical number around personal angst over whether he should brave an encore. That felt unconvincing, since there was a sense he’d been sitting by the phone just waiting for the call.

The film montage featured some clever edits — the juxtaposition of scenes from “The Help” and “Bridesmaids,” for example — but it was hard to escape a nagging feeling the night would be filled with deja vu. And nine movies in song form, it turned out, simply became several bridges too far.

The show was intermittently rescued, nearly, by what the late Gil Cates cheerfully referred to as “the award show gods” — those unplanned, spontaneous moments people remember, for good or ill. The honorees delivered several such highlights, from the director of Iran’s foreign-language category winner “A Separation” issuing a plea for peace and goodwill, to “The Help’s” Octavia Spencer fighting through tears to an elegant, 82-year-old Christopher Plummer becoming the oldest winner ever.

On the flip side, did we really need sniggering size jokes from the “Bridesmaids” cast to try and invigorate the short film categories?

Grazer and fellow producer-director Don Mischer sought to deal with the Oscars’ inherent structural challenge — an abundance of technical awards — by frontloading categories like costume design, makeup and cinematography, and wisely having presenters hand out two or three at a time.

The first marquee honor, supporting actress, didn’t come until almost 45 minutes in, and another 45 elapsed before Plummer took the stage.

Tellingly, virtually every taped sequence reveled in the magic of old movies, including a montage of memorable hits seemingly designed to compensate for the low profile of this year’s best-picture nominees; and another about focus-group testing “The Wizard of Oz.” Even an elaborate Cirque du Soleil performance drew inspiration from “North by Northwest,” and the aerial acrobatics no doubt played better inside the theater than on TV, where it was difficult to fully appreciate what was happening on (and above) the stage.

The night wasn’t devoid of laughs or surprises, including both lead actor categories; still, when Chris Rock came out and joked about the ease of voiceover work, there was a temptation to plead with him to stick around awhile, if only to infuse the joint with some energy — despite a historically brisk running time by Oscar standards.

Even Crystal mentioned the show’s geriatric bent, suggesting the Kodak Theater ought to be renamed the Flomax Theater.

“Perky gets old fast with this crowd,” Ben Stiller quipped during his presenter bit with Emma Stone.

Joke all you want, but for a night, anyway, Oscar unabashedly showed its age. And if that represented an improvement over 2011, chalk it up to this ballot grading on a curve.

As for the 90-minute preshow, ABC officially dispensed with any pretense about celebrating movies and focused almost exclusively on fashion and “Who are you wearing?” banality.

Not that Barbara Walters’ interview specials were notable for their depth — OK, someone usually cried — but if the main telecast was rife with nostalgia, its opening act inadvertently made one yearn for the old days.

Popular on Variety

84th Annual Academy Awards

Special; ABC, Sun. Feb. 26, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT

Production: Broadcast live from the Hollywood & Highland Center. Producers, Brian Grazer, Don Mischer; supervising producer, Michael B. Seligman; director, Mischer; writers, Jon Macks, Dave Boone, Carol Leifer; coordinating producer, Michael Rosenberg; production designer, John Myhre; music directors, Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams; nominated film sequences, Lori Margules; opening film, Troy Miller; talent producer, Melissa Trueblood. 3 HOURS, 13 MIN. Host: Billy Crystal

Cast: Presenters: Christian Bale, Sandra Bullock, Rose Byrne, Bradley Cooper, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman, Zach Galifianakis, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, Ellie Kemper, Melissa Leo, Jennifer Lopez, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Ben Stiller, Emma Stone, Meryl Streep, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson

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