Ellen DeGeneres will go down in history as the first Oscars host to Tweet a group selfie on the job, but she was also acted like she was among friends inside the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night. After last year’s disastrous emceeing from Seth MacFarlane (who outraged viewers and Academy members with a song about boobs), DeGeneres followed the Billy Crystal — and before that, Johnny Carson — template of staging wholesome hijinks at Hollywood’s annual celebration of movies.
More relaxed than when she hosted the Oscars seven years ago, DeGeneres was a natural at not only delivering zingers, but also keeping the audience awake throughout the lengthy telecast. A lot of her best material dealt directly with the in-house audience. Her decision to feed the actors with a surprise pizza delivery wasn’t just a slapstick gag, although the hit worked on that level. It was also a useful bribe to get the crowd on her side.
Unlike the Golden Globes, the Oscars have a strict no-food policy, even if most of the guests are starving after a long afternoon of limousine rides and red carpet interviews. Brad Pitt, who grabbed one of the first slices, ate it quickly, and it was easier to appreciate all the speeches that followed with the aroma of melted cheese in the air.
Later, DeGeneres took a collection to pay the pizza guy, asking for donations from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein. Best supporting actress winner Lupita Nyong’o dug into her purse looking for change and instead tossed her lipgloss into the collections pot. A few minutes later, during the commercial, DeGeneres dutifully ran it back over to her, like any attentive house party host would.
DeGeneres did a lot of casual roaming at the breaks, which gave the evening the same easy-going vibe of her hit daytime talk show. (Her only truly nasty barb of the night came at Liza Minnelli’s expense.) Before the best actor category, Matthew McConaughey, who mingled near the stage at every commercial, gave DeGeneres a quick peck on the cheek. Either it was a good luck kiss for him, or he was already congratulating the true winner of the evening.
The success or failure of the Oscars usually lie on the host’s shoulders, but DeGeneres got some help from the orchestra. Traditionally, the musical numbers are always a hit-or-miss proposition, and this year they all came together as show stoppers. Pharrell Williams started the evening off right with his anthem to “Despicable Me 2,” which had the crowd on its feet. It almost didn’t matter that he sounded like he was crooning to a pre-recorded track.
Bono and U2 rocked the house with the song for “Mandela,”which was definitely performed live. Bette Midler, who sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” at the end of the In Memoriam montage, delivered one of her best televised vocals in a long time. (The producers asked the audience not to clap during the montage, yet many couldn’t help themselves when it came to the universally beloved James Gandolfini, Roger Ebert, Harold Ramis or Philip Seymour Hoffman.) The “Wizard of Oz” tribute from Pink was great, to the surprise of almost everybody. And Idina Menzel belted her rendition of “Frozen’s” Oscar-winning “Let It Go” on a stage lit by diamonds and ice backdrops.
The rest of the set constructions were equally impressive to those of us in the audience. Early in the telecast, a tapestry of roses was unveiled, which seemed random until the “Oz” number, where it became clear it was an homage to the 1939 classic. The best screenplay categories were announced to a stage decorated by typewriters. The rest of the backdrops involved either Oscars or spotlights, two popular Hollywood tropes.
DeGeneres seemed to capture the same magic that Crystal brought during his hosting heyday. She wasn’t just funny and lovable, she looked like she was grateful to be there. The Academy should definitely invite her back.