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TV Review: ‘The 86th Annual Academy Awards’

For play-it-safe Oscars, there's no defying gravity

With:

Host: Ellen DeGeneres

Presenters: Amy Adams, Kristen Bell, Jessica Biel, Jim Carrey, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper, Penélope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Viola Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Chris Evans, Sally Field, Harrison Ford, Jamie Foxx, Andrew Garfield, Jennifer Garner, Whoopi Goldberg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Goldie Hawn, Chris Hemsworth, Kate Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Michael B. Jordan, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lawrence, Matthew McConaughey, Ewan McGregor, Bill Murray, Kim Novak, Tyler Perry, Brad Pitt, Sidney Poitier, Gabourey Sidibe, Will Smith, Kevin Spacey, Jason Sudeikis, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, John Travolta, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Emma Watson, Naomi Watts

Let the charges fly that this year’s Oscars were “boring,” but from the nature of the production, one suspects that wasn’t far from the intent. Ellen DeGeneres did not sing a song about seeing actresses’ boobs on screen, but rather delivered an opening monologue in which she playfully bantered with the nominees and joshed about Hollywood’s foibles – a tone that extended throughout the night. In that respect, DeGeneres felt much like a throwback to the old days – when Bob Hope or Johnny Carson handled those chores – relying on the movies, and whatever spontaneity the recipients could muster, to make the show memorable or (more often) forgettable.

For all the pandering the Oscars have done through the years to attract a younger audience – including last year’s choice of Seth MacFarlane – DeGeneres’ latest turn as host spoke to another phase of the process, which might be acceptance. After all, her daytime profile dovetails pretty well with the demos of the Oscarcast, which is to say more female than male, and a little on the older side.

About as close as this year’s awards got to hip was having the camera swivel around the presenters, which more than anything felt like an attempt to create a sense of movement (or less charitably, car-sickness) in a show that was frequently inert.

No, if this year’s Academy Awards were going to escape the dreaded snooze effect – and that’s invariably a problem with a three-hour-plus telecast, where most of the winners aren’t identifiable to viewers at home – the magic was going to have to be generated by someone other than the host or producers, whose taped pieces were nothing special. The tributes to screen heroes felt especially flaccid, with part two representing a self-conscious nod to the kind of crowd-pleasing movies that seldom get nominated. Similarly, a segment devoted to animated heroes should have played adjacent to best animated feature.

The evening’s principal wrinkle, such as it was, involved moving DeGeneres around the auditorium, which allowed her to continue ribbing and interacting with stars, such as presenting Bradley Cooper a consolation lotto ticket after he didn’t win or (in the best bit) ordering pizza for heavyweights in the audience – and trying to pass the bill to Harvey Weinstein.

For the most part, the stars were helpfully willing to play along – posing for a tweeted selfie, for example, which briefly crashed Twitter – but those kind of gags are both slim and a hit-miss proposition.

To quote the late Gilbert Cates, the “award show gods” either smile on producers or they don’t, and this year’s telecast enjoyed several small blessings from above. They included Darlene Love belting out a song after “20 Feet From Stardom” won best documentary; Lupita Nyong’o’s exuberance and radiance; Jared Leto’s touching tribute to his mother, right off the bat; and Bill Murray throwing out an acknowledgement to the late Harold Ramis.

Of course, amid such a bloated show, those interludes felt few and far between. The same goes for the graceful musical performances – Pink’s tribute to “The Wizard of Oz,” U2’s stirring performance of its Oscar-nominated song from “Mandela,” Bette Midler’s necrology rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Idina Menzel’s spine-tingling pipes on “Frozen’s” “Let it Go” – which didn’t exhibit much imagination in their staging.

Despite safe choices from top to bottom, the Oscars have become a political lightning rod, and this year’s telecast will likely be no exception. Cultural warriors are apt to seize upon everything from references to AIDS and gay acceptance by the winners from “Dallas Buyers Club” to Cate Blanchett’s pitch regarding the box office viability of movies starring women. Then again, it’s rare for an actor to deliver such an impassioned thanks to God, as Matthew McConaughey did.

Such gripes notwithstanding, DeGeneres is in many ways one of the few talents suited to this sort of steadfastly middle-of-the-road take on the Oscars – able to joke around with celebrities from June Squibb to Liza Minnelli to Jennifer Lawrence, without ever coming across as mean-spirited.

That’s as it should be, since there’s certainly enough nastiness and snark to go around. Let the Twitter-verse buzz about Kim Novak, John Travolta’s garbled introduction of Menzel or Midler’s clipped comment after her performance. Inside the Dolby, let the good (OK, maybe just inoffensive) times roll.

As for the 90-minute arrivals show, suffice it to say that bloated exercise felt about 43 minutes too long. Part of that had to with the predictable emptiness of the red-carpet banter courtesy of a “Good Morning America” team that didn’t miss a single opportunity for self-promotion — including a stiff taped bit involving latenight host Jimmy Kimmel.

All told, it was a ho-hum evening, but not an embarrassing one – a long sit, punctuated by occasional moments, and genuine suspense regarding the eventual coronation of “12 Years a Slave.” And if that sounds like a small victory, in Oscar terms, it’s the equivalent of defying gravity.

TV Review: 'The 86th Annual Academy Awards'

(Special; ABC, Sun. March 2, 8:30 p.m. ET)

Production:

Broadcast live from the Dolby Theater.

Crew:

Producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron; supervising producer, Michael B. Seligman; director, Hamish Hamilton; writers, Kristin Gore, Amy Ozols, Jon Macks; production designer, Derek McLane; music director, William Ross; talent producer, Taryn Hurd. 3 HOURS, 34 MIN.

Cast:

Host: Ellen DeGeneres

Presenters: Amy Adams, Kristen Bell, Jessica Biel, Jim Carrey, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper, Penélope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Viola Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Chris Evans, Sally Field, Harrison Ford, Jamie Foxx, Andrew Garfield, Jennifer Garner, Whoopi Goldberg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Goldie Hawn, Chris Hemsworth, Kate Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Michael B. Jordan, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lawrence, Matthew McConaughey, Ewan McGregor, Bill Murray, Kim Novak, Tyler Perry, Brad Pitt, Sidney Poitier, Gabourey Sidibe, Will Smith, Kevin Spacey, Jason Sudeikis, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, John Travolta, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Emma Watson, Naomi Watts

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