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Host DeGeneres brings laughs to tedious telecast

Tom Jicha
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

Hollywood's biggest night turned into a victory parade for television. Helen Mirren, whose signature role is in PBS's "Prime Suspect," won as best actress; Forest Whitaker, who was brilliant in FX's "The Shield" last season and will be back this year, won best actor and "American Idol" also-ran Jennifer Hudson was named best supporting actress.

Unfortunately, the Academy Award telecast didn't live up to this standard of excellence. The Oscarcast is always a slow starter but Sunday's show took this to enervating extremes, lumbering along like a cement truck at a drag strip.

The audience has come to accept getting a couple of significant awards, generally best supporting actor and actress, in the first half hour before the long slog of technical and crafts awards leading to the really big prizes around midnight.

Not this year. It was almost an hour before Alan Arkin's name was called for best supporting actor for "Little Miss Sunshine" and more than another hour before Hudson, who wasn't deemed good enough to be an "American Idol," won show business' most coveted trophy for her supporting role in "Dreamgirls."

While awaiting the significant Oscar announcements, viewers had to sit through categories such as art direction, animated short, live action short, tributes to camera motion and blue screen technology, makeup, sound editing and sound mixing.

Producer Laura Ziskin, who has the distinction of presiding over the longest Oscar telecast ever - a four-hour-plus show five years ago - didn't go quite that long this time, bringing in the program at about three hours, 50 minutes. However, this was still 20 minutes beyond the allotted time.

This wasn't her most egregious sin. The telecast not only lacked discipline, it had atrocious pacing. The liveliest segment of the night was a medley of songs from "Dreamgirls." However, instead of breaking up the minor-awards monotony earlier in the evening, it didn't get on until almost 11:30, a half-hour after prime time ended in the East and Midwest.

Worse, the Oscars that people were most interested in - best actor, Martin Scorsese's first Oscar as best director and best picture - all were pushed beyond midnight. As a result they had to be rushed through, none getting the eight minutes allotted to foreign films in prime time.

The biggest individual winner of the night had to be Al Gore, whose homily on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," was named outstanding documentary. What's more, a tune from the film, "I Need to Wake Up," won best song. That the dirge-like song outranked the music from "Dreamgirls" raises the question whether the nod from Hollywood was for merit or was a political statement.

The only beneficiary of Ziskin's languid pacing was host Ellen DeGeneres, who got funnier as the night wore on. In the midst of this debacle, a chicken-crossing-the-road joke would have generated belly laughs.

DeGeneres was far funnier than that, once she got over what seemed to be an early case of nerves. Recognizing a standard practice in show business, she invited winners to spice up their acceptance speeches with tidbits like disclosing they are from the Bronx, overcame illiteracy and once lived in a car - even if it wasn't true.

Addressing prejudice in a comical way, she reminded everyone that if it weren't for blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no film industry.

She was even sharper between awards, roaming the aisles, pitching a script to Scorsese and later asking Steven Spielberg to take a picture of her with Clint Eastwood, then criticizing the way he framed the shot.

Maybe it was the general ennui the show induced, but there weren't even any snappy or snarky comments in acceptance speeches.

Blatantly political remarks, an Oscar tradition, came as Melissa Etheridge performed "I Need to Wake Up." As Etheridge sang, tips on how to combat global warming played behind her. A notable omission was "don't avail yourself of gas-guzzling stretch limos to make a flashier entrance onto the red carpet."

It's also noteworthy that the Kodak Theater, venue for the Oscars, was not illuminated by energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, as the global warming lobby recommends. This would not merit mention but for the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, appearing with Gore, declared that the Oscars had gone green.

DeGeneres picked up on the theme. To promote recycling, she said she was bringing back a couple of jokes from earlier in her career, hilarious but dated lines about "Gilligan's Island."

The host's strongest commentary of the night was probably unintentional. As the telecast droned into its third hour, she used a back-lit white screen to shape her fingers into the kind of animal images kids do at summer camp.

But for the "Dreamgirls" medley, it was among the most entertaining segments of the night.

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