82nd Annual Academy Awards -- TV Review

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin (Getty)
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It's fitting that the strategic approach to producing Hollywood's biggest night seemed to be inspired by Botox: lots of small injections that did little to give the Academy Awards a youthful glow.

Overloading the show with teen-pinup presenters and frontloading a tribute to director John Hughes were just two of the ways Oscar gave what might have been its most unabashed effort to age down its audience. But with all the alterations restricted to the surface, they amounted to a rather conventional outing that didn't extend -- some might say stoop -- to win over anyone other than ardent film fans.

Although Oscar producers Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman clearly labored to make their mark, the 82nd edition of the Oscars offered a reminder that no amount of tinkering can match the magic of suspenseful competition. Even the awkwardly rushed ending to the overlong telecast easily was forgotten in the nail-biting moments in which "The Hurt Locker" capped the evening with best director and picture wins.

The evening didn't begin as auspiciously. The curious choice of opening the telecast with a musical number from overexposed thirtysomething TV star Neil Patrick Harris, rather than with veteran hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, could be interpreted as a hedge against coming across too old.

Then again, it might have been a wise decision: Baldwin and Martin were slow to warm up. Although their first hit-and-miss jokes were woodenly delivered, their chemistry crackled a bit more as the night progressed. Neither can claim a particularly memorable performance, but Martin's final words might have been his funniest: "The show is so long that 'Avatar' now takes place in the past."

Yet even these relative oldsters did the obligatory nod to the Oscar youth imperative, with an unlikely pretaped sendup of last year's horror sensation "Paranormal Activity." Horror also figured into a midshow tribute to the youth-skewing genre, an odd nod given how few of even its best films have received recognition by the Academy.

Similarly, the choice of devoting a separate tribute in the first hour of the show to Hughes, whose work also was never honored by Oscar, might seem especially controversial given the way the show buried its Governors Award tribute to such elder legends as Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, save a brief recap of a ceremony held in November.

It wouldn't have been unthinkable in a previous year for Hughes to have been shoehorned into the "In Memoriam" obituary montage. It's hard not to see the elaborate salute to his career as an effort to appeal to Generation X, which might have had anyone older asking why.

It's safe to assume a similar rationale was at work behind the seemingly endless parade of, one hesitates to use the word "actors," who presented awards, including Taylor Lautner, Miley Cyrus, Rachel McAdams and Zac Efron. Their questionable usage was thrown into sharp relief during a presentation in which "Twilight" starlet Kristen Stewart stopped midsentence to swivel her head over her shoulder to cough. Classy.

Youth was more gracefully employed in the presentation for original score, with each nominated piece of music beautifully danced by a troupe with the unfortunate name of Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. It also served as a nice counterbalance to the absence of individual performances in the original song category, which wasn't missed.

That creative approach to original score was representative of Mechanic/Shankman's most artful improvement: enlivening obscure categories in ways that made viewers appreciate a craft they probably didn't understand. Such snoozers as short film and sound editing came appended with brief segments featuring compelling explanations from the likes of Taylor Hackford and Morgan Freeman.

Of course, it could be argued that the Oscars never will truly maximize its audience without banishing these kind of categories from the broadcast entirely. Mechanic and Shankman could be credited with finding a middle ground between satisfying Oscar tradition and rendering industry insider-ishness more accessible. But if the producers were looking to break new ground -- and many of their pre-Oscar media comments seemed to suggest they did -- well, they didn't.

But they were smart to stick with another presentation innovation introduced last year, with the lead acting categories pairing each nominee with a colleague offering an individualized tribute. This second attempt might have been better than the first, topped by heartfelt words Oprah Winfrey directed to tearful "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe, providing the night's most emotional moment.

Otherwise, emotion was in short supply; there really wasn't any one acceptance speech that wasn't instantly forgettable. Best actress winner Sandra Bullock at least gets credit for opening her remarks with a great line: "Did I really earn this or did I just wear you all down?"

Although it ended up winning only three awards, "Avatar" seemed to loom larger over the proceedings than any other film, from the CGI sprinkling on stage of its bioluminescent floating sprites to Ben Stiller's blue-skinned homage in his best makeup presentation. (Oddly, "Avatar" wasn't even nominated in that category). "Avatar" might have lost to "Hurt Locker" in the end, but all the attention paid seemed appropriate given its boxoffice success.

Airdate: 5:30-9:07 p.m. PST Sunday, March 7 (ABC)
Hosts: Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin
Producers: Bill Mechanic, Adam Shankman
Executive producer: Jeff Margolis
Supervising producer: Michael B. Seligman
Coordinating producer: Danette Herman
Director: Hamish Hamilton
Writers: Jon Macks, Bruce Vilanch, Jeff Richman, Steve Martin, Carol Leifer, Beth Armogida, Dave Feldman
Production designer: David Rockwell
Music director: Marc Shaiman
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