78th Academy Awards

78th Academy Awards

So here's an idea the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might just want to run with: Next year, just dispense with the pretense of ceremony altogether and make the Academy Awards a combination clip montage/infomercial for the moviegoing experience. The trophies? Heck, that's what catapults are for. Just read off the names of the winners and fling those suckers into the crowd. Should take about three minutes, four tops. The speeches can be restricted to quiet mumbling to oneself off-camera, with the real thank-yous moved to everyone's individual Web sites. No muss, no fuss.

Based on the evidence from Sunday night's 78th Annual Academy Awards telecast, this is indeed where we're headed. The unmistakable message was that acceptance speeches are an unfortunate evil that need be tolerated rather than, you know, the reason these lovefests exist in the first place. Already an endangered species because of their purported excessive length, the acceptances took yet another hit with the absurd idea (presumably of producer Gilbert Cates) to play music throughout the speeches. Not only was it monumentally distracting, it also was supremely disrespectful -- rather akin to being played offstage from the moment you get there.

It's like, when will the speech paranoia madness end? It's fine to subject the audience to endless clip packages designed to reacquaint consumers with the old-fashioned moviegoing experience, wounded animal that it appears to be. But let someone other than Reese Witherspoon go longer than 45 seconds up there, and there's hell to pay.

I appear to have been misled about the primary goal of these kudofests. I'd thought it was to honor people and allow them their minute or (mercy) two minutes in a spotlight they had worked their entire careers to achieve. But apparently, it's just about riffing, posturing and promoting. The people onstage evidently are just baggage from a bygone era, the time when hearing what winners have to say was more important than doing everything possible to keep viewers from changing the channel. So perhaps it isn't Cates who is to blame so much as Nielsen.

That aside, this Oscar telecast was a collection of elements surreal and soporific, inspired and ridiculous. On a night when "Crash" wound up stealing the show, there were a pair of moments that might match any in Oscar history for peculiarity. One was the triumph of a tune called "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" for best original song. Will a tune be honored for glorifying child molestation next? And I'm not sure what was going on during the creepy performance of the "Crash"-nominated song, "In the Deep," but it appeared to have been lifted from a parody of "Night of the Living Dead." It's worthy of note that performers moving like zombies got more stage time -- and less hassle for it -- than did best actor winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But at least we had host Jon Stewart to get us through what could have been an even longer 3 1/2 hours than it turned out to be. His opening that featured former Oscar hosts Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and David Letterman was inspired. His opening monologue, while nothing spectacular, did the job and featured a couple of nice zingers. ("Bjork couldn't be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress, and Dick Cheney shot her.")

Stewart was best, however, with the move-the-show-along ad-libs. He supplied the ironic perspective that a show so deliriously speech-phobic required, noting after the bizarre "Crash" song performance, "If you're trying to escape a burning car, my suggestion would be to not move in slow motion." He seemed at times nervous and self-conscious, but on the whole, Stewart delivered with just the right balance of reverence and smugness.

The speeches, those dirty little ratings-killers, were short by necessity but mostly heartfelt (those of lead acting victors Hoffman and Witherspoon and best supporting actor winner George Clooney in particular). There thankfully seemed to be more gratitude aimed at mothers and spouses than lawyers and agents this time. But again, even boring speeches don't deserve to have to compete with background music from Bill Conti and his orchestra.

Another highlight included Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin's brilliantly scattered introduction of honorary Oscar winner Robert Altman. But the pieces meant to spoof the shameless lobbying campaigns for lead actress and sound mixing was a cute idea that went on far too long, much like the interminable -- and essentially themeless and pointless -- clip assemblages (so ubiquitous and laborious that even Stewart was obliged to zing them).

Alas, I've already gone far over my allotted two minutes of reading material. You've probably long since turned the page. But at least the experience has been music-free.

Presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Credits: Producer: Gilbert Cates; Associate producer: Michael B. Seligman; Director: Louis J. Horvitz; Writers: Buz Kohan, Jon Macks, Bruce Vilanch; Special material written by: Jon Stewart, Ben Karlin, David Javerbaum, Rich Blomquist, Tim Carvell, J.R. Havlan, Scott Jacobson, Jason Reich, Rodney Rothman, Dan Vebber, Joyce Bycel, Jon Fener; Executive in charge of talent: Danette Herman; Production designer: Roy Christopher; Music director: Bill Conti; Fanfare for Oscar composed by: Jerry Goldsmith; Lighting designer: Robert A. Dickinson; Costume designer: Ret Turner; Fashion coordinator: Patty Fox; Art director: Greg Richman. Host: Jon Stewart.