The 79th Annual Academy Awards



If you wanted to take a few swipes at Sunday night's Oscar ceremony, it wouldn't be that hard.

The opening film, five minutes of unidentified nominees from Errol Morris, tested just how much viewers really wanted to see the show. Host Ellen DeGeneres, through true to her kinder, softer brand of humor, got too silly at times. And the show, which feels bloated under the best of circumstances, ran 20 minutes long despite rigid enforcement of the 45-second rule for acceptance speeches.

But I'm willing to give producer Laura Ziskin a pass on these and several other head-scratching decisions because she tried so hard to do the impossible. Never before has a producer put so much thought and effort to breathe life into the long and dull string of awards that precede the ones for which nearly all viewers tune in.

The Oscars might well be, as the announcer reminded us pointedly at the outset of the show, "the gold standard" of award shows, but like all the others, it is a compromise between the self-congratulatory impulses of the industry and the entertainment needs of the billion or so viewers whose eyeballs allow ABC to charge an average of $1.7 million for each 30-second spot.

Past Oscar telecasts tried to satisfy both sides by keeping the unpopular awards in the show but getting through them as quickly as possible, as though they were a necessary evil. Ziskin, on the other hand, decided to impart entertainment value to the awards most viewers find forgettable.

Granted, she had mixed success. Sending DeGeneres to Clint Eastwood's seat to take a MySpace photo didn't add any special significance to the cinematography award. Nor did cutting Greg Kinnear's mike in the banter before the presentation for sound editing.

On the other hand, Michael Mann's film collage of foreign-film winners made the category seem more important. The inclusion of stage directions and dialogue in the clips preceding the best original screenplay award was inspired. So, too, was the idea of showing clips for best picture with DVD-style commentary.

And, though you can't credit Ziskin for this, the best song winner "I Need to Wake Up," from "An Inconvenient Truth," was an improvement of incalculable degrees over last year's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."

Now back to DeGeneres. Her monologue was warm and sincere and spiced with good-natured ribbing. That style was exactly what was needed on the post-Sept. 11 Emmy show, but this telecast did not occur in the shadow of a crisis or tragedy. The link between Hollywood and the world of politics and the issues within the industry ought to have been exploited for laughs. The Oscars might have benefited from a host with a harder edge.

Practically every Oscar telecast has one or more moments that remain in our minds and get picked up in future clip reels. There were precious few this time around -- maybe only one. That would be near the end of the show, when first-time Oscar winner Martin Scorsese was embraced by fellow directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

Louis J. Horvitz is such a veteran at directing this show that it's easy to take for granted his ability to practically always call up the right shot, be it onstage or a reaction in the audience. Kudos also to production designer J. Michael Riva, who took advantage of the infinite possibilities afforded by staging the show at the Kodak Theatre.

The 79th Annual Academy Awards
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


Producer: Laura Ziskin
Co-producer: Danette Herman
Supervising producer: Michael B. Seligman
Director: Louis J. Horvitz
Writers: Bruce Vilanch, Dave Boone, William Coronel, Carrie Fisher, Carol Leifer, Jon Macks
Production designer: J. Michael Riva
Music director: William Ross
Lighting designer: Robert A. Dickinson


Ellen DeGeneres