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Oscars '98

Crystal Persuasion

Television: The host's opening was the best in memory, but the show had a 'Titanic' length.

March 24, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Hello, Billy, well, hello, Billy. It's so nice to have you back where you belong.

As host of the Academy Awards. In this case, a show that started crisply but began slogging perceptibly as the night wore on, ultimately running well past schedule and about a half-hour longer than the three hours and 14 minute length of the night's big winner, "Titanic."

Bringing back all those past Oscar winners for a sort of family photograph was a grand idea, except that by the time they were introduced on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, there probably weren't many in the East who were even awake to see them. A better idea would have been to move up this pleasantly nostalgic segment to make it accessible to more viewers.

At least they'd seen much of Billy.

*

If there were a host hall of fame, Crystal would earn top billing as that unusual comedian as artful at doing musical comedy as jokes. It's the perfect pedigree for emceeing awards shows.

With him would be the writers who created the hilarious opening for Monday night's Oscar show on ABC. Copying a successful techno gag from the 1997 show, this one found Crystal again being inserted electronically into scenes from nominated films, with smashing results.

As in getting a toilet dunking, being hung from his heels from the window of a tall building and appearing in blond drag as supporting actress winner Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential." And doing Sammy Davis shtick and a nude scene with Leonardo DiCaprio in Oscar-winning "Titanic."

Setting a swinging tone, it was the funniest Oscar opening in memory, one that also included a clever medley (ending with the music from "Hello, Dolly!") adapted to the best film nominees and featuring Crystal leaving the stage to interact with nominees Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.

And if some of the other jokes weren't as successful, well, Crystal is also adept at spinning gold from clunkers, affirming that he not only can still read from a TelePrompTer, but also can ad-lib with anyone.

For most of the evening, there was no ice in sight. Or any of the formulaic malaise that so often sinks awards telecasts.

Even though, as in the previous paragraph, "Titanic" metaphors immediately began hitting the fan, and immediately dashed were hopes that Crystal would be the first TV monologuist of 1998 to exclude Clinton jokes (Crystal: "A year ago the White House was complaining there was too much sex in Hollywood"). And there was more later.

Compared to Leno and Letterman, at least, pretty benign.

The evening had some unexpected small pleasures, notably director Stanley Donen turning his acceptance of a special Oscar into a song and dance. And there were the usual weird spots, such as anatomically minded Dustin Hoffman, a presenter and best actor nominee for "Wag the Dog," making a crude reference to oral sex after earlier telling Roger Ebert on KABC-TV Channel 7's pre-Oscar show, "I went to a proctologist last week and got a thumbs up."

And now, for his next joke. . . .

Predictably, an even bigger kick than the Oscarcast were the celeb-gabbing, gown-gushing pre-Oscar shows that began at 4 p.m. on Channel 7, KTLA-TV Channel 5 and cable's E! Entertainment.

Ebert's presence gave the Channel 7 program a bit of a more serious tone, but the Channel 5 crowd was as gaffe-laden as ever. Channel 5's Sam Rubin at one point had Robin Williams and Ben Kingsley together. Just as he asked former Oscar winner Kingsley to give nominee Williams some advice, Williams walked away. Thus, just as Kingsley began to answer, Channel 5 cut away because Williams was no longer present to hear him.

But the biggest adventure was watching that steel yenta Joan Rivers on E! Entertainment. Rivers to new mother Joan Cusack: "How long were you in labor?"

At one point, Rivers misidentified Kingsley as F. Murray Abraham. Then to nominee Robert Duvall: "Have you been nominated before?" He told her he'd been nominated five times.

And here she was with "Amistad" star Djimon Mounsou: "Do you have your speech ready?" He replied that he wasn't nominated. Oh.

Meanwhile, documentary nominee Spike Lee had shown up with Rosa Parks, a seminal figure in the civil rights movement. Except for Ebert, the hosts of the pre-Oscar shows, who were so well-versed on every nominee's designer, omitted telling viewers anything about Parks beyond her name.

Rubin: "Here is Rosa Parks. How are you, Rosa? Have a wonderful time." And Rivers: "Legendary! Lovely to have you with us." At least she didn't ask her who designed her dress. Or how long she was in labor.

This was one bit of Oscar night that even Hoffman's proctologist wouldn't have given a thumbs up.

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