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Restrained or strait-jacketed?

Most everyone kept the tone circumspect. All well and good. Still, it almost made you wish for old-fashioned bloat.

March 01, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The 76th Academy Awards needed a five-second delay like Billy Crystal needs to bare his chest again in public. After two circumspect ceremonies full of soul searching and sober pantsuits, it was clear moments into the show Sunday that the pressure to say something politically deep, insightful, brave and uncompromising had once again given way to the considerably less heavy task of remembering who you're wearing and looking happy when someone else wins in your category.

And you could sense the relief. Because that other stuff was hard.

Everyone seemed more relaxed. Even Tim Robbins, the first winner of the night, kept to a small peace pin and a tastefully restrained reminder for victims of child abuse to get help.

But nobody was more relaxed than Billy Crystal, hosting the Academy Awards for the first time since 2000. You can tell he's comfortable in the role by the sense of lulling calm that permeated the proceedings.

The night's big shocker: a deeply personal realization. After a lifetime of suffering through Andrew Lloyd Webber-inspired assault after brutal Andrew Lloyd Webber-inspired assault, the news that the academy had decided to do away with the traditional dance numbers was at first welcome. Then it slowly dawned that, (a) without the bombastic interpretative spectaculars, the Academy Awards are basically just four hours of movie stars doing dramatic thank-you note readings, and (b) that watching people fling themselves across the stage in a miasma of dry ice was the best thing about the show. You never appreciate your Lord of the Dance until he's gone.

Nevertheless, Crystal's familiar presence recalled a simpler time, when the Oscars were a forum for breasts and patriotism, and a performer's role was to flaunt as much of each as decorum would allow. And Sunday night, those days were back. Jamie Lee Curtis and Susan Sarandon could barely keep their tops up -- tradition is so important, isn't it? -- and Crystal's chest-baring eradicated the memory of the Jackson nipple from our collective memory forever. Even the winner for the documentary short "Chernobyl Heart" was falling out of her dress.

The show was rated PG-L,V, normally meant to warn parents against coarse language and violence, but in this case must have stood for length and vanity. Or maybe oblique references to Vermeer via Scarlett Johansson. The only instance of obscenity I noticed was the look of proprietary smugness on Michael Douglas' face when Catherine Zeta-Jones presented the best supporting actor award. That could have been disturbing to small children and pets. Also, Benicio Del Toro looked like a satyr. Maybe that was it.

The most politically uppity moment of the evening belonged to Errol Morris, who took back the podium after Michael Moore's tone-deaf belly flop last year and made his point without excessive bombast.

More highlights and lowlights from a show that had few of either:

* Look, it's Sting again. He's like the Lord of the Award Ceremonies -- now, forever, to infinity and beyond. What was he playing, a Ouija board?

* Aren't Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith just so adorably, aggressively in love? The rest of us should just quit.

* Jennifer Garner presented the scientific and technical awards two weeks earlier -- and gamely tried to pretend it was a great way to spend Valentine's Day.

* Sofia Coppola's movie is delightful, as is her style and her cheekbones. And her restraint was admirable in a world full of histrionic actress acceptance speeches. Hey, girls can win stuff without crying!

* Adrien Brody's Binaca moment was a testament to the premeditated nature of impromptu Oscar moments.

* Charlize Theron's tremulous speech was still marvelously composed when compared to most winners in the best actress category, famous for its histrionic displays (think: Halle Berry).

A final word on speeches: best actor winner Sean Penn dispensed with a written one -- like pretty much everybody else this year. Let's just admit that the Method acceptance thing, humble and aw-shucksy as it is, is really not so fun for everybody else. Write the speech.

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