Somewhere in New York, a huge weight has been lifted from David Letterman's shoulders. As Sunday night's Academy Awards began, Hugh Jackman's opening number (pardon me, but did he sing the words "pubic hair"? At the Oscars?) has surely obliterated all memory of the Uma-Oprah thing. Not to mention taking years off the lives of the poor folks preparing to launch publicity for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." They can only hope those teenage boys were too miffed that "Iron Man" wasn't nominated to watch.
Interpreting all the best picture nominees in a way that seemed way more Broadway than Hollywood, Jackman wound up on Frank Langella's lap, which was just as weird as it sounds. Yes, Anne Hathaway acquitted herself quite well, but dancers in Sprocket-like body suits? We knew that with Jackman involved, metallic lame was a real possibility, but to make fun of the Nazi-war-crimes/pedophilia-themed "The Reader"? A choice indeed.
There were a few things to like about the new and "shaken up" 81st Academy Awards. Lowering the stage did make us feel closer to the glittering main-floor audience, having favorites such as Will Smith and Sarah Jessica Parker deliver lively explanations about sound editing and costume design was refreshing, and the James Franco-Seth Rogen "tribute" to the comedies of 2008 was hilarious. The inclusion of snippets from the actual nominated screenplays was also cool.
In fact, for a moment or two it was almost possible to forget Jackman's chorus boy spaz-out and that it took almost 10 minutes to deliver the first acting award because it involved a squirm-inducing, "Project Runway"-like personal speech from one of five past supporting actress winners directed at each nominee.
But even as the combined talents of Tina Fey and Steve Martin made us laugh and Dustin Lance Black's acceptance speech for winning original screenplay for "Milk" made us cry, along came that darn Jackman again with an apropos-of-nothing announcement that the success of "Mamma Mia!" meant the musical was back. Actually, Hugh, it means that people have a strange and abiding love for ABBA and Meryl Streep, but either way it was no excuse for you to launch into yet another bizarre dance number full of such chestnuts as "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Somewhere."
Now I'm sorry, but didn't we decide, like as a nation, that Big Dance numbers were a blight on the Oscars telecast? Weren't they, in fact, the first thing to go in the '90s when the show swept past the four-hour mark and everyone decided that things had Gone Too Far? So someone explain to me please why we were forced to watch a chorus line tap-dance in sequins on a staircase when the actual nominated songs were cut down to a medley (prompting nominee Peter Gabriel to refuse to perform)?
At least Kate Winslet finally won her damned Oscar -- such a real sense of closure, isn't it? And certainly first-time producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon made their point -- there is a different way to put on this show. A way in which the actual winners are upstaged by the insanity that has preceded their announcement. And for future reference, here are a few more notes:
Whoever at ABC decided to cut to Angelina Jolie while Jennifer Aniston was helping to present the animated film award should look for a new line of work, because that was unforgivably cheesy.
The mini-mentoring sessions that replaced the standard "and here are the nominees" for the acting categories must Never Happen Again.
Yes, it's wonderful to see all these great performers on stage together, but having Adrien Brody describe Googling Richard Jenkins (because, apparently, he had no idea who he was?) or Shirley MacLaine offer motherly support to Anne Hathaway . . . well, life is short and by the time they were done, we didn't care who actually won, we just wanted the talking to end.
Seth Rogen, you cannot laugh at the winner of best live-action short just because the title is in German. German, you will be stunned to learn, is an actual language.
Likewise, Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix riff was funny, but it was not cool to make people laugh while the clips from the cinematographer nominees are playing -- as his co-presenter, poor Natalie Portman, so clearly realized.
Bill Maher, plugging your movie twice made you just seem bitter. And don't mock people's religious faith at the Oscars, man. That's why you have your own show.
Having Queen Latifah sing for the tribute sequence was brilliant, but then having Queen Latifah do just about anything anywhere is usually brilliant.
To the Ledger family, we are all sorry for your loss. Thank you for the simple and heartfelt words about your son and brother and for reminding us that just one step back from all the glamour and craziness are ordinary people who understand both the importance and the limitations of a night like this.