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Oscars 1996: The Show

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”So. Didja miss me?” Whoopi Goldberg’s first words as host of the 68th Annual Academy Awards were a stinging slap at David Letterman, who’s freely admitted to screwing up royally as host of last year’s Oscars and who was probably home during this year’s show, muttering imprecations and throwing baseballs at the TV screen. Goldberg’s greeting was also an instant reassurance to the show-business audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that nothing untoward was going to occur for the next few hours. This has always been Goldberg’s paradoxical formula for success: to come on with a Baby-I’m-too-hip- for-the-room attitude while acquiescing in anything anyone in the room might want of her.

Still, gotta hand it to her: Goldberg’s opening monologue was admirably tart and brief. In collaboration with first-time producer Quincy Jones, Goldberg presided over something highly unusual — a shrewd Oscar telecast, rather than the usual merely crass one. Jones won the gratitude of a billion viewers by keeping the standard onslaught of bad production numbers to just two: the costume-design salute, which looked like a botched outtake from the documentary on Isaac Mizrahi, Unzipped, and the placing of unspeakably beautiful Vanessa Williams (singing the Oscar-winning tuneless tune ”Colors of the Wind”) in a tableau of writhing dancers dressed in skimpy costumes, a couple of them flying over Williams’ head on wires.

What no producer can control is the mood and momentum that always develop based on who wins the awards. So when it became clear fairly early on that the big, blustery Braveheart was going to dominate, the bright hopes that a little pig might be the night’s hero dimmed. Combine this with few presenters of either sex wearing anything sexy, and you had the makings of a tiresome evening: no Babe and no babes.

The best thing about this year’s Oscar broadcast was its acceptance of genuine emotions, instead of the standard showbiz tone of drop-dead irony. For you, the most moving moment may have been Christopher Reeve’s appearance, or Kirk Douglas’ heroic acceptance of a lifetime-achievement award in the wake of a recent stroke. For me, the highlight came earlier on, when Kevin Spacey (has any supporting actor ever gotten his prize at a more deserving point in his career?) saluted his happily sobbing mother with eloquence and sweet humor.

Every Oscar telecast is obliged to grapple with a controversy that’s in the pop-culture air at that moment, and this time it concerned the lack of African-American nominees. (The one black to have received a nomination — Dianne Houston, for her short film Tuesday Morning Ride — lost out to Christine Lahti’s Lieberman in Love.) Again, Quincy Jones’ shrewdness paid off: He couldn’t do anything about the nominations, but he could fill the small screen with black faces, bookending his show with Oprah Winfrey (wasted interviewing celebrities as they arrived) and Sidney Poitier (who delivered the night’s most satisfyingly pretentious setup speech for the Best Picture prize).

Idle questions in summation: Can Robin Williams no longer distinguish his George Jessel impersonation from his normal speaking voice? Did Sharon Stone, standing next to Jones, realize that she had suddenly become a dead ringer for Peggy Lipton? Why did Alicia Silverstone wear a frumpy skein of pale gauze that made her look like Alicia Silverstone’s grandmother? Can we please declare a moratorium on all appearances by the smug, tiresome Miss Piggy, who had nothing better to do than make poor Babe the butt of her lame jokes?

And finally, is there no stopping Demi ??I feel good about myself?? Moore? Oscars, schmoscars — Moore’s appearance on the Barbara Walters Special accompanying the main event displayed all the vulgarity that Q and Co. avoided. Already busy promoting Striptease months before its release, Moore used the go-go-bar setting of the interview to show Walters how she can shake her groove thing. Quote of the night, however, goes to Walters, who, having been coaxed by Moore to do a little booty shaking of her own, asked, ??What is the news department going to say??? The fact that Babs still thinks of herself as a tough reporter was almost enough to make me weep like Paul Sorvino.

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