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Oscar '98 In a Nutshell

Oscar ’98 In a Nutshell — We look at the high and low points of this year’s marathon ceremony.

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I kept thinking, poor Burt Reynolds.

I mean, poor Burt: Here he had subjected himself to a pre-Oscars Barbara Walters interrogation that included gratuitous swipes at his hairpiece — ”Will you evah let people see you that way?” (Doesn’t she realize Burt Reynolds minus toupee equals Hector Elizondo?) Then Reynolds loses what is probably his last shot at an Oscar to Robin-freakin’-gibber-jabbering-Williams, and then he has to sit in that drafty Shrine Auditorium for hours, coming to terms with the reality that after the one or two post-Boogie Nights features he’s snagged, it may be a career of cable-TV movies and Jupiter, Fla., dinner theater with Charles Nelson Reilly. It’s enough to make a lesser man turn to porn for a living. Not that the rest of us had it much easier. After Billy Crystal got gobbed by Leonardo DiCaprio and serenaded Titanic to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme, the broadcast pretty much went downhill. Yeah, sure — there were some things to enjoy:

· Stanley Donen preparing special material (a song-and-dance routine with patter, no less) for his lifetime-achievement award

· The daffy Dutch director who won for Best Foreign Language Film and got off a good Paul Verhoeven joke at the expense of presenter Sharon Stone

· Two realizations: that Drew Barrymore had apparently decided to go to the Oscars masquerading as The View‘s Debbie Matenopoulos, and that Best Original Song nominee Elliott Smith looked like Beck on quaaludes

· The way Titanic‘s sound-effects editors appeared to still be quaking with fear just looking at deceptively benign-seeming James Cameron as they nervously thanked him

· The gaze of genuine frozen terror on Celine Dion’s face in the audience when Crystal joked that she’d be pinch-hitting for the injured presenter Juliette Binoche. (You could almost hear her whimper, ”Qu’est-ce que vous dites, Beee-lee?”)

But for the rest of the excruciating three-plus-hour time, the 70th Annual Academy Awards came down to a debate as to what was the worst moment. For you, it may have been the Men in Black portion of the Best Original Musical or Comedy Score number with the hip-hop-mime choreography; for me, it was Robin Williams, returning as a presenter after stealing the trophy from poor Burt and having the gall to persist in running through his pseudo-spontaneous impressions of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall.

Speaking of whom: It’s hard to keep living in a country that bypasses Duvall’s The Apostle in favor of Jack’s variation-on-Cuckoo’s Nest nutball performance in As Good as It Gets. (I would have felt sorrier for Peter Fonda in this Best Actor category had he not spent the last few weeks with a corny shtick — making the rounds of talk shows with a block of wood, tapping it for good luck.)

If you were still awake at around 20 minutes after midnight East Coast time, the ”Oscar’s Family Album” tableau came as a particularly choice bit of torture administered by Oscar producer Gil Cates. No fool, I caught on pretty quickly, around the time the camera lit upon Ernest Borgnine’s mug — oh, my God, they’re going to name every living performer who’s won an Oscar, in alphabetical order! (As the camera continued its pan over the 70-odd winners who showed up, it also occurred to me that Estelle Parsons and Shelley Winters will no longer reside in the popular imagination as movie stars, but rather as two deeply scary women who played Roseanne’s mother and grandmother, respectively.) The sheer time-wasting audacity of this enterprise eventually took on a kind of heroic quality, and when, at the end, they asked the night’s winners to come out, I fully expected the cameras to cut to poor Burt, slitting his wrists with a hatpin he’d plucked from Cher’s Hello, Dolly! chapeau.