Oscar with a bang, but ended with a whimper

For its first hour, Monday’s telecast of the 69th Annual Academy Awards felt as fresh as a Fargo snowfall. In a brilliant three-minute opening film in which he inserted himself, Zelig-like, into a pastiche of scenes from every nominee for Best Picture, Billy Crystal — Mr. Monday Night himself — deftly tweaked the high theatrics of each entry. He acknowledged his predecessors David Letterman (mordantly funny in his role as a pilot who crashes and burns) and Whoopi Goldberg. And he effortlessly retook possession, after a three-year absence, of the Oscar-host crown.

Crystal sang one of his appealing signature movie-plot medleys. He made jokes about Star Wars and Bruno Magli. Then Cuba Gooding Jr. won the first award and delivered what was to be the most uninhibited, charming speech of the evening. Then more stuff happened. Then Crystal introduced Madonna, praising her graciousness in volunteering to sing even though she hadn’t been nominated; the camera, meanwhile, grabbed a reaction shot of Barbra Streisand, who was less gracious about doing likewise (see page 40). Then more stuff. Then Lauren Bacall did not win her unexceptional-performance-but-the-old-woman-deserves-the- sentimental-vote Oscar for Best Supporting Actress — and Juliette Binoche did. The upset was bracing.

For a shining 60 minutes, Hollywood appeared loose, and the telecast was a swingin’ affair, proving that an old Oscar hand like veteran producer Gilbert Cates may be just the guy to bridge the tastes of traditional Hollywood and the Coen brothers crowd.

Then reality set in: the procession of sobersided presenters in fashionable but disappointingly undangerous evening wear handing over awards to winners who made polite but disappointingly undangerous acceptance speeches; the mid-broadcast slump, during which relay teams of men in tuxes reeled in technical-achievement awards; the dud novelty bits (Debbie Reynolds bringing out daughter and telecast cowriter Carrie Fisher for some not-so-comfy banter); and the excruciating inclusion of David Spade and Chris Farley, the sight of whom is enough to inspire a crackdown on cultural freedom in countries with shakier democratic underpinnings than ours.

And those production numbers! The Oscar show is always long, but this was a doozy — three hours and 32 minutes, 52 minutes longer than the leisurely English Patient itself (Seinfeld‘s Elaine would have gnawed off her own arm in twitchy boredom). The independent-minded thing to do would have been to ditch those traditional time wasters. Instead, Cates laid on the circus acts, trying our patience with a salute to Shakespeare, a paean to moviegoing, a couple of Ed Sullivan-era dance numbers (including an appearance by preeningly theatrical Irish-dance star Michael Flatley), and — most disturbing — an unsteady performance by David Helfgott, the mentally unbalanced pianist portrayed by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush in Shine.

As the hour got later, Crystal’s jokes got thinner, and as The English Patient steamrolled its way over all possibilities of further upsets, the evening’s early pleasures grew dim. Secrets & Lies may have been nominated by Academy members willing to give a little film a chance, but studio-style production values set the tone for Oscars LXIX. And maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise: Good ol’ boy Billy Bob Thornton may have an ardent band of fans, but Universal Studios big gun Jim Carrey pulled in two-and-a-half times as much money on the opening weekend of Liar Liar — $31 million — as Sling Blade has made in 17 weeks.