The Oscars analyzed--Ken Tucker explores the highs and the lows of this year's four-hour spectacle

By Ken Tucker
Updated April 07, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Oscars analyzed

I’d like to know two things: (1) How many movie-industry folks sitting in their Los Angeles and New York digs said to hell with it and switched over to The Sopranos at 9 p.m.? (2) What bad debt was poor Peter Coyote paying off? Serving as the official Oscar telecast announcer, the man who once gave out free food to hungry hippies as a member of the New Left anarchists the Diggers in ’60s San Francisco spent this Hollywood March evening standing just off stage, behind what looked like a large marble rest-room sink. I thought he was going to start handing out hot towels to winners and jiggling a dish for tips as they passed by.

Other than that, I thought this year’s Oscars was a marathon that nearly justified its endurance-test length. Oh, sure, the set was uuuugly: Those banks of connected screens may have projected prettily in the Shrine Auditorium, but they forced the cameras into awkward angles to get clear shots for those of us at home. Producers Richard D. and Lili Fini Zanuck didn’t do much to streamline the show, but just by jettisoning the cornball dance numbers and clearing time for a briskly campy movie-music salute (complete with Burt Bacharach and Isaac Hayes doing the ”Theme From Shaft”), the Zanucks earned points for providing the sort of sentimental-goofball entertainment that is the Oscar broadcast’s primary reason for being. Although I think the Oscars should declare a temporary moratorium on filmmaker Chuck Workman’s frequent feat of recapitulating the history of American movies in a montage of two-second movie clips, I actually enjoyed the evening’s other clip-fest of kid actors through the ages: To paraphrase Peckinpah, when in doubt, cut to the Little Rascals.

After last year’s woeful Whoopi Goldberg performance as host, Billy Crystal was back, in good, if not gut-busting, form. His opening gambit — inserting himself into classic old movies, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush to James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause — was artfully done, marred only by a tired Who Wants to Be a Millionaire punchline. Actually, I found Crystal’s funniest wisecrack to be his pop-culturally arcane comparison of Pedro Almodovar’s steel-wool-bushy hair to that of ’60s comic Marty Allen (for you kids out there, he was an Ed Sullivan Show regular with his partner Steve Rossi).

Like the Marty Allen joke, the evening had a way of playing tricks with time and space. Jack Nicholson, with his clumpy brush cut and a mustache that appeared to consist of some yanked cat fur glued to his upper lip, has apparently decided to revert to the dissolute-sailor look he first sported in 1973’s The Last Detail. He introduced Warren Beatty, recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award, and suddenly — shockingly — Beatty looked only a few years younger than Richard Farnsworth, and his rambling remarks were only slightly more coherent than those of the widely feared Roberto Benigni. Poor Annette Bening — Hilary Swank steals an Oscar out from under her, then she has to drive this geezer home and pretend everything is splendor in the Hollywood Hills grass.

Bad sights of the night: Best Supporting Actress Angelina Jolie demonstrating what Christina Ricci would look like if she’d continued wearing her Addams Family costume in public; and the sobbing reaction shot of Chad Lowe, when wife Swank claimed her Oscar — it was a new, real-time indie film, Boys Do Cry. For a second there, I thought the compact little Lowe was Haley Joel Osment, finally breaking down after losing his Oscar bid. And when Gloria Estefan came out with ‘N Sync to perform ”Dueling Glottal Stops” — excuse me, ”Music of My Heart” — it finally hit me: ‘N Sync, in their studiously coordinated-yet-different outfits, are the Oak Ridge Boys of kiddie pop.

Best winner: Michael Caine, whose choked emotions seemed especially sincere and gratifying coming from a fine actor who’s spent his career keeping his on-screen emotions in check. (By the way, did anyone else notice that in the clip they showed later of Caine in 1966’s Alfie, he looked uncannily like Jude Law?)

Most disappointing event we could have predicted: Thanks to Robin Williams’ mumble-mouthed hamminess, you’d never know that the South Park song, even bowdlerized, is a first-rate example of classic movie-musical songwriting.

Revelation the Film Comment crowd will now chew over for five minutes: Kevin Spacey and director Sam Mendes’ acknowledgment that the cynical heart of American Beauty had been transplanted from Billy Wilder’s gloriously heartless 1960 film, The Apartment.

Beyond the Zanucks’ control, ABC conducted itself with its usual pointless vulgarity, starting pre-Oscars, with Barbara Walters hectoring poor Ricky Martin about his sexuality. (To his credit, Martin spoke in riddles worthy of a hair-gelled Sphinx: Asked by Babs when he ”became a man,” he said ”I was 14” and ”it was not what I expected.” Given that he was a member of Menudo at the time, I would imagine every day was Surprise Day for little Ricky.)

Walters was followed by the Oscar preshow, hosted by her View co-panelist, the screaming Meredith Vieira, who tried to interview celebs and ended up calling a clearly startled Kevin Spacey a ”little liar” for not admitting he wanted to win. Vieira may have been an improvement over last year’s glazed Geena Davis, but basically, this is a half hour the network should just stop producing. And after the long night, there was Bill Maher and his second annual Politically Incorrect After Party, a pooper of an affair that only went further downhill after professional-scold panelist Michael Medved and Maher made an implied incest joke about Jolie’s close bond with the brother who’d accompanied her to the Oscars.

All in all, I don’t know which image was worse: the one Medved and Maher summoned up, or the Pepsi commercial where that insufferable little girl stuck her tongue out while daubed in Kiss makeup. Could Peter Coyote please wipe the gunk off the kid’s face with a hot towel?