April 06, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was a choice irony on a night in which irony is usually lost in the glitz and glam of gleaming grins and gaw-jus gowns: At the same moment that Sting was gurgling the lyrics to ”My Funny Friend and Me” (which must be the sludgiest song ever to slither into a Walt Disney cartoon) on ABC, HBO was the place where great acting was on display, as The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini and Edie Falco were busy giving performances fully the equal of anything Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts have ever done in their careers.

But of course, irony comes cheaper than a Jack Valenti tan. Every year, we watch the Oscars in the hope of transcending petty cynicism and crushing boredom, and this one very nearly enabled any bleary-eyed viewer to feel good about himself in the morning. From the wicked sarcasm of host Steve Martin to the openhearted sincerity of Crowe’s Best Actor acceptance speech to the slit-eyed precision of Bob Dylan’s performance of ”Things Have Changed,” this was at the least a B+ broadcast. This time, there will be no moaning about the length of the show or about its excesses, which tilted over the top just once, with the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon flying-human tricks performed during a schmaltzy rendition of a song from the film. (Even when the Oscars jettison the traditional garish dance number, an overproduced stink bomb manages to clear living rooms across America.)

As host, Martin was typically dapper and comfortably low-key, pacing himself throughout the evening. (People invariably praise Billy Crystal’s hysterical opening-song parodies and forget that for the rest of the show he’s often just a manic yuk-machine.) Martin not only got off some good lines — I particularly liked his Bjork/Judge Bork joke — but the goodwill and respect he has in Hollywood as a tasteful guy (big-time art collector, New Yorker writer) permitted him to get away with more questionable stuff, too.

For example, late in the evening, the now-frail, 85-year-old screenwriter Ernest Lehman received his honorary Oscar and made a gracious, pointed (the only guy with the guts to express his solidarity with the Writers Guild), but halting speech. Martin’s abrupt follow-up gibe — ”It is interesting to note that at the beginning of the evening, Mr. Lehman was 24” — was the kind of gasp-inducing zinger that David Letterman was crucified for after his now-legendarily ill-received 1995 Oscar gig (a legend eagerly maintained by the masochistic Letterman himself). Martin, on the other hand, was, as Burt Lancaster said in the clip shown from Lehman’s Sweet Smell of Success, ”a cookie full of arsenic,” and I laughed a lot, even though I lost a bet about how long it would take him to mention his recent novella, Shopgirl (it was in the third hour).

Which did you find more surprising: Marcia Gay Harden’s Best Supporting Actress win for Pollock, or Bob Dole’s cameo in Britney Spears’ Pepsi commercial? Given Dole’s association with Viagra, his admiration of Spears’ sloe eyes and pierced belly button struck me as less startling (not to say creepy) than the upset over the odds-on favorite, Kate Hudson, which Harden managed by giving Jackson Pollock paramour and artist Lee Krasner a broader New Yawk accent than Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners.

But after sitting through Barbara Walters’ more-stultifying-than-usual pre-Oscar special, which peaked with John Travolta giving a tour of his plane while wearing a pilot’s uniform that looked as if it were about to burst into a flotation device, the Oscars seemed as bouncy and well oiled as Russell Crowe’s ‘do—a ’50s Gene Vincent-style quiff that made for a cool rock & roll segue into Dylan’s Best Song performance.

Let’s face it: Dylan, live by satellite from Australia, was the biggest star of the night. Doing his old-man-with-a-touch-of-eyeliner squint into a camera thrust at his face, his mug nearly as pale as it was during his own movie days (remember the white pancake makeup in Renaldo and Clara?), his teeth an admission of the nicotine that lesser stars whiten their choppers to disguise, Dylan’s literal warts-and-all ramble through “Things Have Changed” from Wonder Boys had the audience of superstars stoked (even if a shot into the crowd showed an enraptured Goldie Hawn momentarily dismayed that daughter Kate and her Black Crowe hubby, Chris Robinson, weren’t clapping to the beat). And don’t tell me you dug Bjork more—her Dancer in the Dark warble wandered more tunelessly than O-Town’s harmonies at the Miss America pageant.

Producer Gil Cates assembled some dandy film-history montages for the honorary awards, with the one for cinematographer Jack Cardiff, gliding from Black Narcissus to The Red Shoes to The African Queen, particularly breathtaking. As for the big awards—well, it’s great when Julia Roberts brings her dinner-plate smile to Letterman, but her damn-the-clock speech veered dangerously close to Sally Fieldian “You like me!” territory. If the night’s best non sequitur was to beam in poor Arthur C. Clarke from his Sri Lankan homestead just to announce Stephen Gaghan’s adapted-screenplay award for Traffic (wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to have had Hunter S. Thompson hand out that one, with a pile of pills and a bottle of Wild Turkey, live by satellite from Woody Creek, Colo.?), the Oscars’ biggest letdown was the barrage of bad Roman Empire puns (“Russell Crowe, you filled a whole arena with the force of your face”—huh?) one of the producers of Gladiator deployed to bury the evening.

Advice to producer Cates: Next year, let’s do the Oscars Memento-style–run ’em backward, so we conclude with the boffo opening monologue, and remember only the relevant high points.

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