Ken Tucker says ABC's telecast was toothless and tentative

By Ken Tucker
Updated April 04, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Usually, we all have the luxury of complaining about the tedious length of the Oscars. But this year, many of us had already spent hours in front of the TV well before the ceremony even began. So by Sunday evening, the most horrific day thus far in the war with Iraq, we arrived at ABC’s telecast of the Oscars numbed, angered, or exhausted even before the 75th annual event made its first mild faux pas: commencing with a montage of famous film lines, some of which (like Bette Davis’ ”Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” and Clark Gable’s ”Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”) seemed, well, not so much inappropriate as suddenly sad — robbed, for the moment, of their glorious context.

Nothing during what’s always called Hollywood’s Biggest Night — not even the surprise minisweep of The Pianist — could drive from my mind the constantly breaking news of overseas deaths. Just a few minutes after watching Michael Moore accept his documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine and do for dissent what Roberto Benigni had done for graceful acceptance speeches a few years earlier — that is, the verbal equivalent of capering like a monkey — I switched over to CNN, where anchor Aaron Brown was laying into a representative of the al-Jazeera network for broadcasting film of murdered U.S. soldiers. Brown’s position was that out of decency, U.S. viewers should be protected from seeing war atrocities that had already been screened throughout much of the rest of the world. As a moral flash point, this trumped what in another year might have been the obvious debate: the encomiums to fugitive Pianist director Roman Polanski.

In this context, it was almost merciful that Steve Martin’s opening monologue was so vague. A wonderful, intelligent Oscar host two years ago, Martin on this night looked as though he’d thrown in the towel backstage and let comedy writer Bruce Vilanch come up with a batch of gormless ain’t-Hollywood-goofy lines to absolve him of responsibility for being hilarious. Martin came to life only when he was being uncharacteristically mean (using Nick Nolte’s mug shot for a cheap joke) or pandering (taking an impromptu limousine-liberal shot at Moore, perhaps because he’d heard how loud the boos were for Moore’s speech).

I’m startled that day-after reviews found Adrien Brody’s garrulous self-absorption charming. (Did he really think planting a long wet one on Halle Berry was a gift to her?) Also in the Get Over Yourself Dept.: It was atrocious that Academy president Frank Pierson first undercut Peter O’Toole’s honorary Oscar by bringing up an old professional grudge against the actor, and then followed it with a mealymouthed plea for peace. I never thought I’d quote Joan Rivers approvingly: Vamping during the E! channel’s preshow, she screeched, ”Every idiot in the world wants peace.”