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Television Review | THE 81ST ACADEMY AWARDS

Broadcast aimed for flash, got fizzle

Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé perform during last night's Academy Awards. Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé perform during last night's Academy Awards. (Mark J. Terrill/ Associated Press)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 23, 2009
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Hugh Jackman worked hard to bring Broadway sizzle to the Oscar stage last night. But ultimately, fizzle prevailed.

From the clips montages to the Beyoncé-Jackman movie-song production number, which threatened to find a place in the Bloat Hall of Fame alongside the Rob Lowe-Snow White debacle of 1989, the event turned into yet another Academy Awards slog. By hour four, the tweaks - Jackman hosting instead of a comic, former acting winners paying tribute to this year's nominees - were too weak to save the night.

Not even a number of appearances by pretty-boy teenybopper star Zac Efron could give this saggy old face a shot of botox.

The show opened with a degree of freshness, before deteriorating into the usual spectacle. Jackman sang and danced a skit about each nominated movie, carried Anne Hathaway onstage to sit in as Richard Nixon, sat on Frank Langella's lap, and generally poured on the charm. He was like a more sincere and more hulking Billy Crystal, and the audience gave him a standing ovation. Even Sean Penn was laughing.

The acting-awards presentations were a worthy innovation, too, with a little set piece built around each category. Five former best-actress winners - Shirley MacLaine, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren - presented the prize to Kate Winslet, but first they went into detail about each actress's performance. Five former best-actor winners - Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas, Adrien Brody, and Ben Kingsley - also zeroed in on the nominees before giving the statue to Sean Penn.

That meant each nominee had his or her moment on screen, which was genuinely nice. It also meant the presentations took forever, which wasn't so nice.

There were a few comedy peaks amid the long valleys. The screenplay awards were handed out with much clever ado, by Tina Fey and Steve Martin. They were a winning pair, with Fey looking at Martin affectionately and Martin warning, "Don't fall in love with me." They'd make a great hosting team, if the Academy decides to put comics back in the driver's seat next year.

Ben Stiller had an amusing moment, arriving onstage to present awards in a straggly beard and sunglasses and chewing gum. He was mocking Joaquin Phoenix - an easy target, but Stiller made it work. Also, watching James Franco watch himself kissing Sean Penn in a clip from "Milk" was a kick.

The Oscarcast editors, too, gave viewers a little bit of a goose, in case we were wilting. We saw Jennifer Aniston presenting animation awards, and twice the cameras cut to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, smiling with an A for effort at Aniston's banter with Jack Black.

And there were emotional peaks, too. Both Sean Penn and "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black spoke passionately about gay rights as they accepted their prizes. Penn jovially called the voters "You Commie-homo-loving sons of guns," then went on to urge, "We've got to have equal rights for everyone." He was remarkably likable, as he quipped, "I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me." Kate Winslet had a sweetly personal moment when accepting her best actress Oscar, yelling out to her father, who whistled to her from the back of the theater. And Heath Ledger's family also struck a chord as they graciously accepted Ledger's posthumous supporting-actor statue.

But you had to make your way through a long night to find the jewels, which also included Jerry Lewis, who was genuinely touched as he accepted the humanitarian achievement award. Maybe one of these decades, the Oscars will find a way to be short, sweet, and effective.

On the red carpet, the ladies looked as if they'd been gift-wrapped. There were big bows, diagonal ribbons, and tightly tucked angles. The glamour was as thick and the jewels were as weighty as ever, despite rumors that Hollywood might tone down for the recession.

Stuffed into a pair of tight white pants, Mickey Rourke wore the most unusual and emotionally charged accoutrement on the red carpet - a photo of his Chihuahua Loki around his neck. The 18-year-old dog died earlier in the week.

For its red carpet pre-show, ABC wisely featured "Project Runway" guru Tim Gunn. He served up just the right mix of humor, adoration, and irony. "Mickey Rourke says he loves seeing you with your clothes off," he told Marisa Tomei. "I love seeing you with your clothes on."

Gunn seemed to be having more fun than Ryan Seacrest on E!, who asked all kinds of inane romantic questions of the stars. Seacrest, though, did manage to get Ron Howard to say that the "Arrested Development" movie is probably going to happen.

While reporters scanned feverishly but unsuccessfully for a possible Brangelina-Johnifer collision - a Branjohnifer moment - Pitt and Jolie strode by the red-carpet interviews with barely a wave. They left Seacrest and Gunn dazed in their wake.

Over the years, the red-carpet march has become more popular and exciting than the Oscarcast, which has been suffering ratings woes. So the Academy mobilized the stars to turn the red-carpet event into one long promo for the upcoming ceremony. Vanessa Hudgens, Kevin Kline, Amanda Seyfried, and others all said the show would be different but refused to divulge how, to create a sense of mystery. In a pre-show interview with E!, Jackman would only say "The Oscars is the Tonys on steroids." It was vague, but telling.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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