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TELEVISION REVIEW

Host DeGeneres schmoozes as audience snoozes

Host Ellen DeGeneres opens the Oscar telecast with a comedy routine last night. Host Ellen DeGeneres opens the Oscar telecast with a comedy routine last night. (gary hershorn/reuters)

Ellen DeGeneres was a tepid host at last night's Academy Awards. With her wry, rambling, hemming-and-hawing style, she wanted to put everyone at ease; but instead, she put us to sleep. She took a rice-cake approach to her monologue -- it was airy, bland, and a little crunchy, as she focused on the diversity of the audience. "If there weren't blacks, Jews, and gays," she said to applause, "there would be no Oscars."

Alas, DeGeneres had less comic impact than one or two glimpses of Jack Nicholson, who'd shaved his head in solidarity with Britney Spears. He looked like the genie from a very high-proof bottle. When DeGeneres went into the audience and offered a script to Martin Scorsese, she wanted us to laugh, but we cringed as Mark Wahlberg sat right behind them. Moments earlier, Wahlberg had lost his supporting-actor contest.

And so the night proceeded with the same meandering tone as DeGeneres, inching toward nothing in particular. Instead of the usual policy of announcing a few major prizes at the beginning, the first supporting-actor award -- to Alan Arkin, who stoically read his acceptance until a mention of his family brought a crack to his voice -- wasn't announced until almost an hour into the telecast. That's just too much time to string us along.

The next crowd-pleasing award, the supporting prize to Jennifer Hudson, didn't come for yet another hour. And that moment, like Helen Mirren's similarly predictable win later on, was a letdown, only because we've already seen Hudson win so many prizes this season.

Oscarcast producer Laura Ziskin pulled out some old tricks -- very old tricks -- to distract us from the ticking of our internal time-clocks. We got a cutesy song and dance from Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly about how sad, angry, and envious comedians feel about the Oscars. It wasn't bad; it was charming; but still it felt like a stall. So did director Errol Morris's interviews with the nominees, which opened the night, as well as a performance in which a chorus created sound effects -- helicopters, cars, wind, water -- for film clips.

And then there was the montage about writing in the movies, and then there were the Pilobolus dancers making cool shadow shapes, and then there was the foreign film montage, and then there was the collection of Ennio Morricone music, and then there were the clips of American history seen through movies. They were minutes, many minutes, many late minutes, we will never get back.

Those of us looking for Oscar-worthy thrills had to settle for repeated shots of Peter O'Toole in the audience pretending he knew what was going on, or the odd glimpse of someone completely out of context -- Jerry Seinfeld? Larry David?

We were left to wonder about the little red sack attached to Nicole Kidman's shoulder, and whether or not it was indeed an emergency air-sickness bag. We were left to speculate on Tom Cruise's opinion of said bag, as he delivered an introduction to the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Sherry Lansing. We were left to marvel at the incomprehension of Catherine Deneuve and Ken Watanabe's introduction to the foreign film segment, as well as the crazy-man frizz of Philip Seymour Hoffman's hair.

And, yes, we were left to enjoy one or two things, which came to us like water in the desert -- the sweetness of Melissa Etheridge kissing her wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels, before accepting her statue; the joke that had Al Gore pretending to announce his candidacy while getting cut off by the long-speech music; and the intensity of Forest Whitaker's overwhelmed silence when he took the stage to accept his best actor statue.

The E! red carpet preshow had only a few delicious moments of oddity, although no O'Toole. Jennifer Hudson greeted Ryan Seacrest wearing a tin-foil-like jacket-ette. Somewhere in her refrigerator, a leftover is naked.

But Seacrest distracted us, and the anxious J. Hud, by airing a pre-taped clip from Simon Cowell, who offered sincere congratulations to the former "American Idol" contestant: "We are rooting for you," he gushed. Since Hudson recently said she'd been "abused, misled, and brainwashed" on "Idol," the Cowell nod was either a make-nice offering or a shrewd PR checkmate.

The E! "Glam-a-strator" gimmick brought us back to pre-school. First the E! camera froze images of women, then fashionistas Jay Manuel and Giuliana De Pandi drew on them -- arrows, squiggles, and, over Cameron Diaz, "Justin Who?" It was silly, but nothing could out-silly Seacrest, his fanboy eagerness, and his awkward questions. "Is there a dirty side to Helen?" he asked Michael Sheen, Mirren's costar in "The Queen."

Seacrest inadvertently scored with Gore, who made good on one of Seacrest's many time-killing questions, this one about who'd play Gore in the movie of his life. "William Hung," Gore answered without missing a beat. And Meryl Streep also filled the Ryan Void, noting that, yes, she has received 14 nominations, which is appropriate for a size 14.

The official ABC pre-show, "Road to the Oscars," had a few exclusives, stars who dodged the E! cameras for the stiffer stylings of Chris Connelly. Ryan Gosling, with mother and sister in tow; Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and their son Jaden; and Wahlberg were among those dodging the hoi polloi. We related.

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

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