And the big theme of Oscar's 80th annual ceremony last night was . . . the past. Snore.
We were repeatedly shown clips of grand acceptances from the good old days - Bette Davis giving the statue to Marlon Brando, for example. The approach smacked of desperation, as if the Academy didn't want us to forget its former greatness. After all, the Oscarcast has lost viewers since its high of 55 million in 1998, the year "Titanic" won, and only one of this year's best-picture nominees - "Juno" - has grossed more than $65 million. The potatoes are getting a little smaller.
So it was good to see Jon Stewart being Jon Stewart. He is shaping up to be a dependable Oscar host for the post-Billy Crystal years. He's not musical, but he's versatile enough to swing smoothly between jokes about politics, Hollywood, new media, and, most importantly, hair. Last night, after every Oscar moment of ego bloat, and after the many long stretches of highlight-reel nostalgia, his aggressively ironic smile was a welcome sight at the podium.
Stewart filled the night with small, necessary doses of writers'-strike humor, noting, "The fight is over, so tonight welcome to the makeup sex," and reminding us that we'd be watching the Oscar salute to "binoculars and periscopes" if the battle hadn't ended. And, of course, he jabbed at major campaign figures: "Hillary Clinton called it the feel-good movie of the year," he said about "Away From Her," about a woman who forgets her husband's name.
As the hours submerged further into anticlimax, retrospective, and pure strangeness - Amy Adams's cloyingly cheery rendition of "Happy Working Song," Jerry Seinfeld once again not being funny as an animated bee, Nicole Kidman's absurdly tight face - Stewart's offhanded bits were a little something to anticipate.
After winner Javier Bardem thanked his mother in Spanish - one of the night's many thank-yous by those from other countries - Stewart announced: "I believe he told his mother where the library is." He goofed on Cate Blanchett's versatility, noting that not only did she play Queen Elizabeth and Bob Dylan, but she was playing him at that moment. And he let us catch him watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on his iPhone after a long Oscar clip montage. He didn't bring down the house, but he kept it from falling apart.
The presenters seemed to be suffering from a shortage of glamour, especially in comparison to those in the old clips. The Rock - uh, I mean Dwayne Johnson - made a stiff attempt at a joke, Katherine Heigl was a bundle of apologetic nerves, Owen Wilson looked like he'd rather be reading People magazine than standing onstage. The young Miley Cyrus was preternaturally un-freaked out.
Relief from the blandness did come periodically, notably when Tilda Swinton won best supporting actress and joked her way through her acceptance speech. Goofing on George Clooney and his Batman costume is a sure way to endear yourself. She looked tall and spooked, but she was all humor and grace.
Best actress winner Marion Cotillard was a fountain of tears and gratitude. "Thank you life! Thank you love! It is true that there are some angels in this city!" She is so French! Even the many viewers who haven't seen her movie, "La Vie en Rose," had to have been dazzled. She was much more colorful and alive than everything that had come before her - oh wait, Kristin Chenoweth's performance of "Happily Ever After" was colorful, colorfully awful.
Daniel Day-Lewis was as gracious as he could be, and watching him exit the stage with presenter Helen Mirren was like seeing the power couple of the century in their glory. We can only wonder about their small talk. And producer Scott Rudin, accepting for "No Country for Old Men," was as exhilarated as the Coen Brothers were cautious, telling his partner, "Without you, honey, this would be hardware."
In another sweet moment, Stewart invited Marketa Irglova back to the stage after she'd lost her big chance to give thanks for her "Once" best song prize with Glen Hansard. She was dull, but inspiringly sincere.
During the pre-show, the rain was falling over Hollywood, but you'd have thought it was the sky. The red carpet - "the center of the entertainment universe," as Ryan Seacrest called it on E! - snapped with apocalyptic energy as everyone crammed together under a clear tent.
On break from "American Idol," Seacrest was in high spirits when he wasn't whining about sweating so much. He asked Jessica Alba if she planned to breastfeed her forthcoming baby; he gushed over Clooney, who had girlfriend and "Fear Factor" graduate Sarah Larson by his side; and he mocked Cotillard's accent. He got Mirren to divulge a secret about her Oscar: "I've knitted him a little scarf," she confided. She's so British!
The good times halted for a moment when Gary Busey got all up in Seacrest's face about something or another - it wasn't precisely clear. Busey muttered about not liking what Seacrest wasn't saying, then proceeded to repulse Jennifer Garner by kissing her on the neck. But it was Seacrest he had in his sights, hoping to throw the little prince off his throne for a few minutes.
As if out of the asylum for the night, Busey decided it was his responsibility to keep things real on the red carpet. He had his work cut out for him.