The 2012 Oscars: Billy Crystal Was Better Than Last Year's Hosts, But It Was Far From His Best

The Academy Awards was a lot better than last year's offering and generally moved along pretty well. However, Billy Crystal's performance was mixed. Sometimes he was spot on and in other instances resorted to forced humor that missed its mark.

After Morgan Freeman's opening we saw Billy in an uninspiring repeat of what he'd done so well many times before, inserting himself into reproductions of well-known clips from the top films. Maybe it's because he's done it so many times. It's true that he hasn't been host since 2004, and we often enjoy an entertainer repeating his or her best work, but like an aging singer whose voice doesn't hold up when the muscles sag, what was downright hysterical in past years, like when he came out as Hannibal Lecter in 1992, this go-around didn't work too well for me in 2012.

The one exception was from The Descendants, when George Clooney recreated his visit to his comatose wife, played by Crystal lying in bed. Clooney's kiss was so heartfelt it provided a big laugh. The Justin Bieber bit from Midnight in Paris wasn't bad. Not so much the scene with Tom Cruise from Mission Impossible, nor was Crystal's business spoofing The Help or Tintin particularly funny.

Oddly when he segued into his Oscar medley it worked better, with the lyrics sharp and engaging. After that, it was hit and miss. Sometimes very clever and other times flat. And when the latter happened he often responded defensively, at one point indicating the band in the pit liked the joke. He also was a bit insensitive regarding the age of some of the nominees as he mentioned octogenarians Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow, followed by senility jokes at their expense. Considering that Crystal himself is pushing 64 and that ageism besetting Hollywood is rampant with many talented professionals unemployed, it's just not funny anymore.

As the three hour ten minute show progressed, they whizzed through awards at a relatively rapid pace. Instead of starting with a celebrity award, such as supporting actor and actress, they began with Tom Hanks presenting Oscars for cinematography and art direction, both of which went on the scorecard for Hugo.

There was a montage of film clips that moved along all right, but, unless I missed one, it appeared that it was as if movie history began with 1969's Midnight Cowboy, because none of the featured films debuted earlier. The awards continued, and provided a mix, with costume design providing the first of five awards for The Artist and make-up going to The Iron Lady.

Periodic interviews followed with well-known stars talking about their movie experiences, including Brad Pitt, Hilary Swank, Tom Cruise, Robert DeNiro, Helen Mirren, Barbra Streisand, Julia Roberts and Adam Sandler. This was repeated a couple of more times over the course of the show and provided a surprising break from the occasional tedium of the festivities.

The Foreign Language Oscar went to Iran's A Separation, and it wasn't clear from his speech whether director-writer-producer Asghar Farhadi was promoting freedom for his people or accusing the west of fomenting aggression, as he reminded one and all of the accomplishments Iran (formerly Persia) had given the world.

Christian Bale gave out the first major award about forty-five minutes in, and, as expected Octavia Spencer took the prize for her supporting role in The Help. Her performance was terrific and the Oscar was deserved, but I do believe the audience rising for a standing ovation was a bit much. Such accolades happen too often of late and cheapen such a tribute, which normally comes at a more auspicious moment in life, as in the later tribute to supporting actor winner Christopher Plummer, who won for his role in Beginners.

When you wait that long to get such an honor it makes sense. Conversely, they started to cut Ms. Spencer off too soon, considering her award came rather early and they didn't subject Mr. Plummer in that manner. Plus, I think it's odd when the announcer says, as it did for Ms. Spencer, this is her first Academy Award, as if it's common to win multiple awards. Most actors don't win any in their long careers and most who do win just once. In the case of Christopher Plummer, whose career spanned over six decades, such a pronouncement makes more sense, so one wonders who prepares and writes the handout sheets for the announcers?

It was surprising that, since there were only two nominees for best song that there wasn't time to have both performed as in past years, yet they found precious moments to show a faux focus group supposedly held in 1939 with comic actors like Christopher Guest and Catherine O'Hara giving forth their reviews of The Wizard of Oz that were pretty bland and not reminiscent of the comic films for which they are known.

After the first hour, nine awards had been handed out, and then Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy introduced the best segment of the show, a fabulous performance of Cirque du Soleil with aerialists and acrobats inserting themselves almost flawless and artfully into cinema backgrounds like the airplane chasing Cary Grant in North By Northwest. It was stupendous and unexpected, and in this instance the standing ovation was deserved.

Here and there Billy Crystal returned with patter, mostly flat. This was matched by the antics of Robert Downey, Jr. who joined Gwyneth Paltrow to present the Documentary Feature award to the football story, Undefeated. Downey's pretense at doing a documentary of the presentation and the chitchat with Ms. Paltrow seemed at best like bad improvisation. It's hard to believe they were working from a script.

And while I'm delighted at Melissa McCarthy's success as an Emmy-winning actress and Oscar nominee for last year's Bridesmaids, her overly-sexed dressing room bit with Billy Crystal, not to mention her retrieval of a flask from her ample breasts to drink before giving an Oscar to one of the shorts awards is, to me, banana peel humor. She's a fine actress, but is getting laughs at the expense of her physical appearance. Would it have been as funny a bit to seduce Billy Crystal if it had been an actress considered a bit more glamorous?

While I liked the attention given to screenwriters, showing clips from the nominated films, while reading the typed text, once again the writers were given short shrift against the directors. As they awaited word that Woody Allen won for Midnight in Paris and Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash took the Oscar for The Descendants, the nominees weren't shown, whereas the directors were, as in the case of the actors. I'm sorry, but most directors are no more familiar to the public than the writers and this is something that should be rectified in future years.

And I've said it before and I'll say it again. The special Oscars belong on the Oscar telecast, especially when the recipient is someone whom the audience at the theatre and at home want to honor. The dinner last fall may have been nice and more time may be spent giving them accolades, but it is witnessed by relatively few people, as opposed to the audience the Oscar telecast affords. Showing a short clip from the dinner and then cutting to honorees Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones and make-up artist Dick Smith sitting in a theatre box for a few seconds does not come close to the excitement felt by the audience when it paid tribute viewed by hundreds of millions to the likes of Deborah Kerr, Kirk Douglas and Peter O'Toole, to mention a few of the last such stars to receive proper treatment.

The final awards were dominated, as expected, by The Artist, which won best picture. Not as certain was Jean Dujardin's win for Best Actor, who gave a lovely, dignified speech, as did director Michel Hazanavicius for his Oscar.

Plus, after 29 years and 13 more nominations, Meryl Streep once again triumphed, winning a third Oscar for portraying Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She had won many early awards in the season, but Viola Davis had beaten her at the SAG awards, and Streep herself had campaigned for Davis. Nonetheless, the strength of Streep's performance, probably helped by the duration in time since her last such honor, catapulted her to the top. She seemed surprised, and though I haven't always taken her seriously when she's won other awards in that manner, I think in this instance she wasn't entirely sure and it gave an oomph to her speech not evident when she won the Golden Globe award in January.

And that was it, a pretty good show, not too many surprises and mostly good speeches in an event dominated by Cirque du Soleil and an In Memoriam tribute backed by a moving choir. Though why the images were all in black and white and why some were heard or shown performing and others were displayed in still shots is not as clear. I'd rather have heard an excerpt from Jane Russell and Ben Gazzara than agent Sue Mengers, who few people outside the industry have ever heard of.

As for Billy Crystal, he was best in his sincere tribute to his friend, veteran Oscar producer Gil Cates, who died last year. However, memories are a funny thing and it's unfortunate Crystal had to compete with long ago terrific performances by himself.

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