Review: Academy Awards telecast and host Billy Crystal lean heavily on nostalgia

Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, only “The Descendants” was set entirely in present-day America. Parts of “Midnight in Paris” took place in 2011, but it spent more time on the Hemingway end of things. And the other nominees were period pieces ranging from the turn of the millennium back to the 1920s.
It was a year where the Oscars had little interest in what was happening in the world today, and an Oscar telecast that had very little interest in what’s happening in the movies today. It was a telecast that, over and over and over again, wanted to remind people of how much they used to love going to the movies — especially back in the days when the big winners were also box office hits that most of the viewing audience had seen. We got one montage after another whose only theme seemed to be “Movies: weren’t they just swell when you were growing up?”
The nostalgia ran right through to the choice of host Billy Crystal, doing the same act he’d done 8 times previously, trying desperately to recapture the good feelings he got 20 years ago when Jack Palance did those one-armed push-ups. At one point, he even trotted out his old Sammy Davis Jr. impression from “Saturday Night Live,” not recognizing that the reaction to blackface is a bit different a quarter century later.
But all that those grabs to past movie and Oscar glory couldn’t disguise a lifeless show featuring a bunch of pre-ordained winners and Crystal looking repeatedly surprised that his jokes were dying.
It’s understandable that Oscar producer Brian Grazer might have grabbed for the tried-and-true when Brett Ratner was forced out over some homophobic remarks and his handpicked host Eddie Murphy used this as an excuse to bail. There wasn’t a lot of time, and the Oscars were already coming off of an embarrassing attempt to go the other way and pander to the youth demographic with a bored James Franco and a flop-sweaty Anne Hathaway as co-hosts.
At that point, Crystal seemed like practically the only choice — especially since Academy members have responded badly to other hosts who were funnier but more pointed in their comedy. Chris Rock, for instance, did a great bit tonight about racial typecasting in animated films, but you could tell it wasn’t playing any better in the room than Rock did as host back in 2005, when his big sin was making fun of Jude Law. (“If you want Tom Cruise and all you can get is Jude Law, wait!”)
The Oscars don’t want edge. They don’t want satire. They want something inoffensively pleasant, but really, they just want to celebrate their own awesomeness, and if the people watching at home happen to be entertained, that often feels like a happy accident.
Here, we opened with Hollywood’s reigning voice of God himself, Morgan Freeman pontificating about how “All of us are mesmerized by the magic of the movies,” and towards the end we had last year’s winners Natalie Portman and Colin Firth wax endlessly rhapsodic about this year’s acting nominees. And in between we got montage after montage after montage that, again, seemed to have no theme beyond, “Movies: Yay!”
Some of the montages were fun — I could have listened to Gabourey Sidibe go on about her love of “My Left Foot” for at least another half-hour (and possibly followed that with a 15-minute Reese Witherspoon dissertation on “Overboard”) — but mainly they seemed there to distract viewers from a crop of little-seen nominees, and the inevitable dominance of “The Artist.”
(The 17 other awards shows airing in the run-up to the Oscars has pretty much sucked all of the suspense out of the main event over the last few years, with rare exceptions like “Avatar” vs. “Hurt Locker.” The only major award that was any surprise at all was Meryl Streep beating Viola Davis, which is A)only quasi-surprising, in that it’s Meryl Streep winning, and B)frustrating, as Davis’ win promised to be one of the more emotional moments of the night. Then again, the orchestra might have played her off-stage the way they did her “Help” co-star Octavia Spencer.)
Some of the presenters managed to briefly inject life into the telecast. Besides Rock, Sandra Bullock got laughs for speaking German while claiming to be addressing the people of China, Emma Stone and Ben Stiller did a successful bit in which she was too excited to be presenting her first award ever, and Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis were amusingly solemn while playing the cymbals as they presented the Best Original Song award. (And I’m admittedly biased as a “Community” fan, but my biggest laugh of the night came from Jim Rash, sharing the Best Adapted Screenplay award for “The Descendants,” instantly mocking Angelina Jolie’s weird leg-out pose.) 
But many other bits died, and were greeted by incredulous laughter as they did so, like Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz trying to present an award while their backs were turned to the camera, or Gwyneth Paltrow acting annoyed as Robert Downey Jr. pretended to be filming a documentary about presenting.
But no one seemed more surprised, early and often, by the lack of enthusiasm for his material than Billy Crystal. When he wasn’t busy making fun of the suddenly nameless theater in which the ceremony was taking place, or joking about how old his material was skewing — or both (“Next year, this is gonna be the Flomax Theater!”) — he was trying to recover from one bit or another that the crowd was unimpressed by. When there was little response to a piece of stagecraft, he shrugged and quipped, “This is why there’s a buffet.” When a joke died a little later, he cracked, “The band loved that.”
And certain segments that went over huge in the room seemed baffling from a TV audience perspective. Grazer was so excited to get Cirque du Soleil in to perform, and the people in the theater ate it up, but even if the piece was in theory about the experience of going to the movies, it had so little to do with what it’s actually like to go to the movies as to be besides the point. (None of the Cirque members started texting in mid-air, for instance.) For this, they didn’t let us see a performance of “Man or Muppet”? For this, Octavia Spencer got played off? For this, James Earl Jones didn’t get to give a speech at all on the live show? 
(And the Cirque routine was yet another case of celebrating the great movies of yesteryear while trying to politely ignore the films of 2011.) 
As I say every year, there are significant parts of the Oscar telecast about which nothing can be done. The winners are going to be largely predictable because of the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, etc. The winners are, for the most part, going to recite boring laundry lists of their co-stars, managers, agents, dog walkers, etc., in lieu of making an actual speech. (Though we got a few good ones this year, including Christopher Plummer and “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi.) And there’s going to be a good chunk of awards that viewers simply aren’t going to care about, no matter how they try to dress up and explain the importance of sound effects editing and art direction.
But it would help if the host wasn’t recycling the same material he’s been doing since the early ’90s, and if the show didn’t at times seem to be holding its nose and trying to ignore the unpleasant odor it found emanating from this year’s nominated films.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at