As Oscar emcee, Billy Crystal keeps things running smoothly

March 31, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

This is hard to believe -- an Oscar telecast with nothing to really complain about during its prime-time portion. What are people going to talk about this morning?

If Billy Crystal had the flu last night, maybe he should get sick jTC more often. Crystal was funny, smart and smooth as host of the show. Following a pointless opening montage of Hollywood Past that bode ill for the evening, Crystal came on stage and turned it around in minutes with a clever parody of the traditional opening musical number.

The telecast itself was flexible enough to allow for some of the genuine flakiness of Hollywood -- such as Jack Palance's getting down on the stage and doing one-arm push-ups in the middle of his acceptance speech for the best supporting actor award he received for his role in "City Slickers." Yet, where the show was to-the-second scripted because of the technology involved -- during the greeting to George Lucas, winner of the Thalberg Award, from the space shuttle Atlantis -- everybody hit their mark more or less on cue. Remember 1990 when the Oscar telecast tried to use satellite technology to whip around the world, and viewers were treated to long stretches of silence from London and confusion on several continents?

There was a brief moment of confusion after Crystal's opening number, with someone moving in front of the camera for a second. But if that was the protest promised by gay activists, it did not succeed in disrupting the telecast.

There was also a bump about 90 minutes into the show when the winners for sound from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" were literally cut off it mid-thanks. But it is unlikely that it troubled anyone in the viewing audience -- except family and friends of the recipients -- that the producers were trying to hurry things along to the major awards.

There was a political moment, too, when the director of the winner for best documentary short subject -- "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment" -- called for a boycott a General Electric.

But mainly the show was about entertainment. Unlike the Emmy and Grammy Award telecasts, which are often more noticeable for who doesn't show up, almost everyone who counted seemed to be on hand for Oscar. The presenters ranged from Audrey Hepburn to Dana Carvey and Mike Myers of "Wayne's World." And didn't Geena Davis pick up where Cher left off in fashion statements with her outfit for the evening?

Crystal's ability to ad-lib is what made the evening work so well as television. Perhaps his best moment came in response to one of the evening's few technical problems as 100-year-old director Hal Roach tried to thank the audience for a standing ovation, but couldn't be heard because he had no microphone. "I think that's fitting because Mr. Roach started in silent films," Crystal said, handling the awkward moment with humor and grace.

Was it a slow telecast with a great gap between the best supporting actress award given to Mercedes Ruehl in the first half hour and anything else that viewers cared about? You bet. But that's the way it always is with Oscar. What was unique about this show was the lack of any great highs or lows during prime time last night to make for a water-cooler buzz this morning.

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