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Tinseltown Letdown By: Christian Toto
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hollywood did its best to put forth a fair and balanced Oscar ceremony Sunday night.

Tinsel Town can be forgiven if the finished product was far from perfect. The industry doesn't have much practice in showing both sides of an argument lately.

The show seemed like a clumsy apology to middle America for show business elitism. Viewers saw box office stars like The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) make appearances, and members of the U.S. military were chosen to announce one of the categories.

It doesn't make up for a year of movies which attacked, more than honored, the armed forces, but it was a gesture all the same.

The 80th annual Academy Awards telecast almost didn't happen due to the extended writer's strike. But when the labor issues were resolved earlier this month, the planning for last night's telecast began.

And the abbreviated prep time showed, in ways both good and bad.

"The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart returned for his second hosting stint, and he can expect better notices for his sophomore effort. He looked more comfortable in his role, as if he wasn't as nervous as the Oscar nominees.

Stewart's opening monologue gave him the perfect chance to rouse the base, that is, the liberal artists spread before him in L.A.'s Kodak Theatre. But Stewart didn't take the bait.

Instead, his first political jab came at Sen. Hillary Clinton's expense.

Or rather, her husband's.

Stewart toasted Julie Christie's film "Away From Her," a film "about a woman who forgets her husband...Hillary Clinton called it 'the feel-good movie of the year,'" he said.

Next, he threw an obvious jab at presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, but weaved it into the night's theme for an easy laugh.

"Oscar is 80 this year. Which makes him automatically the front-runner for the Republican nomination," Stewart said.

He also ribbed Hollywood for how it casts presidents in its movies - with an eye toward a more multicultural future.

"Democrats do have an historic race going. Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama. Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty."

He had the crowd on his side until he let loose with an Iraq-themed bit that drew parallels between the war and movies involving the conflict.

"The films that were made about the Iraq war, let's face it, did not do as well. But I'm telling you, if we stay the course and keep these movies in the theaters we can turn this around. I don't care if it takes 100 years. Withdrawing the Iraq movies would only embolden the audience. We cannot let the audience win."

Soon-to-be Oscar winner Javier Bardem looked none too pleased by the gag, and the crowd politely chuckled.

This was not the line of humor the attendees were expecting, it seemed.

Stewart also gently jabbed the crowd's fixed ideology.

"For the first time in so many years we don't have an incumbent president or an incumbent vice-president," he said. "The field is wide open. Have you all had a chance to examine all the candidates, study their positions and pick the Democrat you'll vote for?"

Last night's broadcast all but pleaded for a newer, younger audience. The list of presenters read like Us Magazine, with Jessica Alba, Cameron Diaz and Patrick Dempsey all taking turns at the podium. And why on Earth was Miley "Hannah Montana" Cyrus among the presenters? Her Tween fan base isn't interested in Oscar lore, and their parents could use a break from her Disney franchise.

Other bits seemed equally forced, like Stewart engaging in a round of Wii tennis and watching a film on his video iPod.

The kiddies aren't interested in the Oscars, and no amount of pandering will deposit them on the couch to watch.

At its best, and that's a rarity, its a show for and by grown ups.

When six U.S. soldiers stationed in Baghdad were introduced via video to announce the Best Documentary Short, it was clear the ceremony was trying to win over the red-state crowd. That didn't stop the Oscar winner for Best Documentary from slamming the U.S. for its War on Terror tactics.

Director Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side" examines the U.S.'s approach to interrogation in Afghanistan, Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

Gibney, who previously gave us "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," let loose with the night's sole political speech.

"Let's hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light," Gibney said.

By light, he probably means granting full citizens' rights for terrorist detainees and no interrogations beyond name, rank and serial number.

At least Michael Moore didn't take the stage. His health care manifesto, "Sicko," competed against "Taxi" for Best Documentary but apparently wasn't anti-Bush enough to sway voters.

But what about the show itself? This year's model appeared more streamlined than ever, with less obvious filler. And Stewart clearly is growing in the role of Oscar emcee. He's a far cry from Billy Crystal, the modern master of the format. Stewart has the annoying habit of telling a joke and then admiring it from a distance. It's a smugness that may work better on Comedy Central, where attitude and ideology often work hand in hand. But the brief clips of Bob Hope's past Oscar hosting stints showed why the late comic was far better suited for the gig. Hope felt like he was one of us, admiring and admonishing all these famous folks with a knowing grin. It's an approach Stewart still can't touch.

Stewart did work a tad blue, saying that after the writer's strike the night's ceremony amounted to "makeup sex" between the writers and Hollywood's check writers.

Movie montages fleshed out the parts between Oscar handouts. Stewart even set up two gag montages, one dedicated to great on-screen binocular and telescope scenes, the other a tribute to cinematic night sweats, as examples of what would have been seen had the writers still been on strike. Neither proved particularly funny.

The annual Death Montage plucked the requisite heartstrings, especially with Heath Ledger ending the segment. But what about poor Brad Renfro, the star of "Apt Pupil" and "The Client" who died Jan. 15, a week before Ledger's passing. Why wasn't he included here?

The 80th Annual Oscar ceremony lacked political passion, cut out some of previous year's filler, and yet it still felt…small.

This year's crop of movies stood tall for their creativity, but the ceremony itself lacked the star wattage that makes the night, warts and all, compelling theater.

Christian Toto is an award-winning film critic with The Washington Times. His writing also appears in The Denver Post and MovieMaker magazine. He contributes weekly entertainment commentaries to three radio stations and regularly appears on the nationallly syndicated "Dennis Miller Show." He is the editor of www.whatwouldtotowatch.com, a web site dedicated to movie reviews and commentary.

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