Martin brings Oscars much-needed hope

Apr 2, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It would be a tragedy–or, at least, very annoying–if anybody had the temerity to blame Steve Martin for the relatively low ratings of this year’s Oscar show. Martin did a first-rate and first-class job as host, one of the most impossible gigs in the world, and he brought some dignity and stature back to the show. He reminded some of us of the good old days of Oscar watching, when the ceremony still had the aura of an event and wasn’t considered either a painful ordeal or a national joke.

The proliferation of awards shows, it is said, has taken away some of Oscar’s luster, although it used to be that all the other shows were looked upon as preface and Oscar was the big finale, the quality item that none of the other shows could approach in prestige and drawing power. Gone are the days. By the time the Oscars airs, all the nominated movies have already been celebrated to death.

Thus, seeing Julia Roberts win an Oscar wasn’t icing on the cake; it was dreary anticlimax. Wouldn’t it be funny if her Oscar-night performance were nominated for an Emmy? After all, she had already given the same speech twice before, as has been pointed out, on other shows. She had broken it in out of town. And now on the Oscarcast she got the chance to do a better acting job pretending to be cute and humble than she had done in “Erin Brockovich” pretending to be cute and noble. Almost every year the Oscars wins an Emmy as best entertainment special (ironic considering there’s almost no entertainment on the show), so giving Emmys to people for the way they accept Oscars isn’t so far-fetched.

Thanks for these memories

Martin should get an Emmy, and that’s the least of it. Of course, we all know that to be a TV critic in this country you don’t have to pass an exam, don’t have to know much about television and don’t have to be able to write-but even so, it’s alarming that some “critics” trashed Martin’s performance and said something as stupid as “Bring back that comic genius, Billy Crystal.”

They have short memories, these pinheads, and they think Billy Crystal set the standard for hosting an Oscarcast. No. No. No. Bob Hope set it with years of distinguished service, his army of writers scribbling away furiously backstage so as to send him out with elegant zingers to spice up the show and knock some of the pretentious wind out of it.

Then came his holiness Johnny Carson, who improved on Hope by telling jokes with more bite to them (and who looked better in a tux). Hope always had a just-kidding wink. Carson maintained a kind of above-the-fray superiority; he wasn’t condescending or snotty, but he had a marvelous way of viewing the whole ritual as fundamentally preposterous and of highlighting the more delicious absurdities as he went along. It was Carson, wasn’t it, who welcomed the audience one year by calling the Oscars “Two hours of sparkling entertainment packed into a four-hour show”? Maybe this was a joke he made later on “The Tonight Show.” After stepping down from the Oscar gig he took great glee each year in lampooning the show in his monologue.

Martin in his mock-suave, wacky-witty way recalled Carson but brought his own self-mocking persona; he has always been a kind of thinking man’s goofball (or thinking woman’s), and now that he’s a playwright and published essayist, he has refined his style to make it more urbane, yet still possessing a lurking wildness all its own. Carson and Martin are friends and mutual admirers. It was reportedly Martin who persuaded Carson to write a short humor piece for The New Yorker magazine earlier this year. Carson is said to be thinking about doing more.

What does Karnac want?

That was an ideal way for Carson to re-enter the public arena without competing against mythic memories of himself or getting involved in any of the messiness of current late-night or prime-time TV. It was understandable and even admirable the way Carson chose to cut all ties when he left “The Tonight Show,” and he seemed to grow as a living legend the longer he stayed away. But then one had to wonder, what role had he chosen for himself? The Sam Jaffe part in “Lost Horizon”? Was he sitting in a tower wrapped in a sheet, looking down at all us mortals as we strutted ours upon the stage? Carson’s still too youthful-acting to be a damn high lama.

Enough became enough. And he reappeared just at the right time, somehow. The piece he wrote was funny and there was a welcome “No, I am not dead” subtext to it.

Post mortem

On the morning after the Oscarcast, I checked the New York papers to see what their critics had said. Inevitably, with a kind of mystical consistency, the New York Post got it all wrong. The Post writer missed Billy Crystal riding in on a horse or dressed as Hannibal Lecter. Gosh, why didn’t Steve Martin dance and prance and do a funny song? Because Steve Martin is a monologist and doesn’t need that kind of shtick. By the way, and sublimely enough, the New York Post gave a rave to Kathie Lee Gifford’s “performance” in the E! channel movie “Spinning Out of Control”-perhaps the only paper in the nation to take that fiasco seriously.

You have to wonder: Who is running that paper? Who is writing that crap? It’s as if they fear they won’t be noticed unless they come up with drivel more fatuous than anything else in the universe that day. The Post has its virtues-the great Liz Smith, brilliant sports columnist Phil Mushnick (also in TV Guide) and a contagious tabloid energy-but the entertainment section seems to have its own motto: “By morons, for morons.”

J. Lo watching

Steve Martin did a near-heroic job of hosting the Oscars, and although I once called the program “entertainment-proof,” I now have to temper that assessment. It’s hard to imagine him wanting to do it again, though, since the rewards are minor and the jackals are always waiting to pounce. For Crystal, the Oscars were a stretch. For Martin, they were slumming. He slummed smartly and with style. The show would have been even better with more of him and less of everything else.

Oh-also better if the director hadn’t been chicken and cut off Jennifer Lopez at the neck. What happened-did Jack Valenti make a papal visit to the control room for some party-pooping on-the-spot censoring? Lopez’s dress had this amazing transparent top, but it was apparently decided that letting the home audience see it, and through it, might incite, what, a riot? It would have incited interest, that’s what it would have incited. Scoping out cleavage is one of the big reasons people watch the show.

Whoever made the decision to censor Jennifer Lopez’s breasts is the reason the Oscars suck. Just watch: In the fall, the idiot director will probably be nominated for an Emmy.