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Posted 3/1/2004 1:58 AM     Updated 3/1/2004 2:06 AM
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Crystal's return enlivens predictable show
Billy Crystal as Oscar host — it just has a Ring to it.

Returning for the first time in four years to host Sunday night's Academy Awards broadcast, Crystal wasted no time in re-establishing his pre-eminence in the position. Yes, others have shined in his absence: Steve Martin was as funny in his own way last year, and is equally embraced by the Hollywood audience. But there's just a special energy when Crystal hosts, a palpable sense of eager anticipation to see how he'll insert himself into the nominated films and hear who he'll mock with his Oscar medley.

He didn't disappoint. From his film-fun screamfest with Diane Keaton, to his Old Man River salute to Clint Eastwood, he once again proved that no one kicks off an Oscar night like Crystal.

Though the host's role always diminishes as the show moves on, Crystal was able to lace funny bits throughout the evening. It's a good thing he did, too, since the Lord of the Rings' history-tying sweep, though no doubt welcome to the movie's fans, bled the evening of any suspense.

Crystal's signature is the seemingly improvised on-the-spot running gag. As Ring acceptance speeches multiplied, Crystal deadpanned, "It's now official — there is no one left in New Zealand to thank." He followed that later with, "Do you know that people are moving to New Zealand just to be thanked?"

He also seems to know when a joke is needed. Immediately after Errol Morris copied Michael Moore and used his acceptance speech to slam the war in Iraq, Crystal broke the tension with "I can't wait to see his tax audit."

Morris aside, Janet Jackson's breast seemed to have more impact on the show than the war. Not only was it a constant source of jokes, but it was also responsible for the newly installed five-second delay.

New producer Joe Roth (Mona Lisa Smile) had promised a show that was comic, surprising and more attuned to the demands of younger audiences. If that's what he was aiming for, he missed.

Oh, it was a fine show as Oscars go: more glamorous and upbeat than last year's war-muted event, and decently paced. (Though at 3½ hours plus, no one would ever call the Oscars speedy.) The film clips were nicely done, if often a little truncated, and there were a few well-constructed salutes and emotional speeches. But in the end, people either care about the awards or they don't.

And then there are those songs, which must be performed even when, as with the two Cold Mountain numbers, they bring the show to a grinding, nails-on-chalkboard halt. (One has to hope they sounded better in the film itself.) At least Roth stuck them together, so you knew you had a fairly long bathroom break.

In a way, you have to wonder why any producer wants to take on the Oscars. It's a no-win situation: You can do the show incredibly poorly, but it's almost impossible to do it really well. There's only so much you can do with a show that must devote the bulk of its time to reading names and saying thank you.

So give thanks to Crystal — even if he isn't from New Zealand.

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