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Oscar and Billy Crystal: How'd Mr. Sunday Night do?

Host Billy Crystal performs onstage during the 84th

Host Billy Crystal performs onstage during the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles. (Feb. 26, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

So how'd the hometown boy do? In for a ninth run, Billy Crystal -- who I dutifully add was raised in Long Beach -- had a few issues to overcome even before the lights went on, and it's probably helpful to mention those right here at the outset:

Most notably, this Oscarcast had been listing so badly after the Brett Ratner firing last fall that any ballast would have been appreciated, if not deemed absolutely necessary.

Brian Grazer got the call, then Billy, and you can pretty much guess what those calls were all about: Get this thing in order, and do that by invoking happier times in Oscar history, when producers (like Gil Cates) acted like adults and the hosts acted like entertainers.

Right off the mark, this was to be a throwback telecast, not a throw-forward one. Nostalgia, sentimentality and a certain degree of wistfulness were expected.

But there's a fine line between wistfulness and moldiness, and it's not clear this Oscarcast always knew where that line was -- or should have been -- drawn.

Crystal had problems from the outset. An introduction by actor Morgan Freeman -- another nod to nostalgia, for Freeman's "Driving Miss Daisy” won best movie during Billy's first hosting gig -- was a curious break with tradition at probably the worst possible moment -- the opening one. (Since when do actors introduce hosts? Since when does anyone introduce a host? Hosts need no introduction -- they ARE the introduction.)

That effectively robbed Crystal's monologue of 60 or so precious seconds --  essential seconds needed to establish mood, loosen up the tense crowd, get a few hard laughs in -- boom boom BOOM -- and then get straight to that opening number.

Instead Crystal almost seemed to back into his opener, with a couple of soft lines about James Earl Jones that went over the heads of most of the viewing audience, and probably some of the seated as well. It was almost Billy's version of Uma-Oprah-Uma.

Then to the opening number -- that Billy Crystal standard that inverted moldiness itself so many years ago, when Oscar audiences so desperately wanted an antidote to the opening number nonsense that had reached a nadir just the year before with Snow White/ Rob Lowe.

But as opposed to 1990 -- with five nominated pictures --- Crystal had to juggle nine. That ate up another minute or two of monologue. And just to recap, or remind: Crystal was so effective in years past because of that monologue, which valiantly punctured Oscar vanity with smart lines about the industry and the characters that populate it.

Staging was another critical issue. By virtue of a set that accentuated the glorious past, Crystal was forced to the front of the proscenium which had the unintended consequence of reducing him, by pushing him to the foreground.

For viewers -- or for me -- it was a flattening effect. In the good old days (there I go again) Crystal was almost a tiny figure swallowed by a vast stage that was supposed to represent the vastness of the movie experience itself. But when he spoke, danced, sang . . . the camera lens collapsed onto HIM, and suddenly the show belonged to him as well.

How about that emblematic Chuck Workman montage that inserted Billy into the best picture clips -- another one of those has-to-be-done-because-it’s-always-been-done setups? Probably the most talked-up, tweeted, moment of the 84th besides J. Lo’s low-cut was George Clooney’s lip-lock with Billy -- who of course was supposed to be Clooney’s comatose wife in “The Descendants.”

Tweeters were understandably split; I was not. Creepy.

Crystal actually had his best moments later in the night -- a warm tribute to Gil Cates, or some sharp, funny one-liners introducing someone. Those lightning quick one-offs were his best -- a reminder that the best hosts know that a big part of this job is to fill those moments when no one expects anything, and to stand down when no one WANTS anything -- except the award presentation.

But in the end, this was a serviceable outing, not a great one. I had predicted that Billy would have a triumphant return last night, and I was wrong.

Billy was back and it was very good to have him back. But the hard truth is that the Oscars, like life itself, has moved on. The world has changed, and sometimes it's better to cherish our memories than rehash them.

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