We watch... so you don't have to.

And the Oscar Goes To... Björk's Swan

Early on in Sunday night's Oscar broadcast -- a rare Academy Awards ceremony that began and ended on the same day -- the producers trotted out highlights of Oscar's memorable moments. Our favorite was the clip of John Wayne, a few months away from his final credit roll, making his last appearance at the Academy Awards.

"Oscar and I have a lot in common," the aging Hollywood icon said. And that's true -- both are moldy, decaying icons that ceased being relevant around 1958.

But we kid John Wayne.

Oscar, however, does not get off so easily. Hollywood's night of nights, as the awards program's stentorian announcer likes to call it, has in recent years become a tedious, unending exercise in self-congratulation -- a Rotary awards banquet with better tuxes. Bloated and satisfied, Oscar totters along, from one predictable denouement to the next, with the only really drama coming in the opening minutes as we learn whether any of the nominees fulfills an expectant nation's fondest dreams by throttling Joan Rivers right there on the red carpet.

Rivers will live to see another day -- at least until someone throws a pail of water at the old hag -- but this year's Oscar telecast wasn't entirely disappointing. Steve Martin proved an able host, keeping the proceedings moving and never embarrassing himself with pedestrian material, unlike a certain denizen of center square that we could name. The show finished in a crackling three hours and twenty-some minutes -- not exactly Jesse Owens fast, but certainly better than last year's four-hour plus fiasco that ended sometime after the witching hour on the east coast. Some of the award winners -- Marcia Gay Harden, Steven Soderbergh -- were pleasant surprises, and the technical award winners -- particularly the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" crowd -- came off as gracious, exuberant and dignified all at once.

And still, this year's Oscars ceremony was the usual drag.

The event remains more predictable than a Don King-promoted title fight. Anyone who didn't expect Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe to walk home with gold Sunday night, we've got some reasonably priced dot-com stock to sell you. Keeping the ceremony under the mythical four-hour mark is all well and good, but that's still about two and a half hours longer than the ceremony needs to be once you eighty-six the Debbie Allen dance numbers and the Britney Spears Pepsi commercials reminiscent of mid-'90s porno. And we think we've already covered the disappointing news that Joan Rivers still walks among us, to say nothing of the ongoing employment of her talentless spawn Melissa.

Why do people watch this nonsense? It can't be for the pearls of wisdom that trip off the tongues of the lucky winners -- 10 bucks says a week from now, you won't be able to remember who Julia Roberts thanked (hint: everybody on the planet) or who presented the award for best musical score (curiously enough, Jennifer Lopez). You're not watching for the fashion -- or at least you shouldn't be, unless the sight of Björk accessorizing with stuffed animals makes you giddy. And you certainly shouldn't watch for any of the ass-kissing splendor of the pre-game show, hosted by dead-eyed Julie Moran; Chris Connelly, the sycophant's sycophant; and Steve Kmetko, the man whose last name sounds like an AM talk radio station's call letters.

"You're really something of a chameleon able to play everything from Picasso to Nixon," Radio Free Kmetko gushed to Anthony Hopkins. "How do you do that?"

Hopkins, looking a trifle bit sad that he doesn't eat people in real life, replied "Well, that's why they pay me." And thus ended one of Oscar night's more lucid interviews.

Yes, the Oscars are a bore, a couple of big-name no-shows away from degenerating into the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards. Still, 800 million people can't be wrong. There has to be a reason -- beyond force of habit -- that so many folks around the world tune in each year.

We think those 800 million luckless souls flipped on the Oscars Sunday night for the same reason as us -- to heap scorn and derision upon winners and losers alike. That, and the possibility of a Rivers double homicide proved just too tempting to miss.

5:15: Julia Roberts and Benjamin Bratt are staring into the empty, soulless eyes of Julie Moran, who wants to know if the benighted one has prepared an acceptance speech for her coronation later tonight. "She never does," Bratt says, "which I find kind of amazing, considering what comes out of her mouth sometimes."

Nicole, Tom -- get ready for company in the couples' therapy class.

5:19: Steve Kmetko is in fawner's heaven. "I see Louis Gossett Jr., James Coburn, Faye Dunaway and Angelina Jolie," he says.

No doubt here to return their Oscars, per the Academy's edict.

5:30: The ceremony proper begins with a montage of historic Oscar moments hurtling through the solar system along two strands of DNA, perhaps in an effort to reach new levels of self-referentiality. As the show cuts to the astronauts on board Space Station Alpha to open the show, we can't help but note the staggering parallels between this ceremony and Mir.

5:31: Steve Martin recalls his first thought when the producers asked him to host the Oscars: "Would there be time for my facelift to heal?" The cameras cut to Michael Douglas in the audience.

Somewhere, a member of the Academy Awards production team is chuckling at his own cruel joke.

5:41: Eleven minutes in, and we've just heard the evening's first, "Boy, is this ceremony going to be long" joke. Which is really funny, until you realize that in three hours, we'll still all be sitting here, just getting around to handing out the award for best make-up.

5:42: Hey, we like Steve Martin just fine, but it doesn't look like Russell Crowe shares our affection. One more "Gladiator" joke, and we're afraid the Best Actor nominee is going jam a real arrow through Martin's head.

5:45: It's Catherine Zeta-Jones, out to present the first Oscar of the night for Art Direction and momentarily raise our hopes that the awards will be presented alphabetically. Zeta-Jones has a majestic, old Hollywood air about her -- meaning that she looks like she'd have all of us little people live off bread crumbs and dried chicken bones if she could, just to emphasize how affluent and regal she is.

We could not despise her any more at this moment if we wanted to.

Meanwhile, Michael Douglas -- 93 years young -- sits in the audience looking at his child bride and thinks, "I like peas."

5:49: Marcia Gay Harden is your Best Supporting Actress, and we couldn't be happier.

It's not because we want to be Marcia Gay Harden when we grow up -- although that certainly plays a role in our vicarious euphoria. It's not because we're cackling over our hunch that more people voted for the "Pollack" actress than actually saw her movie. No, we're pleased because this is proof that the Academy voters are as vindictive as we are, and see no shame in presenting the Best Supporting Actress award in a spirit of petty spite.

You see, that award -- while no doubt given for work that will outshine the legacy of such previous winners as Mira Sorvino in "Mighty Aphrodite" -- is proof that the Academy is in the throes of a horrible backlash against brother-lovin', nutbag-marryin' Angelina Jolie.

"If we vote for Kate Hudson, she might drag her diseased stoner husband on stage when she accepts the award," you can imagine the voters thinking. "Whereas that nice Marcia Gay Harden won't do anything horribly embarrassing in her acceptance speech."

It's a gamble that paid off.

5:53: For anyone who's forgotten what happened in the ceremony's first 20 minutes, the show's producers are thoughtfully running instant replay highlights as we fade out to commercial. Laugh now, but after the obligatory Debbie Allen dance number pounds your brain into paste, you'll be thankful for the thoughtful reminder that, yes, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" did indeed take home the Best Art Direction Oscar.

5:56: Russell Crowe comes out to glower at the crowd. Apparently, that Iron Cross-like medal on his circa 1856 formal wear is for heroic acts of humorlessness and scowling.

6:00: Ben Stiller presents the award for Live Action Short Film. And at Oscar parties across the country, people suddenly and silently turn their attention to the shrimp cocktail.

Your lucky winner, by the way, is "Quiero Ser." So be sure and look for that when it opens next week at the 32-screen AMC Bloatoplex, right after the 11 a.m. matinee of "Heartbreakers."

6:03: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Halle Berry. Run for you lives! She's got a car!"

No, no. That's not true at all. She had something far, far more deadly -- a laudatory introduction for Sting's musical performance.

Nothing against the former Gordon Sumner. But we recently caught "Urgh! A Music War" on cable -- it's a concert movie featuring some of your favorite early '80s bands before they became fat and satisfied and overly reliant on synthesizers. The Police -- young, energized, exciting -- were one of the opening groups in the movie, and Sting and the boys blew the roof off the joint.

Now? Sting's singing bland tripe for forgettable Disney cartoons, following the trail blazed by that risk-taking musical innovator, Phil Collins.

Ah well... Sting's got payments to make on his castle. So look for Sting's inspiring Disney anthem on his next album, "If I Ever Lose My Faith... At Least I Have the Lucrative Corporate Sponsorship Deals to Fall Back On."

6:26: Before presenting the Oscar for Best Sound, classy, classy Mike Myers mocks the importance of the award and the anonymity of the nominees. No doubt making the winners just feel great about this, their greatest night. Imagine the one time you get to appear in front of the camera, lauded as the best in your industry, only to be taunted by the guy who played Steve Rubell in "54."

We're guessing it's only a matter of time before the authorities find Myers' crumpled body in a back alley outside the Paramount studio, after he's beaten bloody with a boom mike.

6:30: When "U-571" wins best sound effects editing, an Oscar Party guest is heard to snort audibly. "The Academy Award-winning 'U-571,'" she says, the sarcasm dripping off her tongue like sweet, sweet honey.

Hey, we tell her, we liked "U-571." It was an entertaining yarn.

"I liked it, too," she said. "But an Oscar-caliber movie? It starred Jon Bon Jovi and that knuckle-dragging mope who plays Dr. Dave on 'ER.'"

Yes, we reply. But it killed Jon Bon Jovi by the second reel, and Dr. Dave was dispatched in a particularly gruesome and satisfying way. Give that movie more awards, we say.

6:31: Now both of us saw "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and while we disagree on the film's overall quality, there's one thing we can both agree on -- if the Oscar-nominated song, "A Love Before Time," appeared anywhere in the movie, it somehow escaped our attention.

Maybe we were in the rest room or buying $5 worth of Junior Mints at the concession stand. But this is all new to us. Thank God Debbie Allen is here to work her mad brand of crazy genius with the choreography. The sight of sword-wielding Chinese dancers somehow makes the world seem right again.

6:36: Julia Roberts -- just a few hours away from accepting an award that was basically gift-wrapped for her the day "Erin Brockovich" wrapped up filming -- forgoes the corny patter written for her by Oscar scribes and goes straight to handing out the Best Cinematography award. Backstage, Bruce Vilanch white-knuckles a folding chair and plots his revenge.

Peter Pau wins the cinematography Oscar, by the way, which is when we notice that the Academy has shoehorned all the Chinese people together in the same part of the theater. Is this Hollywood or Los Alamos?

Meanwhile, some guy on the outskirts of Paducah, Kentucky, hears Pau firing off a long list of Chinese names and heads down to the National Guard to lend his manpower toward stemming the oncoming Red Menace.

6:42: Here, without commentary, is Steve Martin's best joke of the night: "I saw 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' I was surprised because I didn't see any tigers or dragons. Then I realized why -- they're crouching and hidden."

6:50: Cinematographer Jack Cardiff gets an honorary Oscar, with no one ever bothering to explain his legacy. Oscar party guests, realizing there are six of them and only five shrimp left, swoop down on the shrimp cocktail with stealthy moves worthy of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

6:56: And the Oscar for Best Documentary short goes to "Big Mama." Man, we loved Martin Lawrence in that.

By the way, the Documentary Feature win of "Into the Arms of Strangers" underscores an important tip for next year's Oscar pool: Never bet against the Holocaust documentary.

7:02: Ladies and gentlemen, Sarah Jessica Parker. Or possibly one of Robert Palmer's backup singers from the "Addicted to Love" video. It's hard to tell the difference these days.

7:03: It must be March -- perennial Oscar bridesmaid Randy Newman is on our TV singing an Academy Award nominated song that's sure to lose out later in the evening. You can tell that Newman isn't even trying anymore. For starters, his song from "Meet the Parents" sounds like he's taken every musical number he's ever written, thrown it in a blender, and hit "frappé." And secondly, he's performing with Susanna Hoffs.

See what years of losing out on awards can do to you? You're reduced to phoning it in with the least-talented Bangle.

That's what killed Jim Varney.

7:18: "There is one group of highly talented men and women in film whose contribution requires that they not call attention to themselves," presenter Goldie Hawn says. "They are the composers."

And at that moment, John Williams stops banging on his timpani for a moment to look up and say, "Really?"

By the way, Goldie, you're a card-carrying member of AARP. The "I'm so ditzy" ingenue act is creepier than seeing Miss Havisham in a miniskirt.

7:30: Yet another honorary Oscar sends guests scrambling for the last of the crab dip, crafting crude pincers from extra cauliflower florets. This one -- the award, mind you, and not the crab dip -- goes to Dino De Laurentiis, who must have been selected before "Hannibal" came out.

7:39: Björk and her lovely swan take the stage to frighten the audience with a jaunty Icelandic dirge. Bet the Academy members are regretting that they made such a big stink last year about the "South Park" songs right about now.

7:43: Martin introduces John Travolta as "one of Hollywood's biggest stars." And we can't help but wonder whether he means that literally. Still, it's rather appropriate that the creative genius behind "Battlefield Earth" should be tapped to introduce the montage paying tribute to deceased Hollywood stars.

Curiously, Travolta's career is not included in the clip reel.

Sir Alec Guinness is, however, with the Academy choosing to mark his distinguished thespian legacy with a clip from "Star Wars" -- a movie Guinness reportedly despised. Guess that explains the rapid whirling noise emanating from a graveyard outside London.

7:55: We think we've figured out Jennifer Lopez's fashion choices. Perhaps tonight's dress -- which invites you to get up close and personal with Ms. Lopez's breasts -- is merely a desperately frantic attempt to deflect attention from her ass.

Let us simply say that no neckline on earth is that revealing.

Lopez is here to introduce Bob Dylan, performing his Oscar nominated song, "Things Have Changed." As a service to our readers we now present the opening stanza:

Booda bladah bleh, bladah bladah blah.
Bingo baby bee
Bladda bing badda blaw blaw boo
Baba ba bing ba ba blee
Screw you, Jakob.

Moments later, when Dylan wins, he mumbles a heartfelt thanks. No, really. He mumbles.

8:05: Hillary Swank takes to the stage in what can charitably be called a "See? I'm not really a man after all!" ensemble. Yes, Hilary, we get it. You were only acting in "Boys Don't Cry." We're suitably stunned by your talent.

Best Actor winner Russell Crowe immediately offers thanks to Chad Lowe.

8:22: Another side effect of the impending actors' strike: stars are flying into the Oscars from all over at the last possible moment. Presenter Kevin Spacey, in fact, reveals that he left his tux in Nova Scotia and warmly thanks "Shipping News" castmate Judi Dench for bringing it to L.A. with her. It's a genuinely nice moment -- which is promptly ruined by the realization that Julia Roberts is about to waltz away with an award simply for being so darn cute.

8:37: And now to present the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Arthur C. Clarke. Or, quite possibly, Dr. Evil from the "Austin Powers" movies.

8:45: Guess Nicole Kidman gets Tom Cruise's necktie collection as part of the divorce settlement.

8:48: And what movie has earned the coveted Oscar for Best Picture? Is it the visually stunning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?" The artistically complex and deftly filmed "Traffic?" Or could it be the poignantly funny, cleverly written "High Fidelity?"

What? That last one wasn't even nominated? Geez, the people who vote on these awards are chuckleheads.

Which they promptly prove by giving their gaudy little statue to the overly loud, overly long, overly rated "Gladiator."

Look, as far as popcorn movies go, "Gladiator" is as good a choice as any. But the best motion picture of the year? The film that people will point to 20 years from now and say, "Russell Crowe battling computer-animated tigers... you know, it just didn't get any better than that in the year 2000."

Please tell us Price Waterhouse goofed and handed out the wrong envelope.

Reasonable people are free to dissent, of course, but for our money, "Gladiator" was a B-movie story spruced up with A-list production values. The story was uninspired, the acting wooden, the dialogue something you would expect out of a Screenwriting 101 class. It was a lot of noise. It was a lot of hype. It was... well... a lot like the Oscar ceremony itself.

Come to think of it, "Gladiator" may be the perfect choice after all.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels, Lisa Schmeiser.


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