The telecast which promised the unexpected was anything but.

NEW YORK (AP) – After promises of the unexpected, the biggest surprise on Sunday’s Oscarcast was a lack of surprises.

Did all the unexpectedness somehow get filtered out during that new five-second tape delay?

Whatever, “The 76th Annual Academy Awards” was supposed to be ripe to kick up its heels after the past couple of years, when 9-11 and the Iraq War put a damper on Hollywood flamboyance. Also, a ratings falloff by recent Oscarcasts supposedly called for a more fast-paced, youthful approach.

Surprise!

Airing from Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, the ABC broadcast was slick and flub-free. The unusually handsome art deco set kept the eye engaged with odd angles.

But this remained your father’s Oscarcast. With host Billy Crystal in the cockpit for the eighth time, the program cruised with confident conventionality, airing live – or sort of live, with the five-second delay guarding against any chance slip of the tongue or bustier.

Not that there was anything to bleep. Whether guided by decorum or a desire to play nice with Washington powers-that-be already incensed by the Super Bowl halftime show, everybody stayed safe.

Meanwhile, the thrumming monotony of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” harvesting its 11-of-11 trophies – however much deserved – didn’t do much to liven up the night.

Nobody would have welcomed a Super Bowl encore by Justin and Janet. But where was a troublemaker to match filmmaker Michael Moore (who blurted out a politically charged acceptance speech at last year’s Oscarcast) when you need him?

Even Janet Jackson jokes were at a premium. In a mildly amusing bit, Crystal voiced what stars seated in the audience were thinking and, with the camera focused on Julie Andrews, said: “God, this sunburst nipple broach is killing me!”

The evening began with Crystal’s big comedy overture. Usually a highlight, it was clever this year, if not outstanding.

The filmed piece was a parody trailer for “The Return of the Host,” heralding Crystal’s return to the Oscars after several years’ absence and artfully plugging him into scenes from nominated films, even the computer-animated “Finding Nemo.”

It was technically dazzling, with the funniest moment a cameo appearance from Michael Moore goofing on last year’s Oscarcast appearance (“Shame on you, Hobbits! Shame on you!”) then getting crushed in a stampede from “The Lord of the Rings.”

But the night’s liveliest segment was a stylish production number of best-song nominee “Belleville Rendezvous” from “The Triplets of Belleville,” which included one man playing a bicycle.

And the freshest piece of comedy business was thanks to Will Ferrell and Jack Black, on hand to announce the best original song. Before doing so, they sang never-before-heard lyrics to the melody that interrupts Oscar acceptance speeches that go on too long: “This is it, your time is through, you’re boring! … No need to thank your parakeet, you’re boring!”

Exactly.

AP-ES-03-01-04 0154EST



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