Originally created 02/28/05

Changes to Academy Awards don't rock tradition too hard



LOS ANGELES - At the luncheon for Academy Award nominees earlier this month, this reporter asked Chris Rock if he would keep it clean when he hosted the show.

"Absolutely," he replied. "It's going to be like the old days, when Bob Hope was doing it."

Rock didn't utter anything Sunday that would cause the ABC censor to push the five-second delay button. His opening monologue was more in the Don Rickles attack mode, getting laughs with surgically cutting remarks about Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Moore, George W. Bush and other victims.

Rock returned throughout the show for a zinger or two, but most of the time he seemed to be hurrying things along. As a result, the show sometimes took on the air of an MTV special.

Aware of critiques that the show had been plodding in previous years, producer Gil Cates introduced some timesaving innovations. Some of the awards were presented in the audience, avoiding the wait while winners trooped to the microphone.

For several categories, all the nominees were brought onstage. When the winner was announced, the losers were herded offstage. It seemed a tad cruel.

At the Governor's Ball afterward, one of the nominees who went through that procedure commented: "It was uncomfortable to be shuffled onstage and then to be shuffled when you find out you lost."

During the show, Rock cited the hurry-up pace and predicted: "Next they're gonna give the Oscars in the parking lot."

For all of Cates' time economies, the show lasted 3 hours and 14 minutes, shorter than recent years but still a prolonged sit - and a late one for viewers in the East.

Every Academy Awards offers memorable moments. Here are some that occur to this longtime viewer:

- Best ad lib. When Jeremy Irons was beginning his presentation of the documentary short subject award, static that sounded like a gunshot was heard over the loudspeaker, "I hope they missed," Irons cracked.

- Most touching moment. Accepting his award for best actor in "Ray," Jamie Foxx was overcome when he related how his grandmother kept him on a straight path in his youth. He struggled to hold back tears, as did some people in the audience.

- Best staging: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a solo classical piece while the screen featured the faces of Hollywood notables who had died during the past year.

After four years, the Academy seems to have settled into what may be its permanent awards home, the Kodak Theatre.

The stage is big enough for large sets and production numbers. With seating boxes rising to the ceiling and three balconies like European opera houses, the theater has a majestic feeling. Maybe too majestic.

I came along after the Academy had switched the awards from hotel banquet rooms to theater locales. During the 1930s, the statuettes were bestowed at the Biltmore Bowl ballroom downtown or the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel a few miles to the west. They were glittery gatherings that defied the Depression gloom.

There were no bleachers at the Ambassador, only a cluster of devoted fans who cheered the arrivals, especially romantic duos like Tyrone Power and Sonja Henie, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

The Grove itself resembled a movie set with its papier-m\vFach\vDe cocoa palms with plush monkey dolls peering out from the fronds.

Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn and other studio bosses presided over the white-linened tables where their most important stars gathered.

The women came in dazzling, no-cleavage gowns, the men in their starched-shirt tuxedos, the Brits in white tie and tails.

Will Rogers, Bob Hope and other humorists kept the ceremonies lively, and the acceptances were brief and heartfelt. Offstage the winners repeated their speeches for the newsreel cameras.

The losers could get drunk and dance away their disappointment to the soothing strains of Freddie Martin's orchestra.

Those were indeed Oscar's golden years.