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And the Winner Is...Steve Martin

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The question on the minds of many as the 73rd annual Academy Awards ceremony approached was who exactly would be acting as host. Sure, everybody knew that Steve Martin had signed on to do the honors, but which Steve Martin? The wild and crazy guy, or the cerebral author-playwright? The Steve Martin who made Roxanne, or the one who made Sgt. Bilko?

As it turned out, the Steve Martin we saw on Sunday was a little bit of all of them, but the overriding impression he left, I think, was one of welcome intelligence, wit, restraint and class. I don’t believe I’ve seen a better Oscars broadcast.

You had to love the 2001 motif, with that sleekly futuristic set and peppy orchestral music derived from the score of Kubrick’s classic. Not to mention the whole business at the beginning with Martin being introduced live from space by astronauts orbiting Earth. From the moment the comedian walked on and casually commented, “That introduction cost the government one trillion dollars. There goes your tax cut,” it was clear this wasn’t going to be your father’s Academy Awards show.

Among the numerous improvements: Under Martin’s administration, producers scrapped those maddeningly tedious, over-the-top song-and-dance numbers. It may have been a last-minute decision, but it was the right one, I think we all agree.

Ditto when it came to freedom of speech. I liked the fact that there was so little of it. By Oscar standards, this year’s show was run like a totalitarian regime. Everyone in the hall understood they were to keep their remarks unprecedentedly brief and, with the exception of Julia Roberts, pretty much everyone tried to be a good citizen. Although it was kind of funny that the producers would dangle a free big-screen TV in front of the world’s highest-paid performers as an incentive to give the shortest speech. The Best Actress winner gave one the impression she wasn’t about to zip it for anything this side of a Lear jet.

Among the highlights: Bjork singing “I Have Seen It All” dressed in the world’s largest swan-shaped cotton ball; Bob Dylan’s haunting performance of his Best Song-winning “Things Have Changed,” live from Australia; 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke putting in his two cents by satellite from Sri Lanka; Martin accusing Best Actor nominee Tom Hanks of masterminding the attempt to kidnap Best Actor nominee and eventual winner Russell Crowe (Hanks played along by looking contrite); those surreal Pepsi spots in which Britney Spears serenades Bob Dole, among others. When I got up on Monday morning, I had to check with my wife to make sure I hadn’t imagined those.

There were relatively few surprises in terms of the big winners, and we could debate the Academy’s wisdom from now until next year’s broadcast. The members were wise, in my opinion, to recognize Marcia Gay Harden’s excellent performance in Pollock and to maroon Cast Away without a major award, but off the mark in giving the Best Original Screenplay to Cameron Crowe for Almost Famous. Unless I missed something — and I mean a lot — that was a decent film, but hardly the cream of the year’s crop. Plus, it’s a tad baffling that Gladiator and Crouching Tiger absorbed the bulk of the trophies, but both Ridley Scott and Ang Lee went home empty-handed. Sure, Traffic is an ambitious motion picture, but was the job Steven Soderbergh did on it truly superior to what Scott and Lee did with theirs? I didn’t see Soderbergh’s film striking gold all night.

But that’s nitpicking. The bottom line is, as a television production, the 73rd Academy Awards was just about as good as it gets. The show is almost always criticized for being too long, too showbizzy and/or too dull. Sunday’s broadcast was none of those things. The director and producer were both veterans, so I don’t think the quantum leap in watchability can be attributed to them. I really believe Martin made the difference. He was incredibly funny throughout and ran a tight, shtick-free ship. “Please hold your applause,” he instructed early on, “until it’s for me.”

He deserves a hand and a half for bringing the Oscars into the 21st century with style.