78th Academy Awards

Staying true to his style, Stewart lifts the night

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 6, 2006

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For Jon Stewart fans, it was a night of relief.

The ''Daily Show" anchor didn't sell out to host the Super Bowl of awards shows. He didn't aim for the old-school vaudeville shtick of Billy Crystal to broaden his appeal. He was his Comedy Central self throughout: wry, deadpan, flip, and slightly subversive. His jokes were as sharp as ever, and punctuated with the pregnant pauses that are his trademark.

The Oscar host doesn't generally get a lot of screen time, but he or she sets the tone of the night. And Stewart's tone was swift, bemused, and ironic. He called ''Walk the Line" '' 'Ray' with white people," which Jamie Foxx, in the audience, thought was a hoot. He joked that Hollywood is so poor its women can't afford fabric to cover their breasts. An auditorium of sternums suddenly felt peculiarly itchy.

Stewart helped the night move painlessly toward its rousing ending, when ''Crash" beat ''Brokeback Mountain" for best picture and the audience erupted in gleeful surprise. He did make political jabs, turning Bjork's famous swan dress from the 2001 Oscars into a swipe at the vice president. The singer-actress couldn't make it, he explained, because ''she was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her." And he quipped that the Oscars are ''a night when you can see all your stars and not have to donate to the Democratic party." But the more potent political bent of the night had more to do with the nominees and winners, such as ''Syriana" and ''The Constant Gardener," than with Stewart.

Pre-filmed comedy sequences contributed to the night's ''Daily Show" flavor. A series of fake TV campaign ads by the nominees was clever. And the clips from classic westerns, arranged with an eye for gay subtext, were a funny razz on the ''Brokeback Mountain" phenomenon. It was a viral video sent to millions of viewers. Naturally, when the lights came up, the camera panned to Heath Ledger, who was smiling.

Despite the fact that fabulous and foolish acceptance speeches are the juiciest part of the Oscars, the producers tried to psych out winners by playing wrap-up music throughout their speeches. From the moment they started talking, the winners were expected to feel they were running long. Also, a pre-filmed skit in which the orchestra accosts Tom Hanks for time-consuming thank-yous aired early on as a kind of warning to any potential ramblers.

Still, we got to see a sweetly frazzled thanks from best actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who ended with a heartfelt nod to his mother. Gavin Hood was openly joyous when his ''Tsotsi" won best foreign film. Three 6 Mafia, which won best original song for ''It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from ''Hustle & Flow," was so exuberant that Stewart later paid tribute to its excitement. When Cathy Schulman and Paul Haggis took their prize for ''Crash," their shock was compelling.

Reese Witherspoon's thrilled speech for best actress was infectious, although she does have a hard time not seeming perky. And because rumors of the end of her marriage to Ryan Phillippe have been in gossip rags, the camera stalked Phillippe during her speech looking for hints of sorrow, envy, regret, something.

George Clooney picked up Stewart's taste for speaking unspoken truths when he accepted his supporting award for ''Syriana." His first words: ''OK, so I'm not winning director." But he segued into an unnecessary pro-Hollywood cri de coeur, as he praised the entertainment capital of the world for being so ''out of touch."

''I'm proud to be part of this Academy. I'm proud to be part of this community," Clooney said. He needed surgery in the kiss-up ER, stat.

Some of the best of the night's moments were by presenters. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin stole hearts in their introduction to Robert Altman, who was given an honorary Oscar. They did improv with overlapping dialogue at the microphone, mirroring Altman's technique. They were a natural pair.

Ben Stiller also distinguished himself while presenting the visual effects awards, wearing a green suit as if he were working with a green screen and invisible. And Will Ferrell and Steve Carell wore garish makeup as they presented the makeup statue.

Lauren Bacall introduced a tribute to film noir in one of the night's more uncomfortable moments. Actually, it felt more like a year than a moment, as she struggled to read the teleprompter.

Naturally, the night contained a few too many clip sequences, but the music was kept down to the essential three nominated songs. To sing her Oscar-nominated song from ''Transamerica," ''Travelin' Thru," Dolly Parton came onto the huge stage alone. But of course she filled the room, so larger-than-life and drag-queen-esque that her lips threatened to swack Jack, as Nicholson sat grinning as always in the audience. Ever the businesswoman, she managed to slip in a Dollywood plug at the start of the song, for those thinking of ''travelin', travelin', travelin' " to Tennessee.

The only reason to watch last night's red-carpet coverage was Isaac Mizrahi. The fawning fashionista was more restrained than he was at the Golden Globes, where he was spotted cupping one of Scarlett Johansson's breasts. But as E!'s man on the scene, he was nonetheless humorously unedited, flirting shamelessly with the actresses as well as the actors. His gushing over Clooney led the star to make a promise: ''If I do win, I'm thanking you." Later, of course, Clooney broke his promise. Poor Isaac.

Oddly, Ryan Seacrest was all about proving how straight he is. Usually fairly private about his orientation, Mizrahi's E! cohost went gaga over Jessica Alba and Keira Knightley, but he couldn't stir up much excitement. It was much more fun watching Mizrahi carry on with Matt Dillon, telling him ''You were just divine" in ''Crash." After asking him if he's single, Mizrahi openly wondered if having an Oscar would be an aphrodisiac.

Alas, Dillon won't find out the answer this year.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at