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Dead by Dawn

Night of the Living Geezers at the 73rd Academy Awards

By Richard von Busack

MY ACCEPTANCE speech in total: "The free TV is mine! Thank you, Jesus!"

Zonked on jumbo painkillers for a thrown-out back, I watched the Oscars sideways from the sofa, so I'm not really sure what I saw. Some of the visions had to be hallucinations: Rene Zellweger dressed like a banana, Jennifer Lopez in a state of de facto toplessness, Bjork throttled by a dead goose, like some Icelandic cousin of the Ancient Mariner, and Steve Martin taunting Russell Crowe to the verge of a fist fight.

The beginning of the evening was the oddest: something about a space station, with Strauss' Also Spracht PriceWaterhouse playing in the background. Soon, the Wild and Crazy Guy was jettisoned like space junk, with the aid of computer graphics so poor they're bound to send the NASDAQ down another 500 points.

The musical numbers turned out to be as reliable a whipping boy as ever. Most memorable was the Celine Dion of Taiwan (didn't catch her name) singing "A Love Before Time" from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Three martial artists gesticulated around her feet as tiny on the huge stage as beebees in a boxcar. I kept waiting for an old monk with cataracts to come out and whap them all with a bamboo stave ("No! Concentrate! More discipline!")

In her duet with Randy Newman, Susanna Hoffs gave an excellent demonstration of what happens when a moderately talented singer isn't sweetened by a recording studio. (When are we going to see The Allnighter 2: The Morning After? A Hoffs-hungry public demands to know.) And it was worth tuning in to see Sting, swaying, intoxicated with his own spellbinding Latin rhythms, singing the "Buddy Song" (as such tunes are generically known at Disney's music department) from The Emperor's New Groove. What that moment needed for fullness was a purple cartoon llama to trot out and slurp Sting's pretentious face.

Other magic moments:

Fairuza Balk, one of my favorites ever since the unjustly maligned Return to Oz, turning up in Frances McDormand's clip from Almost Famous; Julie Stiles' look of palpable boredom and contempt; the fact that Joaquin Phoenix has those decadent-looking circles under his eyes even when he's not playing a debauched Roman emperor; the déco-fiberglass tiles, a la Los Angeles coffee shop 1967, ornamenting a Shrine Auditorium that's perhaps been spruced up a bit since I used to see the Grateful Dead there.

Yes, all risible stuff, but the extremely high geezer quota this year choked the laugh in one's snide, pain-pill groggy throat. By "geezer" I don't mean Jack Cardiff, who seemed to have all his marbles, in addition to the pride in a career photographing some of the most lusciously colored films ever made (in addition to helming 1960's Scent of Mystery, the first film in Smell-o-Vision).

And I don't even really mean producer Dino De Laurentiis, diplomatically described as his richly syllabled employee Anthony Hopkins as "prolific," when we who endured most of his films of the 1970s and '80s might have a less charitable expression. As Wesley Morris of the San Francisco Chronicle predicted, constructing a montage of De Laurentiis' oeuvre was going to be dicey. While the montage did show some of DDL's pioneering Italian work, it didn't show us Ken Norton getting boiled alive in Mandingo, Jessica Lange asking King Kong, "What's your sign?" Bryan Brown burning a cross in Tai-Pan and Mickey Rourke ripping Kelly Lynch's blouse off in The Desperate Hours.

Last of the semi-Anglophonic, cigar-smoking vulgarian producers, De Laurentiis has lived long enough to see Hannibal, his luxuriously outfitted version of an Italian giallo, make big monkeys of all of his detractors. Thus the Academy presented him with a model of the severed head of Irving Thalberg. If only the skullcap came off. (Seriously, though, De Laurentiis deserved alone for funding Blue Velvet on what's said to be a handshake deal with David Lynch in exchange for the director's work on Dune.)

No, by geezers I mean screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who, cocooned by dead air, urged his fellow writers to fight for credits. Such as the credits Lehman accepted for "writing" Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sabrina (based on celebrated plays by Edward Albee and Samuel Raphelson; Albee's famously commented that Lehman added two words to the play and both of them were ill-chosen.)

Also by geezer, I mean writer Arthur C. Clarke, who turned out to be yet another pseudonym for the master-criminal and enemy of mankind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. In his customary aspect-wheelchair, bald head, Nehru jacket, broadcasting his usual threats from a hidden but exotic location (the white Persian cat strayed somewhere)-Clarke/Blofeld menaced the world. Since neither Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore nor Sean Connery was apparently at the awards, only Martin (in the customary tux, and fully armed with the worst of bad quips) could stop him.

And by geezer, I mean also refer to the most terrifying surprise guest. Years from now parents will still be threatening their children, "Ashley, if you don't finish your homework, we're going to have Bob Dylan come over and babysit."

Dylan's Vincent Price imitation surpassed even Ian McKellan's, even unto the rheumy eyes, deadly pallor and the menacing pencil-thin mustache. In tight satellite link closeup it looked as if Dylan was ready to star in the musical remake of The Abominable Doctor Phibes.

The direction of the show was brief and perfunctory. It was hard to see the celebrated gowns, especially Lopez's outfit-ABC's cameramen were right on that one, swiveling the camera up above the aureole-line. Though earlier at the pregame show, we got a huge gander, and I don't mean the one around Bjork's neck. There, movie stars had their graciousness tested by newshound Jim Moret, as another commentator-some otherwise unidentified fritillary named "Stephen"-swooned, "I'm having a fashion heart attack!"

Considering what else it offered-oh, my shocked fashion-attacked heart, Julia Roberts won; Russell Crowe chewing gum to equalize the pressure of the steam coming out of his ears; and Danny DeVito helping himself to smuggled crudités-mostly the show was a reminder of what old age has in store for the most beautiful and talented of us all. Though maybe it's just my back talking.

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