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Oscars 2013: Seth MacFarlane Best When He Wasn't Trying to be Funny

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This year's Oscars show on ABC wrapped after a bit over three and a half hours and there were a bunch of great moments, a bit of tedium and a lot of disappointment over the tasteless antics of host Seth MacFarlane.

Look, I'm not a prude, though I've ranted at the likes of Ricky Gervais when he hosted the Golden Globes. You don't have to be sweetness and light and/or just mildly funny, but as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler displayed at the Golden Globes you can find the right mix to be biting and clever without resorting to cheap, shocking and sometimes hurtful jokes.

I was neither backstage nor in the control booth, but I can guess something must have happened after the overlong 17-minute opening segment, wherein MacFarlane early on cast mock aspersion at last year's Best Actor winner, Jean Dujardin, as essentially having since disappeared, when it's clear his stellar career is mostly anchored in France. And a sometimes funny bit with William Shatner, beaming in from the future as Star Trek's Captain Kirk, became somewhat surreal when he warned MacFarlane that his reviews were destined to be pretty bad.

Mercifully interspersed with the host's puerile humor were musical bits during which Channing Tatum danced quite masterfully with Charlize Theron, and Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt sang and danced, aided by the surprisingly excellent vocal talents of Mr. MacFarlane. He wasn't just on-key, he sang like he'd been in musical theatre. And, upon doing some follow-up research, I learned he'd sung at Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall in London. Who knew?

During these moments and when he played it straight, he was great -- poised, handsome and charming. But on occasion he spewed classless material, which I'm sure he thought was very funny. He absolutely bombed in a joke ostensibly crediting Daniel Day-Lewis with getting into Lincoln's head, but then indicated he hadn't done as well as had John Wilkes Booth. The audience gasped.

From that point on, when he was on camera he essentially introduced the next guests and did so with professional aplomb. Was it a coincidence or did someone rip up the rest of his cue cards?

As to the rest of the show, it was professional and sometimes spectacular. The spoof of Flight with hand puppets was delightful and the tribute to a few recent musicals with some of the casts singing live was terrific, starting with Catherine Zeta-Jones doing "All That Jazz" from Chicago, Jennifer Hudson belting her memorable song from Dreamgirls and many of the cast of Les Miserables doing a medley. Though all were good, I have to say, having seen the latter film, and while I don't wish to negate Eddie Redmayne's talent, putting him on stage next to the better looking and better singing Aaron Tveit from Broadway, who'd played Enjolras, the student leader in the film, made one wonder why Tveit hadn't been cast in the role of Marius.

The musical numbers were among the high points of the show. However, bringing back Shirley Bassey to do her famous James Bond number may have been a mistake. She got a standing ovation, but I do believe it was bestowed out of respect for a great career, as her voice was often flat and off-key.

Barbra Streisand, however, sang "The Way We Were" quite well at the end of the In Memoriam segment, during which there were oddly not too many actors mentioned. And why single out Marvin Hamlisch for an extended tribute? The Academy has done this before, honoring John Hughes and Lena Horne, the latter never really a major movie star, while not having done the same for motion picture actors, writers and directors of far greater renown.

The bit with Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy prior to giving out the Animation awards looked like bad improv. Was there a script? If so, had they rehearsed? Similarly, the quintet of Robert Downey, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson from The Avengers, bestowing the Cinematography and Visual Effects Oscars, also seemed askew. Short jokes were the rage, first aimed by Evans at Downey and later during the lame musical close at Tom Cruise.

The choice of the Jaws theme to cut presenters off was unwieldy and unfairly placed, in particular when one of the winners of Best Documentary, Searching for Sugarman, was paying tribute to Rodriguez, about whose life the film was made. Isn't the director in the booth paying attention or is a computer running the show?

All in all there were surprises, in particular that Life of Pi won the most awards (four), including Ang Lee as Best Director, yet Argo, the winner of most early season contests, did in fact win Best Picture. All the Best Picture nominees got a prize, except Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Zero Dark Thirty had to share its one award for Sound Editing with Skyfall, which also won the Best Song trophy for singer Adele and co-writer Paul Epworth. As expected Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for Lincoln -- the first male actor to win three Oscars in the lead category -- Anne Hathaway won supporting actress for Les Miserables and Jennifer Lawrence took Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook, though there'd been a late minute sense that the 86-year-old Emanuelle Riva might win the prize for her brilliant performance in Amour, which won Best Foreign Language Film.

Christoph Waltz took home his second Oscar in three years, this time for Django Unchained in the most competitive category, Best Supporting Actor, the first honor of the evening and gave an eloquent short speech, mostly crediting writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who later won the Oscar for Original Screenplay.

But it was Argo's night, even if Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for Best Director, with the Best Picture Oscar presented jointly by Jack Nicholson and, via live telecast from the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama, who announced the winner surrounded by a military escort. The film also won for Chris Terrio's adapted screenplay and for William Goldenberg's film editing.

A personal gripe, as a writer: the Academy continues to show the Best Director nominees in the audience, but not the writers, as if they are second-class citizens; and why don't they go back to saying, "And the winner is?" It's part of movie history and political correctness is going too far with "And the Oscar goes to," which sadly has been adopted by almost every other awards show.

In all a mixed bag. I'd rate it a B-minus. The closing number was forgettable, with sophomoric lyrics, despite the college try of the talented Kristin Chenoweth, equally matched in singing by MacFarlane. Kudos to producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for a good deal of panache and a number of surprises. Director Don Mischer did well, too, if only if he'd listened a bit more intently to what the winners were saying before cutting them off. And I'll end with Seth MacFarlane, with whom I led off. He's a very, very funny guy, I love his TV shows, but sometimes what might seem funny in your head or even in your living room might better go unsaid.

Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com