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Tuesday, March 24, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ceremony Shapes Up As A Night To Remember

Seattle Times Television Critic

What was in at this year's Academy Awards: Glamour, musical numbers and thanking the loved ones.

What was out: Cleavage, political statements and the Price Waterhouse guys.

The winner who did the best job of combining this year's trends was MGM directing legend Stanley Donen, who cuddled an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement while giving the audience advice on how to succeed interpolated with his own version of "Cheek to Cheek."

In the words of Donen, "Ya gotta show up" - and just about everybody did for the three-and-a-half-hour event. An estimated one billion viewers worldwide couldn't have asked for more stars, especially when the awards were capped with a presentation of 70 past honorees ranging from Shirley Temple (1934) to Cuba Gooding Jr. (1996).

With an estimated 87 million people in the United States tuning in to all or some of the Academy Awards last night, ABC said today it was the most-watched Oscar telecast of all time in the United States.

And while the minutes may not have flown as swiftly as a screening of Best Picture winner "Titanic," last night was one of television's smartest live ceremonies in recent memory.

First off, the show was well-cast. Master of ceremonies Billy Crystal seems to have permanently filled the shoes of longtime predecessor Bob Hope. While Crystal may never achieve Hope's sly offhandedness, he possesses nearly impeccable timing and judgment, the two most critical qualifications for being host.

As is now custom, he opened with a musical medley spoofing the Best Picture nominees. "Titanic" was tuned to the theme from "Gilligan's Island" and Crystal actually got the crowd to chime in at one point. The subsequent numbers weren't as successful, though "The Full Monty" (sung to "Hello, Dolly!") contained the potent lines "Dropping your pants is lots of fun / Just like they do in Washington."

Certainly, those at this year's ceremony seemed determined to (a) have a good time and (b) look great doing it.

Gone was that time when victors acted as if they had to be dragged to the podium or once there, to atone with a lecture. Mostly gone were the adventures in dressing that emphasized breast implants or raging individualism over good taste.

Paying homage to history was the evening's leitmotif. One brief montage showed clips from the previous 69 Best Pictures. Another - more successful because it was more human - recapped moments of individuals presenting, receiving or rejecting Oscars.

Of course, not all movie traditions make sense. One is that TV is doesn't exist. So Neve Campbell, who introduced two Best Song nominees, was profiled as "the bright young star of Scream I and II" with nary a word about "Party of Five."

Another tradition holds to making wink-wink connections. Alec Baldwin was recruited to describe Best Picture nominee "L.A. Confidential," whose co-stars include his wife (and Best Supporting Actress) Kim Basinger. "The girl is cute," said a cooperative Baldwin.

Several departures from routine were welcome. Best Song performances were in groups of two and three rather than spread throughout the evening, a mercy to those seeking bathroom breaks or an escape from one more rendition of "My Heart Will Go On." There were no time-chewing appearances by the Price Waterhouse vote-counting team.

The Oscars could be leaner and keener still. A montage of animals in movies went nowhere, as did an interpretive dance medley that must have had Agnes DeMille pirouetting in her grave. Paring such stuff would help out those worthy team winners whose partners used up the allotted 30 seconds of thank-you time.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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