NEW YORK — It seemed like a good idea: Pair the shiny, lovable James Franco and Anne Hathaway as co-hosts of the Oscars to give it some youthful pizazz.
On first taking the stage for Sunday's show, they wasted no time making sport of why they were there.
"Anne, I must say you look so beautiful and so hip," Franco greeted her.
"Thank you, James," replied Hathaway, "you look very appealing to a younger demographic, as well."
Then, as their banter wore on, Franco introduced his grandmother out in the vast Kodak Theatre, and Hathaway said hello to her mother, who stood and called back, "Annie, honey, stand up straight. Mr. Steven Spielberg's here, honey."
Nothing against the talent of 28-year-old Hathaway and 32-year-old Franco (who was also there as a best-actor nominee, for "127 Hours"), but already it was looking like this teaming wasn't youth-driven, but instead infantilizing for the both of them.
Moments later, the mistake was further driven home when old pro Tom Hanks arrived to present the first two awards. Instantly, the broadcast felt grounded.
Then 94-year-old presenter Kirk Douglas stole the show with charm and wit undiminished by his infirmity.
The winner he announced — best supporting actress Melissa Leo, for "The Fighter" — voiced a passionate, F-bomb-sparked acceptance that built on one of the night's few memorable interludes.
It was all further evidence that the kids weren't all right. And there was more to come.
Halfway through the program, Hathaway presented Billy Crystal as "one of the greatest Oscar hosts of all time — someone I have even more respect for, right about now."
During Crystal's mini-monologue, everything seemed comfortably right with the world. And what was he doing there? Paying tribute to the very first televised Oscarcast in 1953, which was hosted by Bob Hope, who went on to preside 18 times.
"I hosted it eight, and was pooped after two," marveled Crystal.
He then affectionately recalled one year when he was hosting the show and "we had a great moment together" when he realized that Hope was in the audience.
Crystal introduced the legendary star, who "blew me a kiss and gave me a very affectionate wave. And it meant the world to me. And as soon as the camera went away, he flipped me off."
More than a few viewers had to be longing for those days when Crystal, or Hope (seen in a vintage film clip), or even last year's fine team of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, were in charge of the affair.
Sure, Franco and Hathaway were attractive, poised and apparently having fun. Though, come to think of it, Hathaway was a little too giggle-prone and, after tripping over her introduction for Sandra Bullock, made an awful recovery — "Flub. Drink at home. Sorry" — before giving it another try.
And, come to think of it, Franco could have used an anti-chill pill. Bringing the show to a close, he even needed prompting from Hathaway to say the title of the best picture that had been revealed just minutes before.
Meanwhile, they were ill-served by their material. In particular, a song spoof by Hathaway was a misfire (and a shame, since she's a fine singer) that concluded with Franco appearing in blond-wigged drag and delivering this lame gag line: "The weird part is, I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen."
In sum, the co-hosts were simply out of their depth.
Maybe as a result, the show seemed to operate on automatic pilot. The production was lavish, with an expansive band-shell stage setting against which visuals played beautifully. The pace was brisk — at least, by the standards of an Oscarcast.
But whatever its youthful trappings, the program was elegantly over-familiar. The same old same old. Dull.
The night's freshest moment may have been when the Fifth Grade Chorus from P.S. 22 in Staten Island, N.Y., filed on stage and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," joined by the night's joyous Oscar recipients.
Unfortunately, by then the show was over. For viewers, it was too late.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.
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