Neil Patrick Harris’ Academy Awards opening number deftly combined an old-fashioned musical salute to Hollywood with new-fangled special effects that seamlessly immersed him in films past and present – setting the tone for a hosting performance that tried to give a worldwide audience the best of both worlds.
Oscar finally got the injection of youthful energy it’s sought for much of the last decade, without sacrificing the requisite reverence for all things Hollywood (unlike the bawdy turn by 2013 host Seth MacFarlane). The ABC broadcast also got its most versatile entertainer since Billy Crystal reinvented the hosting gig a quarter-century ago.
The comparison is apt: Harris’ buoyant opening leap into films – from hanging with Darth Vader in “Star Wars” to hanging in a delicate spot in front of Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” – recalled similar previous movie-hopping bits by Crystal. But on Sunday night, Harris shined in spots, all on his own.
He delivered some strong one-liners – including an opening crack about “honoring Hollywood’s best and whitest,” a shot at the controversial snubs of “Selma” in some major categories. He dished out sentiment, asking the audience to join him in falling “in love with moving pictures all over again.” He introduced Reese Witherspoon by noting she’s so lovely, “you could eat her up with-her-spoon.”
Coming out of some mouths, those lines might have induced groans, for varying reasons. But Harris pulled them off on the strength of his trademark charm as he provided occasional moments of affable, if not gut-busting, comedy on a night with little drama.
Harris, a past host of the Emmys and Tonys, appeared comfortable playing the Hollywood’s biggest room, alone and otherwise. Anna Kendrick and Jack Black helped with the opening number, called “Moving Pictures” and written by “Frozen” team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Harris enlisted Octavia Spencer for a running joke that involved keeping on eye on a locked glass box containing his pre-show Oscar predictions.
His forays into the audience at the Dolby Theatre produced some moderately amusing exchanges with seat-fillers and the likes of “Selma” star David Oyelowo and “Foxcatcher” nominee Steve Carell. Overall, though, the gags didn’t earn anywhere near the laughs Ellen DeGeneres did last year with a similar gimmick – which included the snapping of her viral, star-filled “selfie.”
The segment of Sunday’s show most likely to be talked and tweeted about was something of an in-joke: a takeoff of Best Picture winner “Birdman,” in which Harris got locked out of his dressing room, clad only in his underpants, socks and shoes. “Acting is a noble profession…” Harris deadpanned as he stood on the Oscar stage in his tighty-whities.
It wasn’t a brave moment as much as a funny one in which Harris revealed himself as an Academy Awards host fit for the job, no matter what the costume.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.