Cut class Crystal sparkles once more

Billy Crystal Crystal did not disappoint the audience when he opened the show with a song

As is clear from the fact he has now hosted more times than anyone bar Bob Hope, no-one alive knows how to work the Oscars audience better than Billy Crystal.

Last year, the show's producers paired James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. The experiment failed dismally in a silent desert of mis-read cues and fumbled punchlines.

In fact, Crystal probably had to step over some of the last remaining tumbleweed as he came on to the stage.

But once he got going with one of his famed sung openers - in which he works the names of the best film nominees into a medley - the memories of the acting equivalent of Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox were banished.

With an extra four films to include since last time he presented, it was quite an effort.

But, though done in a big band style, it got things off to the confident start the production needed.

Crucially, Crystal is neither too acerbic to alienate his audience nor too in awe of them to render him boring.

"Nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues," he remarked in one of his best lines.

After Oscars President Tom Sherak made a rambling speech about the necessity of film as art, Crystal dryly remarked: "Thank you for whipping the crowd into a frenzy."

His running gag this year was riffing on new names for the venue, with previous sponsor Kodak dropping their naming deal following financial difficulties.

Cirque du Soleil Cirque du Soleil put in an energetic performance

"We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theatre," he began, before making some other suggestions, including the Your Name Here theatre.

Given that Crystal was a late replacement after planned host Eddie Murphy quit following the firing of his friend Brett Ratner as producer, it was sparkling stuff.

Not that everything worked. There was a baffling speech early on where Tom Hanks praised one of the seat fillers, who received two rounds of applause.

And Gwyneth Paltrow's performance alongside Robert Downey Jr - who was pretending to film a documentary on stage - was so bad that that anyone who did not know who she was would be simply astonished to find that she is a professional actress.

But around an hour in, Cirque du Soleil performed a breathtaking five-minute show in tribute to cinema, with trapeze artists pinging around above the heads of the actors and gymnasts rotating on one hand to the sound of Danny Elfman's strings.

Perhaps energised by these performers who had something more difficult to do than read an autocue while wearing a stratospherically expensive dress, the star turns got much better from that point on.

Emma Stone - presenting an award for the first time - was clearly the best cameo performer, showing Paltrow exactly how to do this sort of thing with a terrific little turn alongside Ben Stiller.

'Little predictable'

And Chris Rock - himself a former presenter who struggled so badly in 2005 - was much more confident when presenting best animated film, with a little section on how easy it is to act in that sort of movie.

"You can be anyone," he said. "If you're a white man, you can be an Arabian prince. If you're a black man, you can be a donkey or a zebra."

Perhaps recalling that Rock first got into difficulties with his continued jokes about the Democratic party - to which many Hollywood A-listers contribute thousands in donations - Crystal got his biggest laughs with a couple of political digs.

"A Dark Knight. An American Psycho. A charismatic crack addict.

"You'll get to choose one on Super Tuesday... but now welcome Christian Bale," he said.

And in an aside aimed at Republican candidate Mitt Romney, he added: "Harry Potter's movies made $7.7bn. And yet he only paid 14% income tax."

That was indicative of the show in general. Perhaps more than a little predictable, but it still got a big laugh.

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