Melissa Leo F-Bombs. Christian Bale Atones. James Franco Spaces. Kirk Douglas Vamps. The Ratings Are In For Oscars ’11

“You look beautiful and hip,” said James Franco to Anne Hathaway as they began their hosting duties at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on ABC.  “And you look like you appeal to a younger demographic,” she replied, thus addressing the apparent reason why the two young movie stars had been named as hosts of Hollywood’s biggest night.

Big picture, the move pretty much backfired. Despite the wide popularity and big box office of most of the nominated films, ratings were down 10% from last year, when mega-blockbuster “Avatar” was in contention. Breaking the trend of live events like the Super Bowl breaking viewing records, Nielsen Co. ratings data showed about 37.9 million Americans watched the telecast, and that while the Oscar program retained 95% of its 18-34 audience from 2010, it tumbled 11% in the key 18-49 demo.

The always highly anticipated show open started with a page straight out of the Billy Crystal playbook as Hathaway and Franco were inserted into films in competition for this year’s best picture award, including “True Grit,” “Black Swan,” and “The Fighter” in an homage to the dream-within-a-dream plot of “Inception,” with guest appearances from Morgan Freeman and last year’s co-host, Alec Baldwin.

Interestingly, the telecast paid an inordinate amount of tribute to previous hosts, including Hugh Jackman, and in a surprise appearance, Crystal himself.  “So where was I…” he began in a tribute to the late, great comedian and frequent Oscar emcee Bob Hope, who along with Johnny Carson is considered the best Academy Awards host in history.

If it was a wink and a nod to pay less attention to the current hosts and to focus on Oscar greatness of the past, it was effective.  Franco, with a few rare exceptions looked like he was sleepwalking through his performance, his gaze focusing on something far off in the upper decks of the Kodak Theatre. A vision of Pineapple Express 2?

Hathaway, on the other hand, gave it her all– including an extra special dollop of enthusiasm as she “woo-hoo”’d, shimmied in one of her seven costume changes and even high-fived. Both actors have successfully hosted “Saturday Night Live,” which was also cited as one of the reasons they were chosen to carry off a 3 1/2 hour live television job that takes intense preparation. 

For Franco, also nominated as best actor for “127 Hours” but a total longshot,  that meant fitting it in between his schooling, his soap opera role and various other projects.  Perhaps he should have taken some time off to really focus on the gig.

His funniest, best moment came in drag, dressed in a pink gown with a blonde wig as Marilyn Monroe, as he reeled off the inevitable Charlie Sheen joke. (Just think what fun Ricky Gervais could have had with the latest material.)

The critics have not been kind. The New York Times said “the prolonged effort to pander to younger viewers was downright painful” at times. The Boston Herald noted that “references to the Internet, apps and Facebook do not make a show trendy, or alas, entertaining.”

You can’t pin it all on the hosts, but this was one of the most boring Oscar ceremonies in recent memory. Not to take anything from their worthiness in being honored, yet all of the major awards went exactly as predicted. Best picture to “The King’s Speech.” Best actor to Colin Firth, best actress to Natalie Portman.  Best supporting actor to Christian Bale, supporting actress to his costar Melissa Leo.  Aaron Sorkin for writing “The Social Network,” the early frontrunner that lost its status when all the guilds went royal rather than digital. The only slight element of surprise when an envelope was opened came when director Tom Hooper, also the DGA’s choice, took the trophy.

The big, dramatic moments came in a one-two punch when Kirk Douglas presented the best supporting actress trophy, normally given out by last year’s male winner.  Christoph Waltz was unavailable.

The venerable Douglas, who was slowed down by a stroke that still affects his speech, was perhaps a brilliant choice in the year of “The King’s Speech.”  He quickly warmed up to getting a standing ovation and obviously threw out most of what was scripted for him.

It was terrifying, it was thrilling, it was dramatic, it was heartwarming.  Douglas, jousting with the onstage escort who walked him out, going hand over hand to the top of his cane, perhaps to see who would actually be able to present the award, as the audience held its collective breath.  And when it came time to do so, he teased the crowd.  Not once but several times, saying “You know…” just as he pretended to open the envelope.  When he read out the name of Melissa Leo, she bowed to him and they had a little onstage flirtation that could be viewed as either lecherous or touching, due to their 40-plus year age difference. But would Douglas move out of the way and let her have the limelight?  It was touch and go there for a moment.  And then, drumroll, the F-bomb that Leo let loose as she reflected on the Oscars two years ago when she was nominated but lost the trophy to Kate Winslet.

A hailstorm of negativity has rained down on the actress for her R-rated expressiveness, with one prominent columnist even suggesting that she not let the door hit her on her way out of Hollywood. 

It’s a complete overreaction to a genuine display of emotion during one of the biggest moments of an actor’s lifetime.  There’s something about Melissa Leo that is truly charming, because she is breaking the rules and getting away with it. She’s a workhorse with chops who has been around for nearly 30 years, mostly in television, and some may recall she had a principal role on the acclaimed mid-90s drama “Homicide: Life on the Street”. 

But it wasn’t until two years ago when she was nominated for her role in the indie film “Frozen River” that most people had ever heard her name. Like this year’s “Winter’s Bone,” not many people saw that movie, but Leo stood out and now takes her place among an exclusive pantheon of acclaimed film actresses.

Her F-bomb became a bit of her running joke throughout the show, with references to it by screenwriter David Seidler during his acceptance speech and fittingly, her costar, Christian Bale, who also referred to the fact that he’s gone off the rails with a slew of expletives before. 

His infamous on-set tirade of “what don’t you f-ing understand” when a crew member walked across the set and the YouTube mash-ups made of it are recent history, and didn’t really end up hurting his career, and it shouldn’t hers either. Both of these “Fighters” have Oscar on their mantel now, and both provided some of the show’s most memorable speeches. Even if Bale apparently did forget his wife’s name and Leo summed hers up by saying “it’s about selling motion pictures and respecting the work.”

The elusive Banksy would probably agree.

Oscar Gowns and Gaffes

Hey Melissa, congrats on your Oscar, but this drapery belongs on the living room curtains--of your grandma's house

When it comes to the Academy Awards, the ultra white-hot impact red carpet photographs have a shelf life of years, if not decades. One false fashion move can follow you forever, and we’re afraid Melissa Leo made it.

The best supporting actress winner has actually come up in our estimation for breaking the mold during the highly political awards season campaigning. Let’s not forget no one had really heard of her until a few years ago and her role in “Frozen River,” for which she was also nominated. Despite her many TV parts dating back to 1985—she was also a player on the highly regarded “Homicide: Life on the Streets” in the mid 90s–Leo was kind of a blank slate, personality and image-wise, until a few months ago.

She took out her own “for your consideration” ads in the trades, which breaks the unspoken rules that only a studio or agency does that for a client, and if it rubbed some people the wrong way, it didn’t hurt her when it came to the balloting. Because she was pitch perfect as the grizzly mama momager in “The Fighter.” Congratulations, Melissa! You deserve that Oscar—and you won fair and square.

And then there’s the f-word controversy during her acceptance speech, when she used the expletive in referring to two years ago when she lost the statuette to Kate Winslet. Come on, people (Nikki Finke) who are acting like this is such a horrifying thing that should get her banned from future work. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the wisest choice, but it seems like Bono got away with saying the f-bomb on national television in a moment of exuberance, so lay off our girl.

But that dress—ugh. Just horrible, from the brocade or crochet or whatever it was made of to the neckline to the sleeves. What was she thinking? What was her stylist thinking, if she had one?   Designed by Marc Bouwer, this has got to be the most unattractive Oscar gown in recent memory. This is something you would wear to your great aunt’s 80th birthday party at a Marriott in Topeka, not to the Academy Awards in Hollywood, when you’re a frontrunner for the trophy. Melissa Leo, you’re a lightning rod right now, but more power to you.

And then there’s fellow nominee Jennifer Lawrence, who never had a shot of winning but had the eyes of the world upon her, for the first time. OK, we get that you have a hot body, honey, but that plain red dress just didn’t make the mark. It reminded some of beachwear and truly needed some flourishes to rise to the level of the occasion.

Another lady in red, or orangey-red, songstress Jennifer Hudson is scoring kudos for her svelte after-baby body—and the gown. But to my eyes, her breasts looked weird popping out. The opening should have been narrower to minimize that somewhat strange effect, a la Gwynneth Paltrow’s vertical cleavage slit in her gorgeous silvery, shimmery Calvin Klein. Tasteful, beautiful, stunning. And our favorite gown of the evening. Gwynneth has gone wrong before—think back to the goth look she sported once and her ill-fitting gown when she won the Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love,” but this was a winner.

Others also scored fashion gold. Best actress winner Natalie Portman was a purple swan. She couldn’t have looked more beautiful in her off the shoulder Rodarte gown set off with Tiffany tassel earrings that picked up the lovely hue of her pregnant-perfect gown.  

A similar shade was worn by Scarlett Johansson, whose messy hair sort of ruined the effect. The magenta lace dress might have looked better with a sleek ‘do that complemented the high neckline. Mila Kunis in a lavender lace and ruffled number by Elie Saab—although reminiscent of his red see-through gown Halle Berry wore to the Costume Designers Guild Awards earlier in the week,  looked lovely and fresh in that feminine hue. Berry also scored again, looking dreamy in her perfectly form fitting, nude crystal-encrusted Marchesa gown.

Oscar dreams are made of this.   

For more Oscar photos:

TAR’s Oscar Contest Open Until Midnight, and Some Predictions for Tonight!

The 83rd annual Academy Awards are just hours away, and we were able to see some of the rehearsals at the Kodak last night–so here are just a few predictions as we get ready for the evening. Anne Hathaway will stun with her many gown changes and hosting exuberance. James Franco won’t generate much excitement. Billy Crystal will make a surprise appearance. Florence (of the Machine) will generate even more buzz by performing one of hte nominated songs.

As for the contests, if you believe the people who make it their business to pick the winners (um, look at how well they did with the Grammys) the big races are pretty much locked. “The King’s Speech” for Best Picture. Colin Firth for being King George VI. Natalie Portman for naive/obsessive/crazy ballerina Nina in “Black Swan.”  Aaron Sorkin for writing “The Social Network.”

But it wouldn’t be Oscar night if there weren’t some major surprises in the works. Take the supporting actor and actress categories, please. There is some major drama underfoot that will only be revealed when the envelopes are opened.  Christian Bale is the frontrunner for his brilliant turn as Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter,” but the equally brilliant but understated Geoffrey Rush could sweep in if “King” rules the night for the hearts and minds of Academy voters, many of whom have been members since well before Bale was born.

And that’s just why we think “King” will reign over the landmark generational film “The Social Network.” Just two years ago, and for decades previously, there were only five contenders for the BP throne. If it were thus now, “Winter’s Bone,” “127 Hours,” “Toy Story 3″ and “Black Swan” wouldn’t have made the cut.

In the supporting actress field, it’s a shame, but the splendid Melissa Leo (the grizzly mama in “The Fighter”) may have done herself a disservice by taking out her own “for your consideration” ads in the trades. That may not sit well with voters–and could leave room for Amy Adams, Hailee Steinfeld or even Helena Bonham Carter to ascend to the podium. Sorry Jacki Weaver, no one saw “Animal Kingdom.” You’re staying in your seat at the Kodak.

Were these people robbed? Julianne Moore for “The Kids Are All Right”–she was the perfect partner for Annette Bening, who could still walk away with the Best Actress statuette if Portman isn’t a lock–and for supporting actor contender Mark Ruffalo. And then there’s Ryan Gosling in “Blue Valentine”–the other half of the breaking-apart couple with Michelle Williams, whom voters thought worthy of a nom for best actress. There are more…

Enter TAR's Academy Awards contest for a chance to win a pound of Terry's Oscar Toffee

Tell us your thoughts about this year’s Oscar races. Leave a comment here and be entered to win a delicious prize: a pound of chocolate Oscar goodies from Terry’s Toffee — sent to Oscar nominees and available at the Kodak Theatre for them to indulge their sweet tooths.

Your award-winning mix will include McCall’s Classic Toffee, Cran-Orange Passion, Peanut Butter Chocolate and Chai-cago Spice. Entry cutoff is midnight Pacific/3 a.m. Eastern. Winner will be randomly selected by drawing and notified on Monday, February 28.