And the Oscar Goes to … Steve Martin (and the Viewing Public)

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Who other than Steve Martin would open a comedic monologue with a comparison of the famed Oscar statue and the Taliban-annihilated Buddhas of Bamiyan?

The year was 2001 — before the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing U.S. incursion in Afghanistan — and Martin was hosting his first Academy Awards telecast. “We live in a great country,” Martin said, pointing to the tall, gold Oscar behind him. “If this statue were in Afghanistan, it would be destroyed by now,” a reference to the Islamic regime’s decision that month to demolish the Buddhist artifacts they deemed idolatrous.

It was an example of how Martin — playwright of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and star of “Cheaper by the Dozen” — is able to blend high art and low culture. In doing so, he’s the consummate host for the glitzy, often pompous, occasionally stirring Academy Awards, able to cut through the pretension of the evening with his bone-dry, self-aware humor.

Several hosts in the past 20 years have had their high points — say, Chris Rock, Ellen Degeneres and Jon Stewart — but Martin’s two gigs (his next was in 2003) proved that if the hosts themselves were up for a trophy, he’d be having his Sally Field moment at the podium. Hugh Jackman, an epic miscalculation to oversee this year’s show, would have taken the trophy for worst performance.

In fact, it was Martin who livened up this year’s dull proceedings, presenting the screenplay awards with Tina Fey. It was an ingenious pairing — Fey and Martin can both deliver a joke as well as they can write it. Fey was the head writer for several years on “Saturday Night Live” while Martin has blessed us with everything from his “Bowfinger” screenplay to witty musings in The New Yorker. Handing out awards to other notable Hollywood scripters, they showed why good writing makes all the difference. Martin’s homage to the alien king Rondelay was a winning kick at certain celebrity religions while his pause to admonish Fey not to fall in love with him was a brilliant attack on Hollywood’s legacy of vanity and narcissism.

The delightful exchange made me wonder: Why aren’t these two hosting? The producers of next year’s show might have thought the same thing. It was announced last week that Martin will be teaming up with Fey’s “30 Rock” co-star, Alec Baldwin. While I’d rather see Fey on stage again, I’m hoping Baldwin — who earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for 2003’s “The Cooler” and, like Martin, is a regular host of “SNL” — will offer the same kind of straight-man support for Martin’s inspired absurdism.

The thing I like best about Martin is he doesn’t pander (except in his paycheck movies, of course). His jokes can be very smart and risk going over the head of some audience members. After all, you have to pay attention to the news to get jokes such as the one about the Buddha statues.

Here are some of my other favorite Oscar lines from Martin:

On movie violence: “I took a 9-year-old kid to see ‘Gladiator’ and he cried through the entire film. Now, maybe it was because he didn’t know who I was.”

On the writing process: “I handed in a script last year and the studio didn’t change one word. The word they didn’t change was on page 87.”

On Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated film: “‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ sounds like something Siegfried and Roy does on vacation.”

On Bjork’s gaudy swan dress: “I was going to wear my swan, but they’re so last year.”

On aging: “Kate Hudson is 21. I love welcoming young stars to show business, because it reminds me of my own death.”

On Hollywood egotism: “Please hold your applause until it’s for me.”

I’m sure there will be plenty come March 7 when he and Baldwin take the stage. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise in March.

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