NEW YORK – Ellen DeGeneres can probably put anyone at ease. Even nominees for the biggest awards in show business.
"It's my job to relax you," she told them during her Oscarcast monologue. "To put your mind at ease and make you forget that this is a make-or-break night for you. I cannot imagine what you people are going through!" She smiled an even brighter smile. "You SHOULDN'T worry about that."
Teasing but unassuming, DeGeneres is always pleasant company, as she was Sunday night hosting "The 79th Annual Academy Awards" on ABC. Like her, the evening was easygoing, comfortable and reliably unsurprising.
That is, when it wasn't just dull.
Aiming to give due acclaim to all the nominees (wait a minute, wasn't this supposed to be an awards show?), the broadcast began with a film montage of the hopefuls.
Then the 177 nominees on hand at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre stood for applause from the rest of the house.
All very cordial.
The nomination process inspired the one joke in DeGeneres' monologue that was good for a hearty laugh.
She observed, "There's no rhyme or reason to who's gonna win," then went on to point out that Jennifer Hudson was voted off "American Idol" by viewers, "and yet she's here with an Oscar nomination."
Then DeGeneres turned to another nominee, Al Gore.
"America DID vote for him, and —" She flashed a bemused look while the audience roared with laughter and applauded. "Very complicated!"
Later, on stage, Gore thanked "all the talented people" in the movie industry "who've been part of the mission to inspire a successful response to the climate crisis," which was the focus of his film "An Inconvenient Truth."
Then, apparently warming to sidekick Leonardo DiCaprio's invitation to make "a major, major announcement," the former vice president produced a sheet of paper and seemed to be about to declare his candidacy for the 2008 presidential race — but was cut short by a swell of music. He was being played offstage by the orchestra.
He made another return trip to the stage with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim when "An Inconvenient Truth" was named best documentary.
"My fellow Americans," Gore began again, then stopped himself.
It was all a joke, of course. But the leisurely pace of the broadcast — three hours and 52 minutes — was no laughing matter.
The first major award — to Alan Arkin as best supporting actor in "Little Miss Sunshine" — wasn't presented until 9:22 p.m. Eastern. That was just six minutes before another eagerly anticipated honor was made public: The amateur commercial submitted by Lindsay Miller of Sherman Oaks, Calif., for Dove Cream Oil Body Wash had been chosen over two other finalists to air during the commercial break.
Film favorites Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly did a funny song-and-dance number lamenting that, as Ferrell crooned, "a comedian at the Oscars is the saddest man of all: Your movies may make millions, but your name they'll never call."
The 12-member modern-dance troupe Pilobolus was delightful in cameo appearances, seen in silhouette magically forming appropriate shapes — like the Oscar statuette, the van in "Little Miss Sunshine," and, omigosh, snakes on a plane!
During the evening, DeGeneres made humorous passes through the hall to speak to some of the luminaries, including soon-to-be-winner Martin Scorsese (to whom she gave a script she described as a cross between "Goodfellas" and "Big Momma's House") and Clint Eastwood (with whom she posed in a snapshot taken by nearby Steven Spielberg, for her to post, she said, on her MySpace page).
It was all very comfortable, but too often bordering on the dull, even dreary.
The Oscarcast almost ground to a halt during a back-and-forth session when film composer Ennio Morricone received a lifetime achievement Oscar and delivered his remarks in Italian, which presenter Clint Eastwood dutifully translated. It ate up three full minutes. It seemed so much longer.
One suggestion for making the Oscarcast seem livelier in the future: Use subtitles.
Or, please, just liven it up.