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BEST THING ABOUT TV OSCARCAST WAS LETTERMAN'S BITING HUMOR

David Letterman was a box full of chocolates on an Oscar night that was empty of much emotion until the expected "Forrest Gump" sweep in the final 15 minutes.

Because just everything else Monday night was so predictable, it's no surprise that the best thing about the night was Letterman.

Oh, his timing seemed a little off in his opening monologue, he told a few too many jokes about Janet Reno, and his Top 10 list wasn't award-winning.

But Letterman's opening monologue jokes about Newt Gingrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the new DreamWorks studio hit the mark.

Of the DreamWorks studio founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Letterman cracked: "Now instead of hoping they're not successful individually, you can hope they're not successful together."

It captured the back-stabbing world of entertainment perfectly. Letterman almost always seemed to hit the proper note, whether he was poking fun at activist presenters Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins or at the producers of the Oscar show, who kept on cutting off winners before they were through talking.

"I finally figured out, if you win you keep talking until the music starts," cracked Letterman.

The most talked-about moment at water coolers today probably was Letterman's dragging of Tom Hanks on stage to roll out a carpet for a dog act. It was as if to tell his buddy Hanks, "Hey, big shot, you're going to be named Best Actor (for 'Forrest Gump') again, but don't let it go to your head."

And then, of course, there were Letterman's filmed pieces. He interviewed some taxi drivers about the movies and showed a number of actors who supposedly "auditioned" for the brief role Letterman had in the movie "Cabin Boy."

The low-cost pieces were far more entertaining than most of the old comedic clips shown out of context throughout the show.

If anything, Letterman wasn't used often enough. The show too often dragged when he wasn't around to poke fun at the proceedings.

Whether Academy president Arthur Hiller was giving the now-obligatory awards speech to support the National Endowment for the Arts or a costume designer wore a foolish-looking outfit, viewers probably couldn't wait for Letterman's take on the pontificating and silliness.

It certainly beat waiting for the performers who sang the nominated songs. The performances served no purpose other than to promote the soundtrack for "The Lion King." There weren't many mistakes in the show, though the two winners who tied in the live-action short film category were misidentified.

Now let's look at a Top 10 list of memorable moments during ABC's coverage of the Oscar show:

No. 10: Channel 7's decision to carry endless news promos during the show, including some at 12:15 a.m. right before the end of the 3 1/2 -hour show. The station must be worried about its February sweeps ratings. If I saw Irv Weinstein praise Keith Radford one more time, I would have gagged.

No. 9: A commercial for American Express ran a few minutes after the winner in the costume design category came out in an outfit made up of several American Express gold cards. Perhaps she's related to Andy Warhol.

No. 8: John Toll, winner of the cinematography award for "Legends of the Fall," wisely saved Paul Newman by naming all the other cinematographers whom the actor forget to name before giving out the award.

No. 7: The high-tech opening number to the song "Make 'Em Laugh" was a cluttered mess that got the show off to a slow start.

No. 6: Speeches by Hiller and winners Martin Landau and Quincy Jones in support of the NEA, which was the third-biggest winner on the night next to "Forrest Gump" and the American Express card.

No. 5: Presenter Annette Bening's dress, loaded with jewels, was the closest thing to anything outrageous in the wardrobe category. Even Sharon Stone dressed conservatively.

No. 4: Presenter Steve Martin's dig at Hiller's boring speech, which prompted some boos from the audience.

No. 3: The cutting off of Landau before he finished his speech, perhaps because he thanked even a journalist.

No. 2: A moving piece on actors and executives who died last season was partially ruined by the applause that greeted some of their faces but not all. A polite crowd would have waited until the end to applaud everybody.

No. 1: For the second straight year, Hanks' tearful acceptance speech. He thanked his wife and got philosophical, but wasn't quite as rambling this time as he was after winning for "Philadelphia" last year.

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