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SURVIVING OSCAR'S 'TITANIC' JUGGERNAUT

As usual, Billy Crystal's opening was as good as it gets Monday, on an Oscar night that was so long, you wondered if "Titanic" director James Cameron was in charge of editing it.

As expected, it was a titanic evening: bloated, full of cliched dialogue, overbudgeted and with the feeling in the final hour that it might never end.

One felt as much a survivor as a viewer by the time "Titanic" won Best Picture at 12:40 a.m.

"You've really made this a night to remember in every way," concluded Cameron, whose most memorable moment came when he asked for 15 seconds of silence in tribute to those who died on the Titanic.

One didn't know whether to laugh or cry -- which is exactly how I felt when listening to Cameron's dialogue in "Titanic."

The best dialogue of the evening was provided by Crystal, who magically "appeared" in every nominated film before he started his musical salute to the nominees by comparing the "Titanic" plot to the classic sitcom "Gilligan's Island."

Crystal's voice seemed to be weaker than usual during the songs, but this is one sequel act that never grows tired. You didn't want his opening number -- which included a reprisal of his Sammy Davis Jr. imitation and his masquerading as Kim Basinger's call-girl character in "L.A. Confidential" -- to end.

Unfortunately, Crystal disappeared for far too long during the program in those interminable stretches in which editing and sound awards are given, and we had to wait for the six awards that really matter.

The night's unexpected highlight was the song-and-dance and speech by Stanley Donen, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for directing several classic musicals. It's rare that an old winner has such zest.

Donen's performance was a welcome interlude among the 11 "Titanic" victories and all the thank-yous to Cameron, which added 10 minutes to the program. Thankfully, acting awards weren't included in the "Titanic" sweep.

The acting winners were pleasant and deserving surprises, starting with Kim Basinger's ("L.A. Confidential") victory over sentimental favorite Gloria Stuart ("Titanic") for Best Supporting Actress.

By the time Helen Hunt won Best Actress at about 10:15 over Kate Winslet of "Titanic," it was clear that the shipwreck was mostly and properly being rewarded for its technical work and not its creativity.

Perhaps the most telling moment about "Titanic" came early, when a clip was shown to illustrate why it was nominated for Best Picture. Not one word of dialogue was spoken -- presumably because they didn't want viewers to gag on the cliches.

The scariest moment of the night -- other than the sight of Cher's headdress -- came at 11:25 when Crystal told us the show was running a little late.

At 11:40, a variety of memorable and tearful clips from past Oscar shows were shown, serving to remind us how little emotion was on display Monday. By then, I was hoping for some of the craziness exhibited in this year's Grammys.

Fortunately, 20 minutes later, young Ben Affleck and Matt Damon gave their enthusiastic acceptance speeches after surprisingly winning the screenplay award for "Good Will Hunting." If "As Good as It Gets" couldn't win that award, you knew "Titanic" was a lock as Best Picture.

Unfortunately, at 12:15 a.m., it was time to spend 10 minutes introducing 70 previous Oscar winners. Slowly. It was a class act that would have been appreciated more at, say, 9:45 p.m. But at 12:15? Oh well, at least they didn't introduce every extra on the "Titanic."

Without further ado, it's time for our Oscar Night awards.

Role Reversal: After winning the screenplay award, it was Affleck and not Damon (who played the smart guy) who did most of the talking. Presenter Jack Lemmon almost seemed as happy as both of them.

Rambling Man: Jack Nicholson, who gave a spirited speech after winning for his performance in "As Good as It Gets."

The Postman Delivers: Kevin Costner pulled a David Letterman and made fun of his latest movie failure in Crystal's opening.

King of the Hill: Cameron smartly borrowed Leonardo DiCaprio's "Titanic" line -- "I'm king of the world" -- after his movie won Best Picture.

Editing Mistake: Why is it that the Academy always seems to put itself in the embarrassing position of cutting off a winner who has made a film dealing with the Holocaust? The third man who tried to talk had his microphone cut off, but he refused to leave the stage and eventually had his audio restored for a moment.

Best Costume: Ashley Judd's white dress with a slit on the side allowed her to show her legs, which seemed to be as long as "Titanic."

The Monica Lewinsky Moment: Dustin Hoffman cracked a joke dealing with a sexual position and got a big laugh.

Jack Palance Award: To Donen, whose dance was every bit as enjoyable as Palance's decision to do push-ups years ago.

As Skinny as It Gets: Helen Hunt, who gave a classy speech after winning Best Actress on the day that NBC renewed her sitcom, "Mad About You."

Comic Relief: After winning as Best Supporting Actor for "Good Will Hunting," Robin Williams cracked, "This might be the one time I'm speechless." Then he quickly cracked jokes about his father and the "Good Will Hunting" boys and was smart enough to thank producer Harvey Weinstein.

Best Cinematography: When Williams won, the camera smartly focused on Crystal, his "Comic Relief" buddy.

Not at Her Best: Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts' competition in "My Best Friend's Wedding," sure looked washed out wearing white.

Monstrous Mistake: Not everything Crystal did worked. He went into the audience to introduce Fay Wray of "King Kong" fame in an awkward moment that probably had many viewers wondering if it was really Wray.

Best Song Idea: The decision to perform all five nominated songs in two sections was a time-saver. If only they had cut the dance that was performed to the nominated soundtracks, we might not be so tired today.

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