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Oscar should bring back the kitsch of yesteryear

You needed Sacha Baron Cohen on the E! network. Billy Crystal just wasn't quite enough this year as the official Oscar gagmaker on ABC. In fact, in his ninth time as Oscar host, he seemed to have actually become the 21st century Bob Hope.

Cohen's wretched, tasteless japery and shameless self-promotion for his upcoming movie "The Dictator" may have been exactly what the 84th annual Academy Awards desperately needed to keep the event from drowning in Sunday propriety, good taste and inconsequentiality.

Cohen arrived in character on the red carpet so many of us have come to dread and carried what he claimed was an urn containing the ashes of Kim Jong Il, his "friend and tennis partner." It was, said "The Dictator" quoting Kim, "my dream to come to the Oscars and be sprinkled over the red carpet and Halle Berry's chest."

"Who are you wearing?" asked Ryan Seacrest.

"I'm wearing John Galliano," Cohen/dictator replied, "but the socks are from Kmart. As Saddam Hussein once said to me, socks are socks. Don't waste money."

When Cohen spilled some of his ashes on Seacrest's tux, it was, he said perfect in case anyone asked Seacrest who he was wearing. "Now when people ask, you will say Kim Jong Il."

For all that, I didn't find Cohen in nearly as awful taste as the finale of Crystal's song medley where he spoofed "The Help" to the tune of "Birth of the Blues." (Who wrote that? Martin Short as the old songwriter on "Saturday Night Live" who used to say "give me a C, give a bouncy C?")

Anyone who understandably found Cohen hopelessly juvenile and piggish to no small degree in a skimpy "bikini," being lowered upside down into Eminem's lap on the MTV movie awards, giving the surly Detroit rapper the most pungent up-close-and-personal view in award show history? (Eminem pretended to storm off but admitted later he was in on the gag. Don't tell me the kid is no trouper.)

Who, for that matter, can forget Cohen, in character as Borat, arriving for the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film in a cart pulled by women purporting to be Khazistani peasants?

Now it can be told: I don't know about you but I dreaded this year's Oscars as I have few others.

The show is in trouble. Deep trouble. As the number of award shows has multiplied exponentially and as the Oscars themselves have become so much smarter, more predictable and less kitschy over the years, the nominated films have gotten smaller and smaller (and often better and better) until this year's best picture winner, "The Artist," was -- despite its excellence and heartwarming movie love so tiny that you could fit it into the brain of most current presidential hopefuls and still have enough room left over for two sesame seeds and Dick Cheney's heart (a shout-out to the ghost of Fred Allen for being able to steal a classic old radio gag).

Frankly, I couldn't even bring myself to predict "The Artist" to win best film score because of its thievery from Bernard Herrman's score for Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

So what we're watching hyped to the gills -- is a massive, bloated, over-hyped community self-celebration honoring movies that couldn't possibly please more than large niche audiences.

In other words, it was virtually guaranteed to be a walloping disappointment.

When both "The Artist" and Woody Allen's travelogue of Paris and joking Dummies' Guide to Modernism "Midnight in Paris" began to loom large at this year's Oscars weeks ago, it was obvious that bad taste by the gallon might be the only thing to get us through the evening alive and truly happy.

Nor did it help the cause of keeping it real when eternally sophomoric director Bret Ratner was ashcanned as Oscar-meister last year for telling the world that "rehearsal is for fags," virtually forcing Eddie Murphy to walk out with him.

Yes, it was grand that Crystal waded in to take Murphy's place.

But that didn't make the show intrinsically any bigger. Or spicier.

Me? I'd have pleaded with Murphy to give the sure thing Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Christopher Plummer for playing a gay man who finally comes out of the closet at age 75 in "Beginners."

How about Sylvester Stallone and Miley Cyrus giving the award for original screenplay?

We needed the resolute kitsch of yore.

Funnier, frankly than anything Crystal said all night was the "Hugo" sound editor who thanked everyone "who's ever been born ... And if you haven't, you know who you are."

It's not that Crystal was a total loss, of course, in the early part of the evening. That's not possible. He did come up with a good line about aged supporting actor nominees Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow.

"We're going to slam the 72- to 84-year old demographic ... Next year, they're going to call this the Flomax Theater."

(In Crystal's early film montage, Justin Bieber leaned out of a cab in a parody of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and said, "I'm here to get you the 18-to-24 demographic.")

And, of course, Chris Rock was funny presenting "Rango" with the Oscar for Best Animated Film.

But the trouble with the evening is getting to be this. As Kim Jong Il might have told Cohen's "The Dictator," they might as well start thinking about getting the show at Kmart, along with the dictator's socks.

"Don't waste money."

Or, heaven help us, our time either.

And how did Jeff do with his Oscar picks? Out of 13 predictions, eight came up winners, including best picture, director, supporting actor and actress, adapted screenplay, art direction, animated film and foreign language film.