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Oscarcast: Big, long and uncut

NEW YORK -- Inflation continues to plague the Oscarcast.

"The 72nd Annual Academy Awards," which ABC aired live from Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium Sunday night, ran a record-long four hours, eight minutes, by unofficial count, beating the four hours, five minutes of last year's Oscarcast.What happened to those pledges that the so-called "2000 Oscars" show would be shorter, not longer? And who among us believed them?

Sure, the program was sleek, classy and as carefully engineered as Julia Roberts' new cleavage. So, with everything apparently on automatic pilot, why can't the show come in on time?

Nothing in particular gummed up the works, although no viewer would have missed the Burt Bacharach-led medley of past Oscar-winning songs.

Billy Crystal did his usual smooth job as host (his seventh turn), and seemed to pop up more often than in past Oscarcasts. His jovial wisecracks were usefully interlaced through the evening, enlivening the clackety-clack efficiency of the business at hand.

Of course, he stole the first half-hour, which remained the show's high point.

For his signature prepared sequence, Crystal was digitally inserted into a series of classic films. At one point he sought counsel from Don Corleone in "The Godfather." At another, he sang the lead in a number from "West Side Story": "Tonight, tonight, there'll be no dance tonight, and yet this show will still run too long."

(Can't say we weren't warned.)

Then came musical tributes to Oscar nominees. Crystal filched the tune of "Mame" to serenade supporting actor contender Michael Caine: "How many movies can one actor make? Caine! He'll make one in the next station break! Caine!"

Later, when Caine was named winner for his performance in "The Cider House Rules," he offered perhaps the night's standout acceptance remarks.

The veteran actor not only humbly, graciously saluted his co-nominees, but, as the grand old man in this circle, he effectively blessed each of them. It was a moment striking in its purity.

One smart innovation from producers Richard Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck: The five nominated songs were polished off deftly, back to back. These culminated with Robin Williams delivering the saucy "Blame Canada" (from "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut"), complete with a kickline of leggy female "Canadian Mounties."

The stage setting for the Oscarcast was handsome, with pillars that could display graphic information, a flashing disco-like floor (borrowed, Crystal joked, from "Soul Train"), and a video wall in the background that accommodated multiple images like a computer desktop.

Prime topics of mirth for the evening: those 55 waylaid Oscar statuettes recovered by Willie Fulgear, the world's most famous junk man, and the imminent labor of pregnant best-actress nominee Annette Bening.

But during the long, long evening, viewers saw nothing embarrassing, silly or untoward to chortle about the next day.

Presenters read their scripted lines and got off. Winners expressed their grateful, not too extravagant thank-yous, and got off.

Behind his dark glasses, Jack Nicholson, introducing Irving G. Thalberg Award-winner Warren Beatty, seemed more doddering than rascally.

Even Cher, a presenter, conceded she had come dressed like a grown-up -- which, disappointingly, she had. She promised it wouldn't happen again. But on the Oscarcast, promises have a way of being broken.