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RETRO, SMARMY, EGOMANIACAL, INCESTUOUS -- THE '98 OSCARS WAS ONE OF THE BEST EVER. Retro, smarmy, egomaniacal, incestuous -- The '98 Oscars was one of the best ever.

By Catherine Seipp

Published March 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Last night I dreamed I died and began floating up a long, richly carpeted aisle toward all my smiling friends from those Oscar spectacles of yesteryear. Why, look, it's Sacheen Littlefeather! And over there, Vanessa Redgrave is blathering about the Palestinians. And -- could it be? -- yes, it's my earliest Oscar memory ever: a teenage Michael Jackson singing "Ben," the best song nominee from, of course, "Ben," the sequel to that seminal sewer rat extravaganza, "Willard" ("Ben, the two of us need look no more").

And there at the top of the stairs is Leonardo DiCaprio, waiting to give me a great big kiss while Michael and Vanessa and Sacheen and the orchestra all applaud and beam their approval and --

Oh, uh, excuse me. Apparently about three and a quarter hours into last night's Academy Awards I dozed off and mixed up the grand finale of "Titanic" with what was really on TV at that point: "Oscar's Family Album," another procession of smiling, familiar faces from the past, featuring everyone from Anne Bancroft to Teresa Wright. I wasn't imagining Vanessa Redgrave, but instead of blathering about the Palestinians this time she just beamed benignly at her fellow "R," Luise Rainer.

Listen, I'm not complaining. The Oscars should run long. They should also be smarmy, vulgar, over the top, dripping with sentiment and show biz feel-goodism and the occasional, truly leaden missed attempt at humor. (Dustin Hoffman's pointlessly snickering innuendo about the meaning of the number "69" took care of that within, I believe, the first hour.)

Truly, I enjoyed "Oscar's Family Album," not least because it offered a nice counterpoint to the annual salute to passed-on movie folk. Instead of "Oh, that's right, he's dead," the thought inspired by this largest assemblage of Oscar-winning actors ever was a cheerier, "Gee, I didn't know he was still alive." It's just that when the Oscars go much past three hours -- and this one, of course, went way past -- a person can't be blamed for starting to hallucinate.

Still, the upbeat tone was refreshing. It's a happy thing when the life achievement award winner, Stanley Donen, not only didn't have one foot in the grave like so many life achievers, but was actually spry enough to perform a little tap dance. It's inspiring when the geezers in attendance aren't frail and pitiable but crankily vigorous. "It used to be much better organized," grumbled Charlton Heston to an interviewer during the melee of the arrivals. An ungracious moment, certainly, but also kind of a peppy one.

Last night I even warmed to Billy Crystal, whom I normally find a rather irritating and self-important host. The "Titanic" loogie-in-the-face in the opening montage won me over, even though the mucous-evoking image was so nauseating I had to close my eyes and think of beautiful fields of flowers for a few minutes to keep from throwing up.

I've always thoroughly enjoyed the Oscars. For one thing, they are that rare, special time when the whole stuffy concept of "Ms." stays home and "Miss" is allowed to come, in all its retro finery, to the ball ("Please welcome a great actress, Miss Meg Ryan!"). Crystal did, absurdly, refer at one point to the girls in the wings handing out the Oscar statues as "the -- (long, respectful pause) women." But more in the Oscars spirit was Alec Baldwin, who in introducing the "L.A. Confidential" best picture clip, informed us cozily, "the girl in the picture is kinda cute too."

When you watch them here in Los Angeles, as I always have, the Oscars make you feel like "this town" (to use the industry term) is your town. The awards bring people together. On Christmas friends and family call each other with season's greetings. On Oscars night, during the commercials or tedious song numbers, Hollywood folk call each other with -- well, last night, my friend and I had a long conversation about whether Kate Winslet was wearing shoulder pads or not, and if this was an attempt to make her shoulders seem wider than her hips.

This year felt even more small-towny than usual, since the outrage my daughter and all the other third-grade girls felt about "Titanic" heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio's unnominated status was enhanced by the fact that Leonardo is truly a local boy. At this point I know more about Leonardo's history here in the Los Feliz-Silverlake area than I'd ever hoped to ("He shops for groceries at Lucky's!" "One of the teachers at school used to baby-sit him!" "When he visits his mom, sometimes they go to Lucky's together!").

So last night's Oscars were colored by my daughter's sulky We Wuz Robbed attitude whenever "Titanic" didn't win something. "She shouldn't keep saying 'um,'" was her only comment on Helen Hunt's rather gracious best actress acceptance speech. Never mind. I'm sure some 30 years from now she'll remember all this with the rosy nostalgia I feel for Michael Jackson and "Ben."

But to return, as we must, to "Titanic": Even if it didn't, as some observers had wagered, beat "Ben Hur's" Oscar record, its record-tying 11 Academy Awards still made last night an almost thoroughly "Titanic" evening. Which was fine with me, because I was looking forward to seeing James Cameron's rampant egomania in all its splendor and wasn't disappointed. (Also, a plus was that the director did indeed keep his promise to thank my old pal Rod Lurie.)

James Cameron Rampant Egomania Moment No. 1 came when he won the best film editing award. "Honey," he said to his 5-year-old daughter watching at home, as he waggled the statuette at the camera, "this is the thing I was talking about. It's called an Oscar, and it's really cool to get." A neat touch, that -- puffed-up pride sugarcoated in a public display of preciousness.

James Cameron Rampant Egomania Moment No. 2, during the best director acceptance speech, took a while to develop. Several moments of gracious thanks all around -- I began worriedly looking at my watch -- and then (yes!) here it came, that full-throated shout: "I'M KING OF THE WORLD!" Only if he'd said, "I'M KING OF THE WORLD, MA," would the moment have been more perfect.

James Cameron Rampant Egomania Moment No. 3 was perhaps the most in keeping with the true spirit of the Oscars. Almost four hours had passed, the longest awards ceremony within recent memory, yet Cameron had the nerve to extend it even more with a few moments of silence for the Titanic dead. (Oh yeah -- them.) Only the most unfeeling, hardened wretches would resent going along with this -- but come on, it was quarter to 10 already.

Well, Academy Awards producer Gil Cates resisted his probable temptation to yank Cameron off the stage with a hook and everyone was dutifully silent. Until, of course, the director ended it with that traditional benediction at the end of such prayerful moments: "NOW LET'S PARTY TILL DAWN!"

Can you blame me if I consider last night one of the best Oscars ever?

Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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