MARCH 02: Host Ellen DeGeneres speaks onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
(USATODAY.com) - Second time's a charm.
It was the second time hosting the Academy Awardsfor Ellen DeGeneres, whose first stint as host in 2007 was one of the decade's best. It was the second time producing for Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who had a slightly bumpy start last year thanks to an off-key hosting job by Seth MacFarlane.
STORY: '12 Years a Slave,' Blanchett win at Oscars
And there's the lesson. Choose a better host, you get a better show. Choose a really good host, as DeGeneres proved to be Sunday, and you get the best Oscar broadcast since, well, the last time she hosted.
DeGeneres's task was not an easy one: An Oscar host has to entertain viewers at home, many of whom want to see stars mocked - along with the actors in the hall - most of whom don't want to be mocked. Go too far pleasing one side, and you lose the other.
That's a tough balancing act, but DeGeneres has mastered it. The key is that she both exudes and creates goodwill. The crowd stays with her because they know that while jabs will be thrown, no blood will be drawn. (Well, almost none - the "Good job, sir" joke about mistaking Liza Minnelli for a female impersonator had to sting a little.)
As has become tradition, she got the show started and then mostly got out of the way, popping back in for introductions and a few bits in the audience. Not every joke worked, but none were appalling. And just when you thought she had gone to the audience well once too often, she did a great "selfie" bit with Meryl Streep and a crowd of other actors that seemed to spread infectious delight through the room.
It helped the evening's entertainment that for once, the nominated songs were both worth singing and, outside of a few stray notes, well sung. (Including one by Idina Menzel, and not "Adele Manzee," or whatever name John Travolta butchered his way through.) And were that not enough, you also had Bette Midler making her Oscar singing debut with Wing Beneath My Wings, and crying at the standing ovation that followed.
No matter how talented the host, of course, or how skilled the producers, some Oscar problems remain intractable. It's always going to be slow at the start (in part because it isn't in ABC's interest to rush), lag in the middle, and then scurry to the end.
At least this year, it did so with a light but respectful tone, and a consistently appealing host.
If we could do that a third time, that would be great.