Love him or hate him, Neil Patrick Harris proved to be one of the hardest-working hosts in Oscar history on Sunday night, singing, dancing and even sprinting in his underpants onto the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. But the 41-year-old Broadway and television star also confronted a major elephant in the room, opening the show with a fleeting but pointed jab at the homogenous field of Oscar nominees.

“Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry, brightest,” Harris enthusiastically dead-panned to hearty laughter that seemed to break the usual pre-show jitters among the movie royalty packing the auditorium for the 87th Academy Awards.

The opening joke was a reference to the criticism Oscar voters faced this year for failing to nominate a single performer of colour in any of the acting categories for the first time in many years, including David Oyelowo, the critically acclaimed star of the civil rights drama Selma.

It was the first of several politically charged moments of the night. Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras hailed National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden as a hero as she accepted the Oscar for Best Documentary. “When the most important decisions being made affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control,” she said.

Her speech was quickly followed with a biting counterpoint, and play on words, from Harris: “The subject of Citizenfour, Edward Snowden, could not be here for some treason.”

Early reviews of the live telecast, which ran 40 minutes beyond its three-hour schedule, were mixed. First time Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris faced a tough act to follow after Ellen DeGeneres’ turn last year, which included the celebrity selfie retweeted millions of times. 

Variety credited Harris with getting the show off to a buoyant opening but faulted bad writing for what it described as a subsequent breakdown in the show. “First impressions suggest Harris is the right guy for what can admittedly be a rather thankless job,” said television critic Brian Lowry. But “too much clunky scripted material flummoxed even Harris’ impish, good-natured charms”, he added.

Variety also noted that Harris’ opening number “took clever advantage of talents he has showcased in stints emceeing the Tonys and Emmys”. Calling Harris “an old pro despite his boyish looks”, Lowry wrote that he brought “an infectious personality to the proceedings”.

The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley offered tepid kudos for Harris' zaniest stunt of the evening. In a comic homage to a memorable scene from Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman, Harris was followed on camera running from backstage onto the show’s main stage, dressed only in his white underpants, black shoes and socks, to introduce presenters of the sound-mixing award with the words: “Acting is a noble profession.” 

Among the funniest moments of the night was when Harris appeared on stage naked except for his underwear, at the end of a backstage skit mimicking a scene from Birdman. – Kevin Winter/Getty Images/AFP


Time magazine’s early online review said Harris seemed off his game, despite having “been pre-sold as an expert live host”. Harris was perhaps at his best showing off his chops as a song-and-dance man in the night’s opening musical number – a salute to movie magic that also marked a conscious effort to connect with tech-savvy younger television viewers.

“Check out the glamour, and glitter/ people tweeting on the Twitter / and no one’s drunk and bitter yet/ because no one has lost,” sang Harris, who previously has won three Emmys for hosting Broadway’s Tony Awards.

Meanwhile, turning one of last year’s great Oscar faux pas into one of this year’s more comical interludes, John Travolta returned to the stage as a presenter with Idina Menzel, whose name he mangled at the 86th Oscars show when he called her “Adele Dazeem”. Menzel introduced him as “Glom Gazingo”.

“I deserve that,” Travolta said, and went out of his way to pronounce her name correctly this time, then rather sheepishly stood aside to leave Menzel the task of pronouncing the names of the Best Original Song nominees.

Harris also took a dig at Travolta, joking that Benedict Cumberbatch is how the Pulp Fiction star would pronounce Ben Affleck. – Reuters; AFP