By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Making a comeback as Oscar host after an eight-year absence, comedian Billy Crystal poked fun on Sunday night at his own reluctance to return and paid light-hearted tribute to leading nominees for the 84th annual Academy Awards.
In his ninth appearance as master of ceremonies, Crystal, 63, did his best to keep the live broadcast moving with a mix of one-liners, song and the kind of comic set pieces that have enshrined him as one of the most beloved of Oscar emcees.
But early reviews were mostly negative, with a number of critics panning the ABC broadcast and Crystal's performance as dull.
The Washington Post said Crystal "seemed to be overseeing a cruise ship dinner show designed to appeal to the over-50 travel club." The Hollywood Reporter's review ran under the headline: "Oscars Become Badly Paced Bore-fest." And Daily Variety's critic wrote that "Oscar unabashedly showed its age."
The New York Daily News, however, gave Crystal a thumbs-up, saying he "recaptured smartly the formula that worked for him in the past: quick-hit opening monologue, a song-and-dance number, then a sprinkling of jobs that had an edge but never drew blood."
With a formal introduction by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who set the tone for a traditional salute to the "magic of the movies," the show opened with one of Crystal's signature film montages, inserting the comedian into footage from the year's biggest pictures.
For the very first clip, from a scene in the silent-film homage "The Artist," Crystal was seen strapped into a chair while evil scientists send bolts of electricity into his head, and he shouts, in subtitled dialogue - "I won't host it, I won't host it, I tell ya."
In a scene from "The Descendants," and one of the clips that drew the biggest laughs, George Clooney bends over Crystal, lying in a hospital bed, and kisses him, telling him softly, "Wake up. We're all ready for you to come home where you belong."
As Crystal's eyes flutter open, Clooney implores, "You have to do it, Billy. The academy's got you the youngest, hippest writers."
"This is my ninth time ... hosting the Oscars," Crystal declared to warm applause from the star-studded audience in the theater formerly named for the now-bankrupt Kodak film company.
"We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater to celebrate a tradition that not only creates memories for the ages but also breeds resentments that last a lifetime," he dead-panned.
"The movies have always been there for us. They're the place to go to laugh, to cry, to question, to text," he continued. "So tonight, enjoy yourselves because nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues."
Crystal reprised another of his favorite Oscar shticks with a routine in which he imagines what stars in the theater are probably thinking as the camera pans in for a close-up.
He started with Brad Pitt, the father of six children, three of them adopted, with actress Angelina Jolie: "This better not go too late. I have six parent-teacher conferences in the morning."
Jolie herself drew a bit of unscripted attention for the pose she struck as a presenter, cocking her hip to thrust her right leg through the thigh-high slit of her long, black dress.
One of the three winning screenwriters, Jim Rash, returned the gesture by sticking out his own trousered leg after taking the stage to accept the Oscar, though he insisted afterward that he was not trying to mock the actress.
In a more somber moment, Crystal paid tribute to the late Gil Cates, a veteran Oscar show producer and six-time collaborator as he introduced a remembrance of Hollywood luminaries who died during the past year.
The montage of photos and audio clips was played to an ethereal performance of "What a Wonderful World," sung live by Grammy-winning vocalist Esperanza Spalding.
MURPHY OUT, CRYSTAL IN
Crystal, who last presided over the Oscars in 2004, was recruited for a comeback after the original host-designate of this year's show, fellow comic-actor Eddie Murphy, withdrew in November in the furor surrounding a gay slur uttered by producer Brett Ratner at a screening of a movie that starred Murphy.
Ratner stepped down as producer of the Oscars, and Murphy followed suit the next day.
Crystal first hosted the Oscars in 1990 when the awards program was still topping a U.S. average of 40 million viewers, making it the second-most watched TV program annually behind the Super Bowl.
But viewership of the Oscar telecast has fallen below the 40 million mark in five of the past six years, rising above that benchmark in 2010 when 3D adventure "Avatar" was among the most nominated movies.
After last year's attempt by producers to draw a younger audience with a show hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway fell flat with critics and the ratings, organizers this year appeared to be going for a return of comfort and predictability with Crystal.
But producers, and Crystal himself, obviously remained very much aware of young viewers, as they demonstrated in a parody clip from the Woody Allen-directed film "Midnight in Paris," in which Crystal appeared with Canadian teen idol Justin Bieber.
"I'm here to get you the 18-to-24 demographic," Bieber says. "So how long do you want me to stay here for?"
"A couple of seconds, I think, will do it," Crystal replies.
Still, a number of television critics suggested that Franco and Hathaway's widely panned performance as co-hosts last year looked better after Sunday night's show.
(Editing by Sandra Maler and Jill Serjeant)