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Oscar ratings: Billy Crystal's return can't overcome big night for art flicks

Billy Crystal returning to the Academy Awards didn't cure the show's faltering appeal to television viewers. But he did outdraw last year's fiasco hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway.

According to survey results released Monday by the Nielsen Co., Sunday's Oscars broadcast attracted 39.3 million U.S. viewers — about 600,000 fewer than the Grammy audience two weeks ago.

Never before had the Oscars attracted fewer than 40 million viewers with Crystal hosting.

Last year's show with co-hosts Franco and Hathaway attracted an estimated 37.6 million viewers.

Of course, whoever hosts the Oscars isn't the only factor in attracting viewers. More important is the popularity of the nominated movies. It's no accident that the ceremony's best viewership (55.2 million) occurred in 1998 when Titanic won 11 Oscars — on its way to becoming the highest grossing film ever at the time.

Sunday's numbers and circumstances are comparable to 1997, when Crystal presided over a show featuring one box office hit — Jerry Maguire — and four art house films (Shine, Secrets and Lies, Fargo and the eventual winner, The English Patient). That year, the show was watched by an estimated 40.8 million viewers.

The 2008 Oscars, when the polarizing No Country for Old Men won best picture (and Jon Stewart hosted), set a modern record low of 32 million viewers.

All of which leads to the next after-Oscars thought:

AT LEAST IT WASN'T 'THE TREE OF LIFE' — Once again, the best picture Oscar choice leaves the academy open to complaints of being out of touch with popular tastes.

Early Monday The Artist passed the $32 million mark in domestic box office receipts, making it the second-lowest grossing best picture Oscar winner of modern times, ahead of 2009's The Hurt Locker ($17 million).

Combine the domestic box office takes of The Artist, The Iron Lady and Beginners — winners of five of the six major Oscars — plus Hugo, which had five wins. They add up to $132.8 million, collectively trailing the $169.7 million raked in by The Help, starring best supporting actress Octavia Spencer.

PICKING NITSThe Artist is being called the first silent movie honored as best picture at the Oscars since Wings at the very first ceremony, in 1929. It has also been described in some corners as the first winner filmed in black and white since Schindler's List.

As best director Michel Hazanavicius, best actor Jean Dujardin or another Frenchman might say: au contraire.

The silent distinction still technically belongs to Wings alone, in my book. Only because several actors briefly speak during the finale of The Artist. I would argue the same if Mel Brooks' Silent Movie were named 1976's best picture, due to master mime Marcel Marceau's curt "Non!" — French for "No!" — that was the comedy's only spoken word.

And we should remember that Schindler's List included brief splashes of red in its palette, plus a full-color epilogue featuring real-life descendants of Holocaust survivors. Therefore, the most recent best picture winner before The Artist filmed entirely in black and white is Billy Wilder's 1960 romantic dramedy The Apartment.

Coincidentally, Hazanavicius thanked his idol Wilder three times during his best picture acceptance speech.

SEE THE WINNERS The Artist is still in theaters, and may expand to more screens to capitalize on its Oscars success. Hugo is being released today on DVD, while The Help and Beginners have been available on home video formats for weeks.

Each of the nominated live action, animated and documentary shorts are being shown in separate programs at Tampa Theatre. Visit the theater's website (tampatheatre.org) or call (813) 274-8982 for information.

Finally, after late shuffling by its distributor, the Oscar winner for best foreign language film — the Iranian drama A Separation — will open Friday exclusively at BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg.

.fast facts

Billy Crystal's years hosting the Academy Awards, how many U.S. viewers watched on TV, and the best picture winner that year:

1990: 40.3 million (Driving Miss Daisy)

1991: 42.7 million (Dances with Wolves)

1992: 44.4 million (The Silence of the Lambs)

1993: 45.7 million (Unforgiven)

1997: 40.0 million (The English Patient)

1998: 55.2 million (Titanic)

2000: 46.3 million (American Beauty)

2004: 43.5 million (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)

2012: 39.3 million (The Artist)

Oscar ratings: Billy Crystal's return can't overcome big night for art flicks 02/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 27, 2012 7:30pm]

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