A CHILLY RAIN FELL off and on, so the red carpet had been tented. Nerves were still frayed from the writers' strike just ended. Panic had begun setting in about an actors' strike that may be on the way. Few in America or the world had seen the nominated pics and performances. There was no suspense, because Hollywood had long ago guessed who and what would probably win the major categories. The vast majority of the presenters were just TV stars. And Jon Stewart couldn't really find anything funny to say while hosting.

So, all in all, it was The Worst Oscars Ever in the History of Hollywood. The 80th Academy Awards was the lowest-rated, not helped by Fox Sports showing the rain-postponed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series-Auto Club 550 race in Fontana that was just about to reach Lap 20 (of 300) when the show started. Guess which one Middle America would rather watch. How telling that, even internationally, BBC Radio did a call-in show about the Oscars and no one phoned. Certainly, Hollywood interest was at its lowest point in recent memory. That's because this was really the 11th-hour Oscars — almost picketed by the striking writers, then put together after the sudden and unexpected settlement with only 13 days of major preparations instead of the usual months and months. And even though this year's awards ceremony was shorter than most, it felt like 11 hours. Really, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences needs a total face-lift, not just Botox.

ABC dramatically lowered expectations about the night's TV ratings to advertisers. No wonder. I was told not to expect much in the way of an opening. I was told right. Gil Cates, who should be fired for doing the Oscars so badly for 14 years, tried to shoot the usual film montage of the Oscar host in comedic situations with various movie stars. But it proved too hard to write, cast, book, shoot and edit in two weeks.

Jon Stewart's monologue was better than the last time he hosted the show. Which isn't saying much. At least, it was mercifully shorter. Problem is, halfway through this year's standup, he must have thought he was doing The Daily Show instead of the Academy Awards. It was obvious that the Hollywood audience grew nervous when he launched into one political joke after another. The VIPs didn't laugh as much as politely titter. “Uh-oh,” many of them clearly were thinking as Stewart ventured into the Danger Zone.

Stewart noted that Hollywood's Iraq-war-themed movies in 2007 “did not go as well as hoped. Let's face it. I tell you, if we stay the course and keep these movies in the theaters, even if they have to stay there 100 years … we cannot let the audience win.” Nervous titters, since Stewart was using the same phrase as presumptive GOP candidate John McCain, in what amounted to a diss. “Uh-oh,” people were thinking.

Stewart then made fun of Hollywood liberals without actually calling them Hollywood liberals. “Have you had a chance to study and pick the Democrat you'll vote for?” he asked the audience. Nervous titters.

About Hillary vs. Obama, Jon quipped, more successfully, “Normally, when you see a black man or woman as president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.” But then he may have gone too far by noting that Hussein is Obama's middle name and his last name rhymes with Osama — as if it were necessary for the Oscars audience of 30-plus million people watching to know that — and wondering how the last presidential candidate, “Gaydolf Titler,” did in the general election. “Uh-oh.”

During the rest of the show, Stewart's inability to ad-lib was glaring. I could give him a pass by saying he was rusty from having sat out during the writers' strike, but Jon crossed the picket line. I can't even say the ad-libs written for him were really bad, because most of the time he just stood there uncomfortably, searching for a few words to say.

George Clooney, who had so much product in his slicked-down hair that he looked like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, was fawned over and fussed over more than Jack Nicholson. And to an embarrassing degree on the red carpet today, Regis Philbin slobbered to Clooney about how everybody wants to be him and how he's the new Cary Grant. Clooney deadpanned that Grant is dead. Here's a guy who can't open a movie by himself, yet Clooneymania is now giving Obama-mania a run for its fainting spells.

The other presenters and performers should have come with Chyron explanations of who they are, like Miley Cyrus, not a household name to anyone over the age of 13. The Big Names couldn't be bothered to get it together in just two weeks to show up inside the Kodak Theatre instead of outside on a picket line.

So the show recorded the lousiest Nielsens ever. Only 32 million people watched the 80th Academy Awards, less even than the 38.9 million viewers on Jon Stewart's watch in 2006, less than the 39.9 million drawn by 2007's Ellen DeGeneres. Compare those to the 55 million who tuned in for Billy Crystal back in 1998. (By the way, the conventional wisdom is that David Letterman bombed as Oscar host in 1995 and has never been asked back. The truth is that the academy asks Letterman to host every year — but he declines.)

Understand, I'm not saying Sunday night's debacle was Stewart's fault. Rather, I started to get deja  vu that it was this year's Golden Globes all over again, where people simply read off the names and there wasn't any show. Hell of a way to celebrate the 80th Oscars, by keeping the spoken words and the skits and everything else enjoyable to a minimum. Because of the plethora of film clips, it became painfully obvious that Gil Cates really expected to put on an actorless and writerless and directorless Oscars due to the strike. As a result, the show lacked spontaneity. For chrissakes, the winners couldn't even thank their mothers, much less their lawyers, without being cut off by the music.

I'm sure AMPAS head Sid Ganis, Gil Cates et al. will blame the writers' strike for this year's ratings. The real people to blame are the Hollywood CEOs, for petulantly dragging out a settlement. And the Oscar voters, for being such horrible snobs. For instance, why wasn't The Bourne Ultimatum nominated for Best Picture? I mean, it was a great film, and The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy were satisfying too. Clearly, I'm out of step with the Oscar voters. Or is it the other way around?

I understand that several Hollywood power players on Sunday suggested that AMPAS should do everything it can to promote big, popular studio movies that people have seen for Best Picture awards. One mogul even seriously recommended that the “smaller movies” be relegated to the IFC Spirit Awards from now on. Maybe AMPAS should learn something about audience appeal and aggressive marketing from, say, the MTV Movie Awards. And it wouldn't kill the academy to include crowd-pleasers — like 2007's Transformers, The Simpsons Movie, Knocked Up, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Supremacy, Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 — in the show more prominently.

In the end, Viacom and Disney, which both distributed Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, won seven Oscars each, the most among the major studios. Films from Universal won five, Time Warner won four, and News Corp. won two. Sony Corp. took home one. Had the Oscars been held, say, in the first or second week in January, I think Michael Clayton would have won hands down. But then the fever (or was it flu?) for No Country for Old Men took hold because it was winning so many other awards (SAG's, film critics', etc.). Usually, academy voters are painfully out of touch with the tastes of the American public. Now the show is a pathetic anachronism too.

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