Adam Taylor/ABC/Getty; Kevin Winter/Getty; Michael Yada/EPA
People TV Critic Tom Gliatto
March 03, 2014 08:05 AM

There is a story that Marlon Brando, when agreeing to play Jor-El in the 1978 movie Superman, suggested that he simply supply the voice, while Jor-El on camera would be played by a suitcase or a bagel.

I’ve sometimes thought this would be a wonderful solution to the annual challenge of finding someone to host the Oscars. Just a bagel and a voice, year after year. It would instill a degree of ritual and mystery while also saving on production and styling costs. It would be like Her, only it would be a carbohydrate.

However, for now, the Academy needs to keep Ellen DeGeneres on the short list of stars who really know how to manage this glamorous beast.

DeGeneres was, to say the least, a relief after Seth MacFarlane’s irreverent, trickling-into-offensive job hosting last year’s production. But that’s not giving her nearly enough credit.

DeGeneres, who previously hosted in 2007, kept everything clubby and light-hearted, never pushing for anything harder than a nice, appreciative laugh from everyone. The show opened simply, as she ran through a list of jokes that started (not too surprisingly) with the rain out in California. She was capable of being pointed, as when she pretended that Liza Minnelli was a female impersonator – but that’s not too pointed.

And besides, DeGeneres later took a selfie with her.

She had one crazy little moment of pure silliness – popping out from behind Sandra Bullock‘s seat to announce a commercial break – then over the evening pulled off gags that often ran the risk of straining after adorability. But DeGeneres has a clever way of pulling back using her deadpan affect and a small, self-deprecating fumbling for words.

She followed up her selfie with Liza by taking a group shot with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and other stars of the moment (she Tweeted that image, and it crashed Twitter). She brought in takeout pizza, with Pitt handing out paper plates. She asked Harvey Weinstein to help pay.

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This was arguably just more time-killing business, but better than video-clip compilations on the theme of heroism in the movies. (I don’t think I would have edited Erin Brockovich and Ben-Hur into the same segment.) And it generated a new, refreshing sense of informality, which has always been the selling point for the Golden Globes and something lacking at the Oscars.

The night was distinguished by an unusually moving tribute to the year’s dead – James Gandolfini, Harold Ramis, Karen Black, Philip Seymour Hoffman, on and on – which led into Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Overall, the musical performances were all good, with Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go” from Frozen (which won the award). She demonstrated what precisely is meant by the phrase “power ballad.” And there were thoughtful, emotional acceptance speeches by all the acting winners.

Also, the best line of the show – which Bill Murray addressed to co-presenter Amy Adams – was possibly worth the entire long night: “You look like 146 million domestic.”

Because, yes, it was a long night without any major surprises. If you wanted something short with twists, there was True Detective on HBO. This was the smoothest and most enjoyable Oscars in some time, and I would say much of that is Ellen DeGeneres’s doing.

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