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Crystal's comment: gracious or cruel?

Q. At the recent Academy Awards, host Billy Crystal directed a putatively humorous, though cruel, remark at best actor nominee Bill Murray, moments after the Oscar was awarded to Sean Penn. Crystal's remark brought to mind Groucho Marx's comment about comedians not wanting each other to be successful.

It was certainly petty, mean-spirited and betrayed no small amount of professional jealousy on the speaker's part, especially given the disparity of quality of his and Bill Murray's respective film careers. Can you recall other instances where such rudeness was directed at Oscar nominees by the hosts at these ceremonies in the past? K.F. O'Hare, Gainesville, Va.

A. I wrote: "A lot of people, me included, predicted [Murray] had a chance to win ... Billy Crystal was graceful in assuring him, 'Don't go, Bill. We love you,' which inspired an ovation." Many disagree with me. Jim Todd of West New York, N.J., writes: "That comment was so vicious; it was the worst Oscar moment in my 30 years of watching the Oscars!" The wise Mark Steyn wrote in the Spectator: "Bill Murray was not only robbed but weirdly humiliated in his loss by Billy Crystal."

It may be that Crystal's comment sounded wrong to many ears, but consider that when the nominations were announced on Jan. 27, the only one Crystal made a point of applauding was the one for his fellow "SNL" graduate, "my friend, Bill Murray." Consider, too, that Crystal has a personal reputation for kindness and generosity. I believe he was hoping Murray would win, and his remark was made in friendship.

Here is a play-by-play analysis by Andy Ihnatko of Boston, who scrutinizes the Oscars with an obsessiveness bordering on mania: "Crystal's remarks to Murray were clearly affectionate. Synopsis: Immediate reaction to Penn's win when name is finally read: Depp, Kingsley, and Law smile and applaud. Murray's expression doesn't change one iota, but after a moment he turns his head in Penn's direction and slowly nods. Penn climbs stage.

"Camera cuts to Depp, standing and applauding. Cuts to Law standing and applauding. Doesn't cut to Murray.

"Wide shot of crowd as Penn is handed his Oscar; Murray is still seated and doesn't appear to be applauding. Ovation continues for another half-minute, but Murray isn't in view. Penn begins speech and acknowledges his fellow nominees.

"Camera cuts to Kingsley, looking serious; Law, scratching his chin (both have blank expressions but grin a little when peripheral vision tells them that they're on the big monitors); Murray, looking blank. He's paying attention to the speech but still not reacting. Depp, too, isn't paying attention to the monitors and so his expression doesn't change when they cut to him.

"Penn finishes speech and walks off stage. Hard to tell but it seems like Murray isn't applauding here, either.

"Crystal: 'Bill, don't go ... Bill, don't go ... it's OK! We love you!' "On 'we,' cut to Murray, who is getting a pretty serious consolation neck-nuzzle from his wife. Murray's lips are tight, eyebrows are up, he says something back (inaudible), then grins. Audience gives him a consolation ovation, cut back to Bill, who still looks like he's just a little sad and disappointed."

Q. I work at a local video store and the recent release of "Lost in Translation" on DVD has had lots of people asking about it. But I noticed that about 90 percent of the people that watched it said they didn't like it. In fact, most of them said that it was one of the worst movies they've ever seen. They didn't understand why it drew all of the attention that it got.

Is this because of the expectations that the general public has in their minds? Was it over-advertised by the Oscar hype it got? Or is it just because the general public can't watch a film that will challenge them to think when they are used to watching big-budget films where everything is drawn out for them? Sean O'Connell, Novato, Calif.

A. Yes, yes and yes. "Lost in Translation" requires audiences to be able to pick up feelings and information on frequencies that many moviegoers don't receive on. Most of the movies most people go to see are made in such a way that not a moment's thought is required. The audience is a passive receptor for mindless sensation. When I'm told by people that they hated "Lost in Translation," I have to restrain myself from replying, "You are saying more about yourself than about the film." "Lost in Translation" was applauded by 94 percent of the 190 critics monitored at, and by 97 percent of the major critics. Does that mean critics are (a) out of touch with popular taste, or (b) have better taste than the customers at Sean O'Connell's video store? Before you answer, remember that the mission of a good critic is not to reflect popular taste but to inform it.

Q. Just last weekend, I brought my girlfriend to see "The Station Agent" at a medium-size theater in Kinnelon, N.J. -- just a few miles from the town of Newfoundland, where the movie takes place (and was largely filmed).

It came out months ago, but this was the first time, as far as I know, that the film was shown anywhere in the area -- and for one weekend only.

You'd think that a movie taking place in your own backyard would draw more of an audience, but beside my girlfriend and myself there were about six other people, all middle-aged, in the theater. This was a Sunday evening, prime time.

In your review of "The Perfect Score," you write that "good and challenging movies are limited to release in big cities and in a handful of independently booked cinemas. Whole states and sections of the country never see the best new films ..." Not being able to see the movies I want to see is one of the things I hate most about living outside the city.

But do you think the blame for this problem lies with the owners of the multiplexes, a lack of marketing for "small" films, or with the tastes of the "mainstream" audience itself? My girlfriend and I both loved "The Station Agent," by the way. We would have told our friends to see it, too -- but it's not playing around here anymore, just a week later. Brendan Berls, Vernon, N.J.

A. I think audiences must be developed. In the town of Three Oaks, Mich. (population under 3,000), a movie lover named Jon Vickers bought the little downtown movie house and began to show foreign and independent art films. It was slow going at first, but now, six years later, his theater is doing great business and is sold out on weekends.

A friend of mine who lives in the town says, no, the patrons aren't all "summer people" from Chicago. She goes to the theater in the middle of the winter and sees the same local people she sees in the supermarket. People are not dumb unless you treat them as dumb.

Most American theater chains write off the boondocks and exhibit a low opinion of the potential of their audiences. You can't learn to love good movies unless you can see them.

Consider how resistant the movie chains were to "Whale Rider," which only gradually broke through to more bookings because of the enthusiasm of moviegoers. Consider that "In America," surely a film that would reach hearts in every audience, never got a proper wide release.

Q. Now that Sean Penn has won the Oscar, what do you believe Kevin Bacon's intentions are when, at the end of the film, he sees Sean Penn at the parade, and, pointing his finger as if his hand is a gun, "shoots" him. What does that communication mean? Brian Bennett, Bangkok Film Festival, Thailand

A. He's saying, "I know what you did," but I don't know if he's saying what he's going to do about it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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