Double act, half the fun?

Efforts to make Oscar night more gripping for television viewers met with mixed success.

Hollywood's most star-spangled evening of the year opened with a stage full of this year's Best Actor and Actress nominees. They stood in an awkward line as the camera zoomed in on each of their beaming faces while everyone clapped. It felt as if we had switched on half way through. But it set the tone for an evening heavy on self-congratulation and light on humour.

Audience figures for the Academy Awards have long been a problem, with numbers dropping from a record of 55 million viewers in the US in 1998, to 32m 10 years later. Despite trimming the ceremony still runs to 3½ hours, which doesn't help. And no matter how much producers attempt to tinker with its format, by inserting silly sketches and inviting the whole of Tinseltown to present awards, there is no escaping the fact that viewers are only interested in a few of the awards.

In keeping with last year's ceremony, the 82nd Academy Awards started with a song, No One Wants to Do It Alone, performed by How I Met Your Mother's Neil Patrick Harris. It was old-school glamour, and a reference to the duo of hosts for the evening, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Martin has presented the show twice (in 2001 and 2003) and comes from a venerable comedy background. Yet his hosting abilities have so far appeared less than stellar. Could Baldwin, with whom he starred in It's Complicated, sharpen his game? Their rapport was established from the start, with Baldwin introducing Martin as "one of the most enduring entertainers of our time", while Martin signally failed to return the compliment. "And this is Alec Baldwin," he retorted.

Then came the obligatory ribbing of the films. Joking about Meryl Streep and her supposed collection of Hitler memorabilia raised a laugh, but their reference to Precious ("the one film that really lived up to its video game") was less well received. Also unavoidable was the Cameron-Bigelow rivalry, the formerly married couple who were both up for Best Director. "She was so pleased to be nominated," said Baldwin, "that she sent him a beautiful gift basket - with a timer." "He reciprocated," said Martin, "by sending her a Toyota."

While there were some funny moments, others were less successful. A sketch that showed the co-hosts sharing a hotel room ("I can't believe they didn't get us our own room," moaned Martin) felt hastily pulled-together. Ben Stiller attempted to bring some light relief when he dressed, to present the award for Best Make-up, as a Na'vi. But by then we were slightly over-Avatared (imagine how James Cameron must have felt), and you couldn't help thinking that the version with Sacha Baron Cohen, which was reportedly pulled at the last minute because of "artistic differences", would have been better.

The speeches, often the most memorable thing about the Oscars, were disappointingly dry this year, although Sandra Bullock shed a tear when she accepted the Best Actress award. Participants had apparently been briefed not to spend their valuable 45 seconds doling out gratitude to everyone from their directors to their hairdressers. But most of the winners squeezed in long lists anyway. A nice touch came when both Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter and director of The Hurt Locker, which is set in Iraq, thanked the troops. Mo'Nique, when named Best Supporting Actress in Precious, abandoned her usual repartee to observe: "Sometimes you have to forget what's popular to do what's right."

One of the highlights of the show was a tribute to the late director John Hughes, featuring stars including Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald. But there was some controversy over the traditional in memoriam segment, which overlooked both Farrah Fawcett and Bea Arthur, both of whom died last year. The climax of the evening was also its most nauseating moment. Last year, the Best Actor and Actress nominees were introduced by former winners. This year, they were introduced by former co-stars. So for Jeff Bridges we had Michelle Pfeiffer chuntering on about how marvellous Bridges was. For Streep there was Stanley Tucci waxing lyrical about how "like most people in the world, I've been in love with you [Streep] for years".

Even by Oscar standards, it was a grippingly awful display of Hollywood self-congratulation. The actors seemed to know it, as they sat drowning in a torrent of faux sincere industry praise.