All those months playing German wannabe rockstar Hedwig on Broadway paid off big time for Neil Patrick Harris, who scooted during the 87th Oscars ceremony from his dressing room to the stage of the Dolby Theatre wearing nothing but his tighty-whities. The bit paid tribute to a similar scene in the night’s big winner, Birdman, with a nod to Tom Cruise’s dancing number in Risky Business. How many actors other than Jennifer Lopez have been as unembarrassedly revealing on the global telecast?

87th Annual Academy Awards - ShowIn a long evening (3 hours, 38 minutes) that featured NPH in more tuxedo changes than I could keep count of, it was one of two high points for the freshman host, the other coming in the show’s opening lines: “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest,” he said, quickly amending, “I mean brightest.” Quite possibly he lost the house right then and there; no subject has been more front-and-center this Oscar season than the issue of Hollywood and race. Or perhaps it was the reference to the “Dependent Spirit awards,” or the dead air that filled the house with a joke about the box office success of nominee American Sniper at Oprah Winfrey’s expense, for which she looked none-too-pleased.

Whether it was the barbed lines or three-plus hours of material that just grew flatter by the minute, Harris was a different figure from the fearless, amiable and funny emcee of multiple Tony Awards and other shows. If he seemed stiff and uncharacteristically uncomfortable in the new role, well at least he looked great, whether in Dolce & Gabbana or Haines. Maybe his nervousness was due to the global audience; no-one watches the Tonys.

Lady Gaga OscarsProduced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, generally expert at these things, the show looked gorgeous but the broadcast sound was terrible, especially for Harris and other presenters, battling an echo and other distancing noise throughout. And the endless round of musical numbers, each goopier than the last, made me wonder if I hadn’t taken a dip in the Hot Tub Time Machine back to some earlier era of TV variety shows. An overblown number from The Lego Movie ranked only just a bit below the 1989 ceremony’s still-unequaled Rob Lowe/Snow White serenade. Lady Gaga — whose song choice was a mystery withheld like odd bait throughout the red carpet preceding the event — sang an irony-free medly of songs from The Sound Of Music, in honor of that film’s 50th anniversary. Coming at least three hours past the bedtime of the number’s key demo, it set up a cameo by Julie Andrews (“I blinked and suddenly here we are”) — minus co-star Christopher Plummer, who has been known to refer unkindly to the film that launched his career as The Sound Of Mucus. I did love seeing the trumpet tattooed on Lady Gaga’s arm as she tooted Rodgers and Hammerstein. But where was Tony Bennett?

Given eight nominees that dealt with noble issues ranging from civil rights for African-Americans and British homosexuals to thus-far unconquerable diseases including Alzheimer’s and ALS, more than a few honorees made pleas for their causes. Some were, to quote Old Man Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, “sentimental hogwash” (I won’t call out the prime offenders). But some simply spoke for themselves: Tim McGraw singing Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” And others struck an affecting balance between humility and partisanship. Best Foreign Film winner Pawel Pawlikowski, for Ida, struck a blow against the Musical Hook, admitting there was a disconnect between his quiet film, about contemplation, and being in Hollywood, “the center of noise and world attention.” He continued his acceptance speech — a laundry list, of which there were more than the usual number this year — so insistently that the orchestra finally gave up and shut up.

I was grateful, too, for the non-sentimental, non-hogwash moments provided by Partricia Arquette, who did a hairpin turn from her own laundry list to get fiery on the issue of equal pay for women (to rousing applause and high-fives); to CitizenFour director Laura Poitras, who said that the government incursion into the telephone conversations and Internet communications of private citizens “don’t only pose a threat to our privacy, but to our democracy.” To Graham Moore, winner for the screenplay for The Imitation Game, who recalled attempting suicide when he was 16, and exhorted those like him to “stay weird, stay different,” confident that they will eventually find their place — something of course that never happened for Alan Turing, except perhaps by way of a posthumous pardon.

87th Annual Academy Awards - ShowAnd most memorably to best song winners John Legend and Common, who sang the soaring “Glory” from Selma as the cameras focused on David Oyelowo, the film’s un-nominated Martin Luther King Jr., shedding tears. Accepting the award with moving humanity, Common referred to the Edmund Pettus Bridge that is the central site of violence in the film, and to battles for human dignity no less urgent today than in the 1960s: “This bridge was built on hope and welded with compassion.” Legend added that, “we live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” noting that there are “more black men in jail today than slaves in 1850.”

The final words came from Birdman multi-winner Alejandro González Iñárittu, who saluted his fellow Mexicans struggling to create a corruption-free government, and to Mexican immigrants struggling to live legally in the U.S. Harris then signed off, saying “Buenos noches, everyone.”