By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedienne and talk show star Ellen DeGeneres returned as Oscar host on Sunday, bringing her deadpan affability, and free pizza, to the 86th Academy Awards show while still poking fun at Hollywood royalty.
In a back-to-basics approach to a live, 3 1/2-hour telecast that largely eschewed sophisticated clip montages and lavish song-and-dance productions, DeGeneres displayed her flair for playing informality for laughs.
Shrugging off complaints from some critics that the breezy levity of her first Oscar stint in 2007 was at odds with the Academy Awards' traditional sense of decorum, DeGeneres forayed into the Dolby Theatre audience several times during Sunday's show to mingle with the film industry elite, as she did seven years before.
She handed a faux consolation prize - a pair of lottery tickets - to "American Hustle" star Bradley Cooper after he lost his bid for best supporting actor; took a "selfie" snapshot with a group of nominees that was swiftly re-tweeted more than 2 million times during the show; and even ushered a pizza delivery guy into the auditorium to hand out slices to the stars, then called on producer Harvey Weinstein to pay the tip.
"No pressure, only a billion people are watching, whatever you feel is right," she shouted.
While mostly veering away from the ribald streak that marked Seth MacFarlane's widely panned, and far more provocative, stint as emcee last year, DeGeneres showed she was not above mocking the movie industry's biggest stars.
She zeroed in on supporting actress nominee, and last year's best actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence, recalling that the star famously tripped on the stairs to the stage on her way to accepting her Oscar in 2013.
DeGeneres also alluded to how Lawrence, 23, nominated for her role in "American Hustle," stumbled again on the red carpet on Sunday.
"If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar," DeGeneres dead-panned, as the audience, including Lawrence, erupted in laughter.
Turning to June Squibb, whom she noted was the oldest performer ever nominated for an acting Oscar at age 84, DeGeneres congratulated Squibb for her role in "Nebraska." She then raised her voice to directly address Squibb as if the nominee were hard of hearing, saying, "I'm telling everyone that you were wonderful in 'Nebraska.'"
LETO AND LIZA
But in perhaps her most cutting jab of the night, DeGeneres recognized the presence in the audience of veteran actress-singer and Oscar winner Liza Minnelli by calling attention to "one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have ever seen in my life."
As the camera cut to Minnelli, and back to DeGeneres, the host added, "Good job, sir."
Minnelli, 67, who was honored later in the evening in a tribute to her mother's movie, "The Wizard of Oz," lit up social media site Twitter earlier on Sunday after a red carpet appearance in which she looked shaky, sported a blue streak in her hair, and was apparently bra-less under her blue silk pants suit.
In another pithy moment, DeGeneres declared two possible scenarios for the final outcome of the Oscar race: "Possibility No. 1, '12 Years a Slave' wins best picture. Possibility No. 2, you're all racists."
Her most sexually explicit gag of the night came when she referred obliquely to Jonah Hill's masturbation scene in the film "The Wolf of Wall Street" and her own sexual orientation.
"You showed us something in that film that I have not seen for a very, very long time," she told Hill.
DeGeneres, 56, made broadcast history in 1997 as the first openly gay lead character on U.S. prime-time television, shortly after she came out publicly as a lesbian in real life.
Her return Oscar engagement came a year after MacFarlane, the creator of the animated sitcom "Family Guy," drew critical scorn for a risqué performance that included zingers about gays, Jews and domestic violence, and a musical tribute to female frontal nudity called "We Saw Your Boobs."
Early reviews of DeGeneres' latest performance were mostly positive.
Variety's TV columnist Brian Lowry gave her points for "playful jabs" at the stars that "managed to feel fun without being mean-spirited," saying that her opening monologue "screamed of a desire to dial back the show to safer terrain."
USA Today said DeGeneres kicked off her sophomore Oscar run "in uproarious fashion," and the Washington Post review said that DeGeneres "told jokes that were easy on the ears, gentle on the mind and, for the most part, sparingly nice."
(Reporting by Steve Gorman, editing by Jill Serjeant)