After all the prebroadcast glitches ? the stolen Oscars, the missing mail, that notorious Wall Street Journal poll ? the 72nd Academy Awards were long, a bit dull and astonishingly tasteful. Ashley Judd kept her underpants under wraps, Haley Joel Osment didn't cry when he lost Best Supporting Actor to Michael Caine, and even Cher dressed, by her own admission, "like a grown-up," although she did get tangled up in the train.

And for all the talk that this was the hardest field to handicap in years, there were no jaw-droppers among the major awards.

American Beauty took the lion's share, with five: Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall) and Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball). The Cider House Rules walked away with two, for Best Adapted Screenplay (John Irving) and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Caine). Sure, Hilary Swank nabbed Best Actress for Boys Don't Cry, a small movie ? but it was a small movie with the biggest buzz this side of the killer bees.

And yes, South Park boys Trey Parker and Matt Stone wore dresses; writer-director Harmony Korine, accompanying Best Actress nominee Chloe Sevigny, looked as though he'd spent the night in a homeless shelter; and that effects guy from The Matrix looked like he was auditioning for a spot in 'N Sync.

But by and large the whole business went so smoothly that professional smarty-pants were reduced to what we're doing now ? kvelling that a lot of people looked marvelous. Like Jane Fonda in a silver mermaid dress, Salma Hayek, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman in bronze, Winona Ryder, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, fresh-faced Thora Birch and ladies in red Angela Bassett, Lucy Liu, Charlize Theron and Uma Thurman!

Sure, we could be snippy about that hagiographic paean to Warren Beatty, recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award (shot in the style of the witnesses from Reds), praising Beatty as the producer and director of such monumental landmarks of the cinematic art as Dick Tracy and Ishtar (OK, we're leaving out Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo?but still), and his long-winded acceptance speech. But his hugely pregnant wife Annette Bening, Best Actress nominee for American Beauty, looked marvelous.

We could have done without host Billy Crystal chasing Best Actress presenter Roberto Begnini with a butterfly net, with Begnini babbling and capering like a lunatic ? it's not even like he was excited about his own movie. And hey, why ditch those much-hated dance numbers only to fill out the show with tributes: The movies look at history, child actors, highlights of movie music?everything except a tribute to the late Stanley Kubrick. Does Hollywood really still hate him so much, or did someone just forget?

But there were plenty of highlights to balance the faux pas Salma Hayek, managing to make the words "science and technical awards" sound sexier than an indecent proposal?maybe it was the accent.

The rousing "Blame Canada" (Best Song nominee) production number, complete with high-kicking chorines in Mountie outfits and the phrase "that bitch Anne Murray." Its end run around the troublesome "and my boy Eric once/Had my picture on his shelf/But now when I see him he tells me to f--- myself!" was deft.

Caine raising the bar on the usual "I am not worthy" acceptance speech by mentioning each of his fellow Best Supporting Actor nominees by name ? Jude Law, Michael Clarke Duncan, Haley Joel Osment and Tom Cruise ? and saying something laudatory about each, doing it with such effortless grace that it seemed utterly heartfelt.

Isaac Hayes singing the theme from Shaft; Phil Collins's instantly forgettable "You'll Be in My Heart" (the Best Song winner from Tarzan) couldn't hold a candle even if he were backed up by a hundred foxy ladies dancing in shortie-short, gold sarongs and bra tops.

Penelope Cruz jumping for joy and shrieking "Pedro!" after announcing that All About My Mother ? in which she played a major role ? had won for Best Foreign Film. Director Pedro Almodovar in turn blithely ignored the music cue warning him to wrap it up and had to be dragged offstage by Cruz's co-presenter Antonio Banderas, somewhere around the time the filmmaker was thanking the Virgin of Guadeloupe.

The footage of winners being hustled off the sleek and cavernous stage into the bustle and exposed plywood of the backstage area. Damned if the hugs and the tears didn't look breathtakingly real.