By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - First-time Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel turned President Donald Trump into a comic foil in absentia at the Academy Awards on Sunday, poking fun at the political tumult roiling the United States and the world since the former reality TV star took office.
Aside from a string of running gags throughout the live telecast about Kimmel's faux feud with his long-time pal, actor Matt Damon, the 45th U.S. president proved to be Kimmel's favorite leitmotif.
In keeping with his signature deadpan, sardonic delivery, Kimmel's social commentary was pointed while restrained, and he wasted little time addressing the political furor that has loomed so large over the Hollywood awards season.
"This broadcast is being watched live by millions of Americans, and around the world in more than 225 countries that now hate us, and I think that is amazing," the late-night television star exclaimed shortly after stepping onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Insisting he was at a loss for words to help unite a divided country, Kimmel exhorted viewers to make their own efforts at reconciliation by reaching out to political adversaries they knew personally to "have a positive, considerate conversation, not as liberals or conservatives, as Americans."
"If we could all do that, we could make America great again," he said, an allusion to Trump's own campaign slogan.
Kimmel also showed a willingness to tweak the motion picture academy for its own shortcomings, drawing a sly parallel between the criticism both the president and the Oscars have taken for a perceived lack of racial sensitivity.
"I want to say, 'Thank you, President Trump,'" he said. "I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?" he asked rhetorically in a reference to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that clouded the Academy Awards in 2016.
The joke drew hearty laughter and applause from the star-studded audience in the hall, recognizing a renewed measure of racial balance in the awards after two straight years in which all the major acting categories shut out nominees of color.
Kimmel capped his monologue with a deliberately back-handed tribute to perennial Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, whose fiery denunciation of Trump at the Golden Globe Awards in January drew an angry Twitter retort from Trump calling her "one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood."
"From her mediocre early work in 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Out of Africa' to her underwhelming performances in 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and 'Sophie's Choice,' Meryl Streep has phoned it in for more than 50 films over the course of her lackluster career," Kimmel declared.
He then noted she was celebrating her 20th Oscar nomination - as best actress for "Florence Foster Jenkins" - before asking the audience to give an "undeserved round of applause" to the "highly overrated Meryl Streep." She got a standing ovation.
LIVE-TWEETING TO TRUMP
Later in the evening, Kimmel stoked the Streep-Trump theme further, sending a tweet back to the commander-in-chief with the message, projected on a large screen behind him: "Hey @realDonaldTrump. u up? ... #Merylsayshi."
Alluding to Trump's confrontations with the White House press corps, Kimmel also jokingly demanded that journalists from several news outlets leave the building, declaring, "We have no tolerance for fake news. Fake tans we love."
The political barbs began flying after a breezy opening dance number led by Justin Timberlake, performing the Oscar-nominated song "Can't Stop the Feeling" from the animated film "Trolls."
The performance brought the attendees to their feet dancing. As they took their seats again, Timberlake welcomed Kimmel out to the stage.
"Oh good, I got a sitting ovation," he remarked dryly. Then, in a self-deprecating nod to the revolving door of one-time Oscar emcees in recent years, He added: "This is my first time here, and the way you people go through hosts, it's probably my last."
Through no apparent fault of his own, Kimmel's appearance will likely be remembered for the pandemonium surrounding the upset victory of "Moonlight" as best picture at the end of the night, in a stunning, unprecedented Oscar mix-up in which "La La Land" was first announced erroneously as the winner.
"I blame myself for this," Kimmel interjected. "I knew I would screw this show up."
Kimmel, 49, was tapped for the Oscar gig after two stints hosting television's Primetime Emmy Awards, most recently in 2016.
A 14-year veteran of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!", he is the third star of late-night broadcast TV to preside over Hollywood's highest honors, following in the footsteps of Johnny Carson of NBC's "The Tonight Show" and Kimmel's personal hero, David Letterman, then host of the CBS "Late Show."
Letterman, whose Oscar performance was widely panned, was never asked back.
(Editing by Mary Milliken)