By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Rookie Oscar host Seth MacFarlane casually slung a string of zingers at some of Hollywood's biggest names, including a musical tribute to female frontal nudity in the movies, as he launched the Academy Awards show on Sunday on a decisively provocative note.
In an opening monologue and package of song-and-dance numbers obviously calculated to live up to, and even lampoon, his own reputation for pushing the boundaries of taste, MacFarlane put his biting, edgy brand of humor front and center.
He started off joking that best-picture front-runner "Argo," about a real-life clandestine CIA operation to rescue American hostages from Iran, was "so top secret that the film's director is unknown to the Academy."
The barb was a not-so-subtle jab at members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to nominate Ben Affleck as best director for the critically acclaimed film.
"They know they screwed up," MacFarlane added, as the camera panned to a shot of Affleck, looking somewhat uncomfortable in his seat. "Ben, it's not your fault."
The edgy quotient quickly escalated as MacFarlane described another best-film candidate, "Django Unchained," as the slavery-era "story of a man fighting to get back his woman who has been subjected to unthinkable violence - or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie."
The punch line reference to the physical abuse involved in the relationship between the two R&B singers - Brown pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna in 2009 - drew an audible groan from the star-studded Dolby Theatre audience.
"Oh, no, that's what we were afraid he would do," MacFarlane dead-panned.
More groans followed as MacFarlane went on to joke that the profanity-laced screenplay from "Django" was "loosely based on Mel Gibson's voice mails," an allusion to the public disclosure several years ago of ranting telephone messages the actor-director had left for his then-girlfriend.
MacFarlane's performance should not have come as too great a surprise. The comedian, actor and singer made his mark as creator of the animated television series "Family Guy," a show known for its ribald satire, much of it aimed at Hollywood conventions.
And MacFarlane, 39, wasted no time in sending up his own risqué persona, in a comedy bit with actor William Shatner, who joined the host on stage via a video screen in the character of Captain Kirk from the sci-fi TV and film series "Star Trek."
In his fictional drop-in visit from the future, Shatner warns MacFarlane he is "destroying the Academy Awards" with jokes that are "tasteless and inappropriate."
But the interlude segued into a song-and-dance number by MacFarlane showcasing his vocal chops to a tune called "We Saw Your Boobs," in which he rhapsodically ticked off the names of various A-list Hollywood actresses who have bared their breasts in films over the years.
Admonished by Shatner to sing songs that celebrate the movies rather than mock them, MacFarlane proceeded to deliver a more respectful rendering of the showbiz standard, "The Way You Look Tonight," joined on stage in elegant dance by actress Charlize Theron ("Snow White and the Huntsman") and actor Channing Tatum ("Magic Mike").
MacFarlane showed off his own dancing talents in a three-way soft-shoe number with actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Lincoln") and "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe.
In the way that many cartoons, including MacFarlane's own "Family Guy" series, operate on different levels for kids and their parents, this year's Oscar telecast seemed especially designed to play to more than one TV audience.
MacFarlane's more provocative turns were offset by some of the more traditional pomp typical of Hollywood's biggest night, including a 50th-anniversary montage salute to James Bond films, capped by veteran singer Shirley Bassey, now 76, reprising her title song from the 1964 film "Goldfinger."
Early reaction to MacFarlane's performance was mixed.
In a Twitter message posted during the show, actor-comedian and former Oscar host Steve Martin commented, facetiously: "Congratulations to Seth Rogan (another comically risqué actor with the same first name as the host) on a great monologue. Old-fashioned is back! I'm in!"
CNN host Piers Morgan tweeted, "I doubt there will have ever been a more divisive #Oscars host than @SethMacFarlane - I'm loving him, others are hating it."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein and Eric Kelsey; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jackie Frank)