WASHINGTON - Is this what Michelle Obama looks like untethered to the pressure of a campaign? Is she free to follow her whims without worries about political backlash?

The first lady became the buzz of the weekend when she beamed into the Academy Awards from the White House to present the award for Best Picture with Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson. Attendees and viewers were flabbergasted at the satellite image of the elegantly dressed Obama, flanked by young service members in full regalia, opening the envelope to name Ben Affleck's "Argo" the winner.

"It just seemed so natural because the whole thing is so unnatural," Affleck told reporters after the show - right after he said he thought he was "hallucinating."

In other words: What's the first lady doing at the Oscars?

Apparently, having fun.

"As a movie lover, she was honored to present the award and celebrate the artists who inspire us all - especially our young people," Kristina Schake, the first lady's communications director, said in a statement.

But the notion that Obama made the virtual appearance for the pure pleasure of it created confusion among both fans and detractors. Was she toying with Hollywood stardom for its own sake? And if she was, was that OK? In Washington, stardom can seem frivolous.

"The only thing that was missing was seeing her walk down the red carpet," said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. "She's as glamorous as any other star, (and) she is comfortable in that role. As far as the optics in the national conversation, you can see where the other half have come down, (asking) 'Is this really necessary?' "

The Obamas have assiduously reached beyond Washington - showing up at sporting events, on entertainment television, social media and local media. But the first lady has rarely engaged pop culture without also pushing one of her own causes. Sunday's appearance felt at once out of sync with the first lady's careful messaging and also part of a natural evolution, said Katherine Jellison, a professor of women's history at Ohio University who has studied first ladies.

"I get the feeling that she is for the first time maybe really relaxing and enjoying her celebrity-hood," Jellison said.

The questions, both compliment and criticism, may be compounded, coming on the tail end of chatter (most of it gleeful) about her dance skit with late-night host Jimmy Fallon. Dressed in dowdy drag, Fallon was joined by Obama to demonstrate the "Evolution of Mom Dancing."

In the weeks before that, Michelle Obama joked to daytime TV host Rachael Ray that she had cut her bangs as part of a midlife crisis.

There is no job description for first ladies, and Obama is stretching the role in new directions.

Obama was approached by the Academy Awards, which celebrated some Washington-based films this year, to be a presenter, the White House said.

The timing was perfect for the White House, noted McBride. President Obama and the first lady were already hosting the nation's governors for dinner Sunday night, so the first lady was dressed up, and the service members in the background were already on hand.