After Kevin Hart’s hosting stint proved to be the shortest-lived in history, the Academy Awards are hurtling toward a Feb. 24 airdate without a famous name steering the ship.
Rumor has it that with options dwindling, Oscar-show producer Donna Gigliotti and co-producer Glenn Weiss will forgo a host entirely.
How different will the show look without an emcee and monologue? The last time the Oscars tried that was the infamous 1989 edition when Rob Lowe danced with Snow White, such an epic, unfocused disaster that Paul Newman, Julie Andrews and other stars sent a letter to the academy denouncing it as an “embarrassment.”
Suffice it to say, that’s one piece of Oscar history that Gigliotti and Weiss aren’t keen to repeat. In fact, the producers may see Hart’s ejection as a blessing in disguise: One of the academy’s oft-stated priorities is to trim the telecast to a slim three hours, and with no monologue nor a host to keep cutting back to, the proceedings should at least be shorter.
But will they be better?
It’s here I should note that the host tends to be both the most overrated and underrated part of any Oscar telecast. Overrated, because after that first commercial break, the host pops up much less frequently than you might think, a format that allows presenters and winners to come to the fore. Outside of the monologue, you’re liable to remember only one other significant moment from any given Oscar host.
Sometimes, the host makes the most of these additional moments, as Ellen DeGeneres did five years ago when she pulled nearly every celebrity in the front row into a selfie that went viral. Still, with many Oscar hosts, you can see the flop sweat as they try desperately to will a minor bit into something bigger. The less said about Jimmy Kimmel’s aimless foray into a packed movie theater, or Neil Patrick Harris’ recurring briefcase joke, the better.
Mistakes like those won’t be missed, and those who tune into the Oscars simply to watch things go smoothly will no doubt be satisfied. And yet, even though it’s a gig packed with peril, I think we’re still underestimating the power a host has to shape the telecast in ways both noticeable and not.
For one, the hosts serve as ratings-drivers: Not only are they expected to promote the show in interviews and commercials, but when the host is well-matched to the material, audiences often tune in simply to see what he or she will say. With ratings dwindling for the telecast, this is a bad year to skimp on a host’s must-see appeal, and though Oscar producers hope to offset that loss by asking big names to present, that’s hardly a unique draw. Most Oscar telecasts are already packed with celebrity presenters.
ABC has been so desperate to increase Oscar ratings that executives pushed for a new category just to reward blockbuster films, and while it’s true that the 1998 telecast became the highest-rated Oscar show ever in part because megahit “Titanic” was in contention, 2014’s edition was the most-watched of the last decade, and that wasn’t because best picture winner “12 Years a Slave” was some billion-grossing smash. It’s because DeGeneres, that year’s social-media-savvy host, ably plugged into the way many people like to watch the Oscars these days: with one eye on the TV, and the other on Twitter.
Kimmel, who hosted the last two Oscar telecasts, offered no such boost.
Unable to land a good zinger even during the best-picture mix-up involving “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” Kimmel droned through most of his material like he was thinking about his grocery list. Since Kimmel already hosts a nighttime show on ABC five times a week, his Oscar stint had no special frisson, yet the network consistently overlooked his uninspired stewardship as it searched for a scapegoat to pin those falling ratings to, instead blaming the Oscars themselves.
Might things be better if we found a host who actually liked the show? Too often, the academy picks someone utterly uninvested in what the Oscars mean to the industry or to the audience watching. (Hart wanted to appear on the show, but it’s not clear he even liked it.) When the host treats the show as an obligation to run through, cracking too many jokes about how long and boring things might become, it starts viewers on a dissatisfied note.
Instead, the Oscars should prioritize someone with enthusiasm for all this pomp and circumstance. Hugh Jackman began the 2009 Oscars in just the right way, bringing to the show energy and Hollywood glamour that was leavened by just the right amount of irreverence. In one of Jackman’s most memorable bits, he sang that he hadn’t yet seen one of that year’s nominated movies, “The Reader,” but it was a joke played at his own expense, not one that lacerated Hollywood for making art films at all.
No one understood this juggling act better than four-time host Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar herself for “Ghost” in 1991 and told the audience then, “Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted this.” Goldberg had fun with the Oscars precisely because she could, at the same time, take them seriously.
I’m reminded of her 1999 Oscar-hosting stint, when she came out dressed as Queen Elizabeth — a reference to the subject of two of that year’s nominated films — and landed one great joke after another: “Good evening, loyal subjects,” she said, “I am the African queen.” Unlike several recent Oscar hosts, Goldberg didn’t apologize for what was to come. “This will be a long show, so we don’t want to read about how damn long it was,” Goldberg told the crowd. “We know it’s long. Tough!”
Goldberg then ad-libbed, by way of justification, “It’s the biggest night in Hollywood, baby.” Find another host who truly gets that, and both the Oscars and the audience will be better off.