A number of things have gone very wrong for the Oscars this year, and the Oscarcast hasn’t even started yet. There have been much-hated and defeated proposals for a best popular film category, for the inclusion of only two song performances, and for presenting a few categories off the air — all of which pale, though, next to the hosting debacle. After Kevin Hart stepped down in the wake of the discovery of old homophobic tweets, no one is hosting this year.
That’s right, there will be no hand on the rudder of that giant, hot-air-fueled blimp as it sails into hour four of Hollywood hell, no one for viewers, tweeters, and critics to dump on as the night turns to thin farce, and no one to possibly enter the Hall of Fame of Oscar Hosting Shame and give us burn material for decades to come (ask David Letterman).
Maybe that’s a blessing for Hart and those who might have taken his place. Being a good awards show host is a nearly impossible challenge, and hosting the biggest of the awards shows is even more so. You have to preside over a ceremony that is going to run irritatingly long and include too many pointless moments. You need to stay in charge of the night, but you need to check your own ego to fulfill the needs of a theater filled with some of the world’s most ego-hungry humans. You have to set the tone but recede into the background simultaneously.
Looking back over the past decade of Oscar hosts, there have been a few triumphs (Chris Rock) and a few more fails (James Franco and Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman). Here are some of the peaks and valleys of the last 10 years.
In 2016, the year of #OscarSoWhite, with no major black nominees, Chris Rock carried out his hostly duties with confidence, wise humor, and his trademark yell. He owned the night, grabbing the Academy’s bull by the horns and not letting go, making joke after joke about the lack of diversity. He saved a zinger or two for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who boycotted the night. “It’s not fair that Will Smith was this good [in ‘Concussion’] and didn’t get nominated. . . . It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for ‘Wild Wild West.’ ” He also maintained an edge. “This year,” he said, “the In Memoriam package is just going to be black people who were shot on their way to the movies.” Rock was the best host in years.
HE’S A BOOB
Looking for younger viewers, as always, the Academy got “Family Guy” man Seth MacFarlane to host in 2013. Ricocheting back and forth between Frank Sinatra swagger and Howard Stern pubescence, MacFarlane dropped a ton of flat jokes — but the enduring piece of awfulness was his song “We Saw Your Boobs.” Pointing to actresses in the audience, he sang — with a troupe of male dancers behind him — about exactly which movies featured them topless. At first, the camera gave us the named actresses’ reactions, but after extremely unhappy expressions by Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron, the focus remained on the stage and MacFarlane’s masturbatory cheeriness.
Unlike Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel has become a lot more political on his late-night talk show in recent years, willing to take on issues regarding health care and gun control. That newfound voice helped him as he hosted in 2018, the first Oscar ceremony after #MeToo struck the industry, and his knowing jokes on the topic landed: “If we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace,” he said, “women will only have to deal with sexual harassment all the time in every other place they go.” The previous year, he successfully hosted another landmark Oscarcast — the first after the presidential election — and was similarly willing to be topical, saying, “I want to say thank you to President Trump. Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? That’s gone, thanks to him.”
In 2014, Ellen DeGeneres hosted and ordered pizza from a local chain and generated tons of tweets. So in 2017, the year of the “La La Land”/“Moonlight” best picture fiasco, Kimmel decided to do his own version of the trick by bringing unknowing passengers from a Hollywood tour bus into the theater and face-to-face with megastars. The big problem wasn’t just that it was already after 10 p.m., which is too late for a long gag; it was that the passengers stood gawking at and taking photos of Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, and Meryl Streep, while the famous audience gawked back at the real people — non-actors, how charming! It was painfully condescending.
FANGLESS BUT FUN
We all thought that Neil Patrick Harris was just what the Oscarcast doctor ordered in 2015. He’d already presided over the Emmys (twice) and the Tonys (five times) with great success when he took on the Oscars. No, he didn’t turn the night into a raging success. But, with his ease and charm, he avoided so many of the usual pitfalls and finished up without embarrassing himself. He was vanilla but flavorful, always ready with a quip or some smooth song-and-dance moves. He won over the audience with his first words from the stage: “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry, brightest.” I’m calling Harris’s turn at the wheel a “high,” largely because he held the night together with confidence.
They should be pictured in the dictionary under the word “awkward.” Anne Hathaway was a homecoming queen and James Franco was too cool for the room when they cohosted in 2011, as the Academy once again trolled for a younger audience. No, they definitely were not the shot of Botox needed for Oscar’s saggy face. It was as if the world got to eavesdrop on the worst blind date ever. The low point: Franco stepping onstage in bright pink Marilyn Monroe drag. “I was so pissed about that, I was deliberately going to fall onstage and hopefully my dress would fall off or something — they couldn’t blame that on me,” Franco said months later to Playboy. “I felt kind of trapped in that material. I felt, ‘This is not my boat. I’m just a passenger, but I’m going down and there’s no way out.’ ”
Bottom line, the Oscarcast is a TV show, and it needs hosts who understand and honor that. In 2010, when the Academy doubled the number of best picture nominees, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin cohosted the night, and they made a strong team. They came off like an old-fashioned comedy duo as they teased all their famous friends — not the type of hosting that’s going to bring in younger viewers, but the type that doesn’t ever make you cringe.
NOT THE TONYS
When he hosted in 2009, Hugh Jackman tried to bring Broadway sizzle, but he fizzled. His movie-song production number with Beyoncé — produced by Baz Luhrmann — called to mind the famous Rob Lowe-Snow White nightmare of 1989, as it dragged on. Don’t get me wrong: Jackman was game, and he worked hard, but his stagy, musicals-are-the-big-thing attitude failed to reach viewers at home. Oscar night is not the time for big, long dance productions more suited to Las Vegas, especially since we’re all waiting — and waiting and waiting — to hear who won what.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.