What’s the deal with Oscar hosts?

James Oliver

There's always drama around the Oscars but it usually concerns the films that hope to win rather than the ceremony itself. Not this year!

The Academy Awards ceremony has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. They're having host trouble: they picked comedian Kevin Hart but didn't do their due diligence—one quick look at his Twitter timeline might have shown them he wasn't perhaps the best chap to MC an event much beloved by gay men.

This reveals something about the awards themselves. Hosting the Oscars is a big gig, but it's also more: in many ways, you can tell the story of the Oscars through the history of its hosts. Or at least that's what we're going to try to demonstrate below, showing how they reflect the changing times, and changing ideas of what the Academy Awards are about.

Oh, and if you're interested, they're not having anyone host it this year. There exists the very real possibility it will be a disaster—which is the best reason to watch them in ages.

"The Oscars needed someone who could command the stage, connect with the folks at home and gently tweak the assembled egos"

Finding Their Feet

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established for all manner of reasons but presenting awards was not one of them, originally at least. What became the Oscars were an afterthought, to give a thin veneer of respectability to an organisation essentially founded to cement Hollywood's vested interests.

As such, the first ceremony wasn't a big deal; essentially an agreeable dinner with a spot of trophy giving before pudding. It was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks (a big star then) and it took him a whole 15 minutes to hand out the statuary. Fifteen minutes! Just think of that during the next ceremony, as you suffer through another turgid best song nominee or—oh God—some interpretive dance.

Anyway, it was soon decided to make more of a night of it. But it obviously took them a while to figure out the formula—why else would they get crusty British character player Lawrence Grant to preside, as he did in 1931? Maybe he told the organisers he could supply his own tuxedo.

A better idea was to get a humourist to host—Will Rogers did the honours in 1934 and Irving S Cobb followed the year after. But still, things weren't quite right. The Oscars needed someone who could command the stage, connect with the folks at home and gently tweak the assembled egos. They found him in 1940.

 

The Bob Hope Years

1978 was an interesting year at the Oscar Ceremony. Annie Hall was the big winner but Star Wars was heavily nominated; two films that showed just how far American movies had come from the glories of Old Hollywood.

But there was one, very prominent reminder of Old Hollywood on stage—Bob Hope, hosting the show for the final time, near enough four decades after he'd first done the honours. 

He hadn't done every ceremony since 1940 but he'd done more than anyone else and, more importantly, established the job description that every sensible host has tried to follow since, playing a sly ringmaster of the greatest show on earth. Under his watch, the ceremony became more than just an orgy of self-congratulation but a genuine show, something that people would—and did—tune in for.

He let you know that he thought the whole evening was a bit silly too, but he also made it OK to enjoy it for all that. This was the Golden Age of Oscar—and Hope could feel entitled to a goodly chunk of the credit for making it so.

 

Hope-less Hosts

While Bob Hope dominated the Academy Award ceremonies like a chubby, slightly ingratiating colossus, it was never a full-time gig: he was happy to let other people take a shot, not least because it showed it wasn't quite as easy as he made it look.

Jack Benny, for instance, stood in for Bob during 1944-5; he was otherwise unavailable, entertaining the troops then liberating Europe. And in 1948, actress Agnes Moorhead became the very first woman to host the ceremony. It had only taken 20 years, and even then, they paired her off with Dick Powell, presumably so he could interrupt her if she started talking about ponies or something. 

Double acts like the Moorhead/Powell twofer were a popular way to fill Hope-shaped holes, although quite why the Academy picked the pairs they did is anyone's guess—did Jerry Lewis have a powerful chemistry with Claudette Colbert—and Joseph L Mankiewicz [1956]?

David Niven would have made a great solo host—his response to the first and so far only streaker at the Oscars is still widely remembered as one of the only moments of genuine wit that have ever been seen at the Oscars:

As it was, they insisted on pairing him with Burt Reynolds and Diana Ross. Oh well. Their loss.

 

Clear as Crystal

As the Seventies turned into the Eighties, there was common agreement that maybe Bob Hope should step aside once and for all, and let some new blood run the show. The trouble is, that was easier said than done.

Oscar tried numerous replacements—Johnnie Carson (for all the Academy is a global brand, they have a predilection for American chat show hosts unfamiliar to non-Americans), Jack Lemmon and Chevy Chase. But none of them felt right. At its nadir, they even allowed Paul Hogan to co-host in 1987.

"Perhaps the big problem is that Oscar is looking a bit... needy"

And even in those years when Crystal fancied a break, you had Whoopi Goldberg (the first woman and the first African-American to host the show singlehanded). Even if the films themselves were as undeserving as ever—really, Titanic didn't deserve all the awards—at least the ceremony itself was almost bearable, apart from the interpretive dance, obviously.

 

Our times

Strange though it might sound—for it is still one of the most recognisable brands that there is—but Oscar has been having a rough time of it of late, and not just because Billy Crystal, like Bob Hope before him, has proved to be a hard act to follow.

The ceremony is no longer the must-watch it was during Hope's time, or even Crystal's; it's said the films they nominate aren't mainstream enough. Desperate to become the centre of attention once again, Oscar has chosen hosts it believes will bring back the crowds.

Sadly, they just can't catch a break—Chris Rock is a very funny man, but probably not the ideal chap to entice conservative Midwestern audiences. Ditto Jon Stewart, a hip club comedian slightly adrift in a vaudeville gig. Ellen Degeneres fared better—remember that selfie she posted during the awards, and how it almost broke Twitter?—but has been reluctant to return.

Perhaps the big problem is that Oscar is looking a bit... needy. A bit too desperate in its bid for younger audiences: did they really think the pairing of Anne Hathaway and James Franco would bring in the kids? Because it didn't. It just looked embarrassing. Although not as embarrassing as Seth McFarland's pre-#MeToo sexual bullying.

So the Academy Awards were adrift even before the unfortunate business with Kevin Hart. They've been over-run with advice and probably don't need any more. Nevertheless, it's to be hoped that this latest nonsense convinces them to stop chasing fashion, or at least not so obviously. And there is hope. It's probably too late this year, but the internet has been ablaze with a quite brilliant idea: get The Muppets to host. Make it so, Oscar. Make it so. That would be amazing.