Is there such a thing as a good Oscars host? Looking at recent history, survey says no, not really. Everybody’s a critic. Obviously, there are degrees. The James Franco/Anne Hathaway trainwreck of 2011 is in an entirely different realm of disaster from the tepid schmooze of Jimmy Kimmel or Billy Crystal or Ellen. Still, the centerpiece of the glitziest night of the showbiz year has a rather ironic reputation for mediocrity.
Does that mean the answer is no host at all? Stepping back in a time machine to 1989 and Rob Lowe’s extended musical number with a woman dressed as Snow White (whatever you’re imagining, the reality is worse) would suggest hell to the no. Gregory Peck and Billy Wilder called the ceremony “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry” and the broadcast’s producer died in disgrace a decade later. While the verdict’s still technically out on 2019 until Sunday, going hostless feels fundamentally like an orchestra-with-no-conductor type situation. In other words, a hot mess. But we’ll see.
As mentioned, the consensus on Oscar hosts historically seems to range from “meh” to “raging trash fire,” but that still leaves the most important question of all: does it have to be this way? To answer that, it is first necessary to address what, in theory, makes a good host in the first place.
A host is like a narrative through-line. They tie the thing together. They’re the rug in The Big Lebowski. Continuing with that analogy, notice that the host is not the Dude himself. Still crucial — the Dude’s rug is key to pushing the plot along and bringing characters together — but not the star of the show. A good host gets things started, keeps them moving, and makes sure various parts cohere into a functional whole. In other words, you need someone incredibly witty and charismatic who also doesn’t hog the spotlight. While these two characteristics, unfortunately, tend not to coincide, such a person could theoretically exist. Looking at television hosting more broadly presents the example of Graham Norton, who for my money is the best talk show host out there when it comes to dealing with the world of entertainment.
Admittedly, hosting an award show and a talk show are two different creatures, but the same fundamental qualities separate the best from the rest, and The Graham Norton Show highlights the wizardry of a host of unusual skill. What do I mean by that? I mean that Graham Norton is a master of getting the most out of his guests in a way that feels easy and natural but reflects a great deal of talent. He knows how to keep conversations lively without becoming domineering. At the beginning of each episode, he gets things started with an opening bit or monologue that rarely lasts longer than a minute or two, and then it’s really all about the guests. He keeps things moving along and sprinkles in some witty comments for spice. He manages an incredibly delicate balance in a way that seems so natural that if you don’t take the time to start scrutinizing his M.O., it just looks like he shows up on set, pours himself a glass of wine, and shoots the breeze with a handful of famous friends for an hour. This is the sort of energy a good host brings to the table. No jet ski gags required.
So, that’s the ideal. But now let’s talk about the reality, because that’s where the serious issues start coming into play. The various qualities that make a good host very rarely come together, but that still leaves us with some welcome exceptions to a general rule. The issue is, as two-time host Ellen DeGeneres recently told USA Today, it’s a notoriously “thankless job.” As such, just because an ideal candidate could potentially be identified does not mean said candidate could necessarily be persuaded to fill the role. It’s reminiscent of that time Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the issue with the US is that the only people who would want to be President are nuts, only at least in this instance, the stakes are considerably lower.
So that’s one problem, but there’s another one that’s even bigger, and it has to do with making decisions. The Oscars are considered one of the major television events of the year, and they’re terrified of losing that status. Hollywood’s most glamorous night of the year can’t hold on to that title if people aren’t watching. As such, they want to appeal to everybody. But in practice that’s fundamentally impossible. The stronger a reaction something instills in people, the more polarizing that thing tends to be. Same goes for public figures. There are basically two roads to choose from: pick a host that will actually get people excited and risk alienating some viewers, or play it “safe” and pick someone mild but kind of bland. Historically, the Oscars have either taken the latter path or tried to cheat by going for some weird middle ground that doesn’t actually exist (e.g. Seth Macfarlane).
As we count down to the first hostless ceremony in 30 years, maybe the best hope for future Oscar ceremonies is that another disaster will help the Academy understand that trying to stay on the safe side isn’t actually safe at all, and convince them a new host selection strategy is in order. Looking at their track record, it’s a slim chance, but still. A girl can dream.