By DOUG STRASSLER
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Monday that James Franco and Anne Hathaway had signed on to host this Februaryâ€™s Oscar telecast, I actually did a double take. I had at first assumed they were among the first presenters named; it took a few additional seconds for me to realize that they had instead been granted one of the biggest gigs in all of show business.
Call me an Oscar traditionalist, but this choice leaves me a bit nonplussed, to say the very least. And it does so for reasons both related to and having nothing to do with the pair.
I have no problem, per se, with Franco and Hathaway â€“ what should we now call them? Frathaway? Hanco? â€“ though I donâ€™t adorn on them an Eckhartian or Linneyesque level of actor worship. Theyâ€™re talented performers and gutsy guys. Hathaway has acquitted herself nicely on episodes of Saturday Night Live and in one quick number in Hugh Jackmanâ€™s opening number of the 2009 Oscar telecast, when she was nominated for Rachel Getting Married. And it seems impossible for Franco to spread himself too thin, given his forays into multiple distinct artistic genres and his 749 simultaneous grad degrees.
But what Frathaway (ok, I decided) are are It stars of the moment, and the role of Oscar emcee should be reserved for some sort of elder statesman of Hollywood, someone whoâ€™s been to the big show a couple of times. Frathaway might do great on live sketch shows and interviews, but hosting a major awards show is a different animal. Itâ€™s a full-blooded, old school entertainment event, and requires a different kind of performance. Thatâ€™s why it has largely fallen on musicians and comedians to fill the role.
Additionally the temperature of the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night is different than any other night. Thereâ€™s a ton of nerves and industry pressure going on. Attendees arenâ€™t just there to sit back and watch; theyâ€™re waiting for their category or to present, with insiders and laypeople alike ready to make hyperbolic statements about their performances, careers, reputations and what theyâ€™re wearing. A good host must possess the appropriate tone and energy to cut through that tension as they keep the show going. The aloof David Lettermanâ€™s inability to recognize this, more than his â€œUma-Oprahâ€ statement, is what caused him to fail when he hosted in 1995.
The best hosts also have to feel comfortable enough going completely off-script. The litmus test, of course, is that of David Niven. He hosted a portion of the 1974 Oscars when a streaker ran across the stage, after just a few seconds Niven offered this bon mot: “Isn’t it fascinating to think, that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life, is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” Quick, clever, and audience-assuaging, it was perfect.
Similarly, in 1992, when Billy Crystal (my pick for all-time best Oscar host) paid tribute to legendary moviemaker Hal Roach in the audience, Roach stood up and said a few words before anyone could get a mic to him; no one could hear him. Without missing a beat, Crystal said, â€œI think that’s fitting. After all, Mr. Roach started in silent film.â€ You need the ability to roll with the unpredictable. Can Frathaway bring it? After all, it was only just last week in an interview that Hathaway herself said two years ago she was too afraid to get up and speak â€œin front of all those people.â€ Thatâ€™s why, from Hope to Carson to Rock to DeGeneres to Stewart, most hosts have been people with proven track records as both writers and live performers.
Frathaway represents a facelift, a gambit on the part of ABC to boost sagging ratings. But this kind of fix misses the problem. For years, the Oscars were often the highest-rated program of the year, often beating out the Super Bowl and Olympic events. It used to be the one night of the year you could count on seeing the all the stars come out and interact. And there used to be actual suspense about who would win. But thanks to a 24-7 celebrity culture, a glut of lead-up awards telecasts, and constant awards surveillance, the Oscars is no longer the go-to source for that. You want celebrities interacting? You could just as easily go to Funnyordie.com or buy a Rihanna album.
But getting fresher faces to host and present also punishes the smaller group of diehard movie fans who love watching the Oscars for the moments it adds to the Hollywood lexicon. Take, for example, the very year Hathaway was nominated. Shirley MacLaine gave a very sweet speech praising her. The connection? MacLaine won her Oscar playing Debra Wingerâ€™s mother in Terms of Endearment â€“ and now Winger had played mother to Hathaway in Rachel. Thus, a precious sense of Oscar lineage had been created. I wish those behind the show could put more thought into moments like that.
Itâ€™s that same kind of thinking that has moved the bestowing of honorary awards to a private ceremony in the fall. That may be bathroom break time for the casual viewer, but I loved getting to see a teary Barbara Stanwyck dedicate her award to the late William Holden, and Stanley â€œSinginâ€™ In the Rainâ€ Donen dance with his statuette to â€œCheek to Cheek.â€ And Iâ€™m sad that we wonâ€™t get to see more live moments like that, all because of lousy ratings.
Iâ€™m not resistant to outright change, but these recent Oscar alterations, including the Best Picture Expansion, are empty calories. Frathaway may be hot young things (as Hathaway herself currently demonstrates onscreen in Love & Other Drugs) but giving this telecast a leaner diet isnâ€™t going to help prolong the life of Oscar. Thereâ€™s a simpler, if not easy, solution: make better movies that enrapture the mainstream, like cable television currently does so well.
Hereâ€™s an idea: film a movie where Don Draper starts making crystal meth to ward off deadly zombies. Any takers?
What do you guys think? Are you psyched to see them host?