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Oscar’s flunkies

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 3 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Oscar’s flunkies

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 3 2008


Oscar’s flunkies

Why do the Academy Awards keep tapping TV personalities to host an evening that honours movie stars?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

On Sunday night, talk show host Jon Stewart, who routinely performs for about 1.5 million viewers, will face a TV audience of close to a billion people—and a salon of Hollywood royalty seated within spitting distance of the stage. The Daily Show’s fake news anchor hosted the Oscars once before, in 2006, and now he’s back after Ellen DeGeneres handled the chore last year. Ever since Billy Crystal got tired of the gig, it seems the TV talk show host has become the default Oscar host, a tradition that began with Johnny Carson. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, think about it. Movie stars are at the top of the celebrity food chain. They’re more revered and better paid than TV stars. And the Oscars are a far bigger deal than the Emmys. So why does Hollywood keep tapping TV personalities to rule an evening designed to honour the supremacy of the silver screen?

The obvious answer: it’s a TV show. And entertainers who spend their days on-camera delivering monologues and ad libs in front of a studio audience would presumably be comfortable doing the same thing on a larger scale at the Academy Awards. But that’s not always the case. Carson navigated the show with aplomb five times between 1979 and 1984. But David Letterman was so flat and awkward when he tackled the assignment in 1995 (“Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Uma.”) that he was never invited back. Two years ago, Stewart displayed more poise, but as The Smartest Guy In The Room performed satirical acupuncture on Hollywood’s body politic, there was something grimly sadomasochistic about the whole exercise. Last year the mood lightened as DeGeneres came on all relaxed and cuddly. The emcee as puppy dog. But Ellen looked like she was trying too hard to please—a trait that turned into selfmocking shtick as she vacuumed the aisles and got Steven Spielberg to snap her photo for her MySpace page. Ellen reduced Hollywood’s big night to daytime TV.

Whenever the Academy finds the perfect host, it tries to make him a fixture. In the 80year history of the awards, that’s happened with just three performers—Bob Hope, who hosted or co-hosted 18 shows; Carson, who handled five; and Billy Crystal, who served as emcee eight times. Whoopi Goldberg has had four shots at it, but never two years running. She’s Oscar’s relief pitcher. Ever since Crystal bowed out, each new host seems to be nervously auditioning for a more permanent role.

But instead of poaching from TV, why doesn’t the Academy hire a bona fide movie star for its big night? Clearly, it helps to have a comedian with some experience at a live microphone. So how about Tom Hanks, a double Oscar winner who cut his teeth doing stand-up comedy? Could anyone be more A-list or more qualified? Or Jim Carrey, another superstar who graduated from the nightclub stage? Or Robin Williams, who’s one of the most entertaining comics on the planet. (There is, of course, the justifiable fear that Williams might annihilate the show’s decorum with gonzo improv. During his cocaine years, in 1986, he shared hosting duties with Alan Alda and Jane Fonda—a weird ménage if ever there was one—and looked as if he might spontaneously combust.)

But no matter how qualified, no big-time movie star would want to host the Oscars The role is too demeaning. And it comes with an impossible mandate. You have to serve as a crowd-pleasing maître d’ for two sets of clientele that have virtually nothing in common—Hollywood royalty and a billion TV viewers.

Like a court jester treading a precarious line between satire and

treason, you’re expected to dignify a preposterous display of showbiz vanity, while poking just enough fun at it that those seated in the front rows can congratulate themselves for taking a joke at their own expense.

Serving as Oscar’s bum boy is the ultimate service job, which is why A-list actors aren’t clamouring to do it. Over the course of the show, the host’s performance turns into a spectacle of incredibly shrinking stardom. It starts out big with the opening monologue, but before long it’s reduced to rushed oneline segues, and by the time the show drones into its final hour, the emcee is dispatching his duties with the frantic efficiency of a Bel Air parking valet.

No wonder the show’s two most durable hosts, Bob Hope and Billy Crystal—routinely laced their monologues with mock resentment, as also-ran actors. Hope routinely joked that at his house the Oscars were called “Passover.” Serving as Oscar’s manservant is an act of black-tie bondage: compromise and humiliation become part of the routine.

Hope made the role his own, carrying it off year after year with ritual panache, as if to the manor bom. Long before television, he emceed his first show in 1940, as a radio star who had come out of vaudeville. The previous host was Arkansas’ Bob “Bazooka” Burns, famous for playing an instrument of his own invention—a kind of giant kazoo/trombone made of gas pipes and a whisky funnel. Burns was known for performing in blackface, mocking hillbillies, and starring in movies with Bing Crosby (later Hope’s cohort) before leaving Hollywood to become a pig farmer. More notable emcees have ranged from Frank Sinatra to Jack Lemmon. And from time to time, moviestar ensembles, known as “friends of Oscar,” would share hosting duties.

By the time Carson took over in 1979, the Academy seemed to have accepted the fact that TV owns the Oscars. Johnny employed a dry, deadpan style that worked: just tell the jokes and do the job. Crystal was the last great Oscar host who rose to the occasion, mixing sharp stand-up with vaudevillian song and dance. But he also opened the Pandora’s box of postmodern SNL irony, and helped turn the Oscars into a show about a show. Breaking through the “fourth wall” of the stage, he schmoozed with the front row celebrities, tipping his hat to Jack and the gang as if paying homage to a mob boss in Vegas.

But at least Crystal embraced the vaudevillian energy of the Bob Hope tradition. Ever since he stepped down, his successors have been killing Oscar with irony. Steve Martin tried playing it cool. “Hosting the Oscars,” he quipped, “is like making love to a beauti-

ful woman. It’s something I only get to do when Billy Crystal’s out of town.” But Martin’s urbane wit and visible disdain for the whole business played better on TV than with the audience. The Oscars cannot be subverted. Oscar tends to diminish those who refuse to worship him. Take Chris Rock, who hosted in 2005We expected something incendiary. But deprived of his trademark profanity, Rock tried to maintain his edge by insulting the stars, and the movies, with mean-spirited jibes. It was like watching someone veer offside in a wedding toast.

Stewart is a palatable choice: suave, smart and politically astute. He’s also the ultimate outsider, and proof that the Oscars are now bipolar—torn between self-congratulation and self-loathing. At the 2006 awards, Stewart said, “A lot of people say that this town

is too liberal, out of touch with mainstream America, an atheistic pleasure dome, a modern-day, beachfront Sodom and Gomorrah, a moral black hole where innocence is obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed. I don’t really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that.” Stewart also likened the giant Oscar monolith onstage to the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad: “Do you think that if we all got together and pulled this down, democracy would flourish in Hollywood?” The funny thing about Hollywood is that even the insiders, no matter how famous or powerful or entrenched, like to think they’re not part of it. All the major stars I’ve interviewed over the years—Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Cate Blanche«— tend to refer to “Hollywood” in the third person. As they or them. Hollywood is other people’s money. And now that the studios are more like banking cartels than creative entities, that’s more true than ever.

But Hollywood is not a place so much as an idea, an elusive alloy of money and magic. And that naked idol with the sword between his legs is as tangible as it gets. Television may no longer be deemed inferior to movies, economically or artistically. But an Emmy remains a secular prize. Oscar holds a religious mystique that seems to confer a fleeting kiss of immortality, as contradictory as that might seem. For all those actors who serve as objects of media worship, wondering if they’re really worth it, Oscar is as good as God, a higher power you can hold in your hand. He can reduce the most exalted stars into blubbering mortals—and his hosts into desperate pretenders to a throne that may no longer exist. M

By the show's droning final hour, the host is dispatching his duties with the frantic efficiency of a parking valet