Is there anyone left who actually looks forward to the Oscars? Once the most eagerly anticipated and massively viewed event on the movie calendar, the show has become an annual ordeal: bloated, self-indulgent, with a steadily diminishing audience. Last year’s ABC telecast drew a paltry 10.4 million viewers, less than half the number who watched the year before — and way down from the 40 million or so who would tune in as recently as 10 years ago.
There’s no shortage of explanations for the shrinking audience. Last year’s show obviously suffered because of the pandemic, which decimated moviegoing in general. More and more of the nominated films are now seen mainly on streaming services, which has fragmented the filmgoing audience even further. The Academy has tried to boost interest this year by eliminating eight lesser awards from Sunday’s telecast (in categories like editing, makeup, and short subjects), and adding two “fan favorite” awards — chosen, dubiously, by online polling. Good luck with that.
All this, however, leaves out the biggest reason, to my mind, that the Oscarcast has gone from must-see to must-endure TV. The show can’t find a decent host.
For the past three years the televised ceremony hasn’t even had one. The Academy this year has at least rectified that by recruiting a trio of comedy stars — Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall — to share the emcee duties. But tag-team hosts rarely do well at the Oscars, and I’m skeptical they will be able to fill the important dual role that the Oscar host has traditionally played: selling Hollywood to the American public, while knocking it off its self-congratulatory pedestal.
The gold standard for Oscar hosts remains Bob Hope, who handled a record 19 ceremonies (either solo or in part), from the radio era into the 1970s. He brought the show elegance, wit, and a crucial note of self-mockery. His opening monologues were an irreverent, indispensable guide to the year’s hot movies, trends, and celebrity gossip. And he embodied, in a way that is seldom appreciated, our love-hate relationship with that exotic dreamland known as Hollywood.
No one was more of a Hollywood insider than Hope, and yet he managed, with unerring everyman instincts, to pass as an outsider: providing a window into the clubby Hollywood world, while also deflating its pretensions. His running gag about never winning an Oscar (“Welcome to the Academy Awards — or, as it’s known at my house, Passover”) was a dig, not just at himself, but at the narcissistic delusions of all Hollywood. Hope had a team of writers, of course, but no one was quicker on his feet with an apt ad-lib. On one show in the early ‘60s (when acceptance speeches rarely lasted more than a few seconds), the winner of a short-subject award droned on way too long, thanking everyone from his wife and son to an old friend in Bronxville. Hope’s dry, impeccable comeback: “Well, that saves a telegram.”
It’s hard to imagine that wisecrack today (even if you replace “telegram” with “Instagram”), when overlong, self-indulgent acceptance speeches have become so routine that even the orchestra can’t play them off. Winners now bound onto the stage with thank-you lists longer than most of Hope’s monologues, deliver gushy paeans to Hollywood, spout earnest political speeches (expect many ovations for Ukraine on Sunday). The point, always, is to demonstrate the high-minded seriousness of Hollywood. Self-mockery? It went out with VistaVision.
Hope was hardly the only host to cast a cynical eye on Oscar puffery. Johnny Carson, who hosted five telecasts in the years after Hope, was another Hollywood insider who brought a grounded, Midwestern irreverence to the proceedings. Other hosts, from Steve Martin to Jimmy Kimmel, have struck a similar note of ironic bemusement. Even David Letterman’s much-disparaged 1995 appearance (“Oprah — Uma. Uma — Oprah”) captured the right ego-puncturing spirit.
But most of the hosts over the past few years have taken a more boosterish, Hollywood-friendly approach. Billy Crystal’s satirical clip reels and song medleys provided a lot of entertainment value, but he always struck me as a kid too awed by Hollywood to be disrespectful. The nadir may have come in 2014, when host Ellen Degeneres wandered into the audience and took selfies with Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and a dozen other stars. The Oscar host was now officially a fan.
I wish Schumer, Sykes, and Hall well. Their presence will certainly mark a step up from the rudderless shows of the past few years. But all three are working TV and movie actors, and I just wonder how willing they’ll be to skewer the hand that feeds them. Those droning acceptance speeches? Let ‘em run. Next year they could be yours.