From a public-relations standpoint, it’s been practically a how-not-to course from all sides, but this fleeting interlude offers a reminder to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Don’t try to be what you’re not.
The Academy Awards are not hip, and they never have been. Yet they have tried to borrow hipness — and thus reach the sort of viewers who might otherwise roll their eyes at the thought of sitting through the telecast — by tapping of-the-moment hosts, motivated in part by a desire to reach a younger audience.
At times, strictly in crass commercial terms, that’s worked, at least in part. But comics like Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and Seth MacFarlane are an awkward fit with the demands of an awards show and an organizing body — the academy — which must serve lots of fairly stodgy constituencies, including ABC and its advertisers, while operating under the microscopic scrutiny of the year’s biggest awards stage.
For the past few years, the show essentially settled for the status quo, tapping ABC’s genial late-night host, Jimmy Kimmel, to emcee the awards.
Still, with ratings declining sharply last year — due to a host of factors, most having nothing to do with who handles the monologue and introductions — there was clearly some hope about jump-starting the process, attracting somebody who would trigger excitement.
The surprise turned out to be that hosting the Oscars is no longer considered a particularly plum assignment but rather a thankless task. And the kind of talents that shepherded the show through simpler times — Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal — are in relatively short supply, especially if the mandate is to find somebody who will inspire “What will they say next?” anticipation in media circles.
What the academy — and perhaps more so, ABC — have waffled about accepting or acknowledging is that the movies are the real star of the night, or at least ought to be. And in a year where there’s a good chance that there will be big hits, like “A Star is Born,” in the mix — and perhaps even a genuine blockbuster, if “Black Panther” can replicate its Golden Globes feat — why muck that up with distractions regarding the host or hosts?
The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway assessed this state of affairs — in a column headlined, “Why Oscar Host Has Become the Least Wanted Job in Hollywood” — and came to the conclusion that in the age of Donald Trump, the Academy Awards need a provocateur as host, writing, “It’s time the Academy embraced controversy instead of steering away from it.”
That’s an understandable impulse but a completely wrong-headed one. The Oscars are, ultimately, about celebrating — and not incidentally, helping sell and market — movies to a vast, increasingly international audience. So, the best place to start, logically, would be to stop fretting about hosts and embrace the main reason why everyone got all dressed up.