Oscars: How the hosting gig became a poisoned chalice

As the Academy announces that this month’s ceremony is to go ahead without a host for the first time in 30 years, Alexandra Pollard reflects on Hollywood’s most thankless task

Wednesday 06 February 2019 20:24
Frocky horror: ‘All the reasons why I turned it down came true,’ said Anne Hathaway of hosting the 2011 Oscars with James Franco
Frocky horror: ‘All the reasons why I turned it down came true,’ said Anne Hathaway of hosting the 2011 Oscars with James Franco

When Anne Hathaway was first approached to host the Oscars in 2011, she turned the offer down, convinced that it was a “no-win situation”. It was James Franco, her eventual co-host, who changed her mind. Eight years on, she wishes he hadn’t.

“He didn’t give me anything,” Hathaway told People magazine recently. “God, I just remember the night before we’re about to go up there, and me turning to everyone and going, ‘Am I too much? This feels really big to me’.” The producer assured her she was doing well, but audiences disagreed. The pair’s hosting stint bombed. “All the reasons why I turned it down came true,” she said. “All of them. Even the people who do it spectacularly well – like Hugh Jackman, Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres – usually just get a “meh” from everyone. It’s a really hard gig to stick the landing on. Sometimes it’s better to go with no host than force something that’s just not working.”

And so, this year, on 24 February, no host it is – for the first time in 30 years. Not that the Academy planned it that way. Until recently, comedian Kevin Hart was set to take the mantle from last year’s host Jimmy Kimmel, but when a slew of homophobic tweets and comedy bits resurfaced, he stepped down. By all accounts, he might just have dodged a bullet.

Until around 2005, a reliable trio of stars took turns to host the biggest event in the Hollywood calendar: Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin. Before that, hosts such as Johnny Carson and Bob Hope had years-long presenting stints, with the latter hosting 19 times. But over the past decade and a half, the likes of Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres, Seth MacFarlane, Hugh Jackman and Jon Stewart have come and gone. No one has stuck around.

Speaking to The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter’s Seth Abramovitch suggested that the current climate is to blame. “With my generation, it was still OK to poke some things,” said the 46-year-old, “but the millennial generation are a lot more sensitive. It’s hard for them to understand context or satire.” It is hard to imagine a more patronising sentiment. Besides, as Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg proved at the Golden Globes earlier this year, it is possible to make biting, politically charged jokes without provoking millennial consternation.

Perhaps the real reason for the growing reluctance to host is a little simpler. “Look, it’s a thankless job,” said DeGeneres recently. “No matter how well you do, it’s really just about the performances and the awards. That’s all anybody really cares about. People are just waiting to hear if they win or lose, and so there’s a lot of stress going on and they’re not really focused. Your job is to make everybody relaxed for the first 10 minutes or whatever that monologue is ... [but] as the show progresses and there are more losers in the audience, the mood gets worse. It’s just a tough gig.”

It’s an exhausting one, too. The job takes weeks of preparation, endless hours working with a team of writers, and – as Jimmy Kimmel revealed last year – pays a relatively pitiful $15,000. “They asked like 14 people, and they all said no,” he told KROQ Radio. “And then there was me”.

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It might all be worth it, of course, if the gig boosted a star’s popularity or reputation. But more often than not, it does nothing of the sort. It is a huge, terrifying risk, even to the most seasoned professionals, and one that usually backfires. Some of the ceremony’s recent hosts have catastrophically failed (who could forget MacFarlane’s loathsome 2013 opening number, “We Saw Your Boobs”?), while others, as Anne Hathaway put it, “got a ‘meh’”. Perhaps the Academy failed to replace Kevin Hart not because his shoes were too big to fill, but because the job has become an increasingly poisonous chalice. “I’m not doing it, goddammit!” said Chris Rock, who has hosted twice before, last month. “You’re not getting me.”

Whatever the reason for their struggle, the Academy will surely be hoping the evening goes better than it did last time it went hostless. In 1989, after an infamous opening number involving Rob Lowe and a rendition of “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”, the show received an open letter from 17 prominent Hollywood figures. The evening, they said, was “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry. It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion.”

If all fails, then, perhaps they should give Sandra Bullock’s proposal a try. “I think they should randomly pull people out of the audience and make them cover a section,” she suggested in a recent red carpet interview. “Don’t even tell them it’s happening, just put up the teleprompter, and go, ‘It’s your turn. You’re an actor, figure it out.’ I just pulled that out of my butt. It’s amazing.” Well, does anyone have any better ideas?

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