by Christopher Campbell
The Academy Awards barely recognize comedic talent in film, so it’s kind of ironic that the Oscars have typically been hosted by a comedic personality. Since the Academy primarily honors serious movies and performances, it’d be more fitting to have Sean Penn leading the show. But TV audiences love a funny variety program, and the tradition has worked out well thanks to humorists like Will Rogers, Bob Hope and Billy Crystal, so the comedy has been a constant.
This year, however, the ceremony will feature Hugh Jackman as emcee, and the joke-filled monologue has been axed. But is it still ironic that an actor best known for playing a superhero is hosting an award show that fails to regularly celebrate blockbuster franchises like his X-Men series? And are the producers capitalizing on this irony by hiring Jackman, who will certainly be promoting his upcoming spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine?
When the choice was announced, plenty of people immediately thought of the ratings-boosting possibility of having Jackman wear his Wolverine costume while performing his hosting duties. For an Oscars ceremony that may end up nominating a superhero film for Best Picture and will be secretly recognizing Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Iron Man as much as in Tropic Thunder (if he’s indeed nominated for the latter), the singing, dancing Australian is quite appropriate for the gig.
But despite his ratings appeal to comic geeks and old ladies who read People magazine, could this relatively humorless host be setting himself up for a roast? Here’s hoping he’s at least better than the following Oscars embarrassments:
Jerry Lewis (1956, 1957, 1959)
It was his third time as a co-host, and it was also his last, but the thing that may have done him in was hardly his fault. The awards concluded with the presentation of Gigi as Best Picture, yet the telecast still had 20 minutes of airtime to fill. First, there was an awkward Oscar-winner group-sing rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” during which Lewis kept shouting, “Keep singing!” Then, the over-the-top actor (whose fellow co-hosts included Bob Hope, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Tony Randall and Mort Sahl), attempted to ad-lib jokes for the remainder of the program. NBC ended up pulling the plug early and ran a short film instead. Exactly 50 years later, Lewis will (somewhat controversially) return to the Academy Awards this February to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. And as long as he doesn’t say anything homophobic (it might be tough if Milk is prominently showcased), he could potentially make up for old times by clowning around for a 20 minute-long acceptance speech.
Chris Rock (2005)
One of the problems with comedians as Oscars hosts is that they tend to ridicule Hollywood, and though the people at home may enjoy seeing movie stars’ egos deflated, the stars themselves are not always laughing. This is supposed to be a self-congratulatory celebration, after all. Occasional jabs are fine, but Rock took the mockery to a new level. Even if Sean Penn was too outraged by the Jude Law offense, it’s true Rock could have been a little less insulting to the crowd he was addressing. Not only did he label specific films as “sucking,” he showed the Academy just how obsolete their awards are with a clip of regular moviegoers naming non-nominated movies as their favorites of the year. It was no surprise that Rock was not asked back.
Chevy Chase (1987, 1988)
At least Rock was funny enough to come away from his experience undamaged, perhaps because the Academy should have expected little else from choosing him. And it did help that Penn’s humorlessness actually assisted Rock’s mockery of the Hollywood ego. On the other hand, Chase’s opening address in 1988 to the “Hollywood phonies,” was not really that amusing a joke nor was it appreciated by the elite crowd. This was his second duty as an Oscar host, having shared the gig with Goldie Hawn and Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan the year before. But he was similarly not asked back after using his time on stage to knock critics and nominees and also to be so immature as to pretend to pick his nose. Is it any coincidence that Chase’s career also took a downward turn in 1989?
David Letterman (1995)
Even less fitting than a comedic actor to host the Academy Awards is a comedic talk show host. But it worked for so many years with Johnny Carson, so Letterman was given a shot. His “Oprah, Uma” shtick really wasn’t too awful, but it has infamously become one of the low points in Oscar history. Worse than its initial appearance, though, are the revisits to the joke, for self-mockery. Letterman’s return for a self-deprecating cameo the following year was appreciable, but continued callbacks have been even lamer than the original offense. Less memorable yet more awkward was the Late Show tie-in of a stupid pet trick assisted by a clearly uncomfortable Tom Hanks. Let us hope the Academy never thinks to ask Jay Leno to host or we’ll be similarly be subjected to “Jaywalking at the Oscars.”
Nobody (1939, 1942, 1948, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1988)
The only thing worse than Jay Leno hosting is nobody hosting. The ceremony has failed to have a leader on multiple occasions, including those years the Academy went with numerous co-hosts, which they labeled “Friends of Oscar.” In 1971, that group consisted of 33 members. That’s more than there were awards categories. Some awards shows work without a clear host, as such an event only necessitates an announcer to introduce presenters, but one of the most entertaining parts of the Oscars is always the opening monologue. Interestingly enough, Hugh Jackman is reportedly not doing one of those, so he could very well be just as bad as having no host at all.