December 07, 2018
When Kevin Hart's dream of hosting the Academy Awards came apart after two days this week, it was more than a career setback for the Philly-born comedian. It exposed a lot of fissures and contradictions at the very heart of the Oscars themselves.
Hart's departure was the culmination of a tumultuous 48-hour period. First, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that less than three months before the show, no host had yet been chosen, implicitly because nobody wanted the gig. Then, just a few hours later, Hart was named as the host. A backlash soon ensued about anti-gay material in Hart's past tweets and comedy routines, Hart was defiant and reluctant to apologize, and by late Thursday night he was out, leaving the Academy right back where they started with no host.
Which raises the question: Who says the Oscars need a host at all?
The Hart debacle was merely the latest bit of bad news for the Academy Awards. The show has dropped in the ratings in each of the last four years, including a double-digit decline in 2018, and it seems like no matter what happens, nobody's ever happy with the telecast.
Common complaints include everything from a too-long show, to too much politics, to widely popular movies rarely cracking the Best Picture roster, to a lack of representation for actors of color and female directors. And that's to say nothing of the time, two years ago, when the wrong winner was announced for Best Picture.
But it also appears that a lot of Oscar viewers aren't ever happy with the host. That's because hosting the Oscars is a totally thankless job that rarely plays to the strengths or talents of the person hosting, who always ends up blamed for the inevitable ratings decline.
Entertainers like Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres and Hugh Jackman have hosted the show in recent years, but none of them really got to do what they're best at. Jimmy Kimmel's two-year gig, while not the worst ever, was plagued by terrible comedy bits like the time he wasted 20 minutes hanging out with moviegoers at the adjacent movie theater. The all-time nadir may have been Anne Hathaway and James Franco, two very talented people who were wildly out of place hosting the Oscars.
If you're a comedian, there are better places to be funny than the Oscars. If you're a singer, there are better places to sing. If you're an actor, the gig barely involves any acting. A lot of performers aspire to end up on the Oscar stage as a winner, but there's little reason for famous people to wish for the hosting job.
The host, whoever they are, is asked to simultaneously act entertaining and funny, while not being too biting, because after all the Oscars are about celebrating Hollywood and it's important not to anger the talent. This line was crossed when Seth MacFarlane hosted (remember the "We Saw Your Boobs" song?), and during Ricky Gervais' uncommonly mean-spirited multi-year stint emceeing the Golden Globes. The annual White House Correspondent's Association Dinner, somewhat ridiculously, is contending with a similar problem.
So how can the Oscars' problems be solved? One thing they could do is… go host-less. No monologue, and just an announcer to introduce the presenters. The Grammys have done this a few times, without losing much of anything, and a no-host show would solve two problems at once: The producers wouldn't have to find a host, and it would make the show shorter, their other biggest perennial concern.
There are other internal contradictions that the Oscars can never seem to solve. Films that dominate at the box office, and were seen by much of the public, rarely compete for Oscars. The Academy has tried to address this by repeatedly adjusting the number of Best Picture nominees, and then proposing a since-abandoned idea for a "Popular Film" award. The Academy must now pray that box office giant Black Panther gets a ton of nominations, although even that is far from a guarantee of ratings gold.
There's also the Oscars' perceived need to put forth efforts at social consciousness, while not alienating those of varying political persuasions. Although on the latter point, it's likely Fox News will denounce Hollywood and the Oscars as part of a hopeless liberal elite no matter what they do.
So why do we still care about this? Despite the ratings drop, 26.5 million viewers still watched the Oscars last year, which is a whole lot of people. When the NFL had much-publicized ratings woes last year, football games were still the highest-rated thing on TV most weeks, and even with the drop, the Oscars were still among the most-watched primetime network TV broadcasts of 2018. Aside from all of the other factors, the falling ratings are part of the general fragmentation of TV audiences, in the age of Netflix. Ratings for most major things are almost always down.
My personal view is that I'll always watch the Oscars no matter what, and I wouldn't care if the show was six hours long. But I'm also a professional film critic, who has seen all of the movies and has a vested interest in who wins categories like Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film. I realize most Oscar viewers aren't in my position.
The Oscar producers could stand to get rid of a few of the musical numbers and never-ending comedy bits, and perhaps make do with one classic-movie montage instead of three. But they should also considering the one thing that seems to be causing their biggest headache of all: The host.