There's no lectern like it

Times Staff Writer

It is routinely called the toughest job in television, which seems kind of strange considering all the gift baskets involved. Hosting the Oscars does not, after all, involve dodging bullets or land mines in pursuit of the truth. Neither is the Oscar host expected to explain that unfortunate traffic incident on Mulholland Drive to Diane Sawyer or cover for Larry King when he forgets who Jerry Seinfeld is. On the contrary, the Oscar host gets to be on the cover of magazines if he or she wants to, often wearing supernice clothes and not paying for them. For weeks, there's a private dressing room at the Kodak, continual access to a personal entourage of writers and swag suites and an endlessly regenerating mountain of Ritz Bits, Skittles and granola bars, not to mention the chance to glad-hand more movie stars than a person should be allowed to meet in one lifetime. What's so tough about that?

Well, let's ask David Letterman who, 13 years later, is still living down his less than stellar turn. For decades, the man has entertained millions, been a late-night fixture, and he came back from a heart attack, but that Uma/Oprah bomb? Undoubtedly, it will remain the single most memorable thing he has ever uttered.

Here's the thing about the Oscars: It's four hours of live television. In case you haven't noticed, we don't do live television anymore because it is too hard. Lines fall flat, people miss their cues, someone says Osama instead of Obama and there it is, irrevocable and in living color. Part award ceremony, part variety show, the Oscars has approximately 17 million moving parts (and that's just the set) and the host has to be aware of them all. Has to cleverly introduce movie stars and montages, honor the dead and the ailing, play up the wattage but still be aware of all those nonfamous people who actually make the movies. All this, while keeping track of who's winning, what they're saying and anything at all that happens onstage.

The guys in the Super Bowl just have to play football, for heaven's sake.

The hosts who have received the highest marks in recent years -- Billy Crystal and Steve Martin -- did it by thinking on their feet (with, of course, help from their writers). During the 1992 show, Jack Palance celebrated his supporting actor win by doing one-handed push-ups and Crystal kept up a running commentary of Palance's subsequent activities ("He's just bungee jumped off the Hollywood sign," "has just won the New York primary"). During his 2003 gig, Martin not only handled a walkie-talkie hitting the stage during his monologue ("That was planned"), he smoothed over a contentious speech by Michael Moore that had to be cut short due to boos and catcalls from the audience and stagehands. "It was so sweet backstage," Martin said. "The Teamsters were helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his car."

I can't remember who won best picture, or what Martin said in his opening, but I remember that line because it was a great joke that we were all in on.

Here's another thing about the Oscars: It has one tough audience. Actually, it would be easier if it had one tough audience because it actually has three. It's hard enough to please 3,000 people stuck for four hours at the Kodak, shifting in various states of inebriation, nicotine withdrawal, anxiety, boredom and corset-induced discomfort. But the host also must connect with the disparate millions, all those television viewers clutching their Funyuns and remote controls, many of them still irritated that "Enchanted" didn't get more nominations, even though that Amy Adams is so cute.

And then there's all those critics who can't wait to write, blog or telecast why the Oscars is boring, overblown, self-indulgent and/or unnecessary and why Jon or Ellen or Chris isn't Billy and never will be.

The public attitude toward the Oscars has become a bit like that old borscht-belt joke: The food was terrible, and such small portions. For better or worse, celebrity is the currency of our psycho-social marketplace, devalued and yet still deeply desired, and not so long ago, the Academy Awards was Ft. Knox -- mythic and revered. The red carpet served up an unprecedented panoply of glamour, while the acceptance speeches offered fans a brief illusion of intimacy -- as stars wept or thanked their mother or spoke out against AIDS, we saw them as actual human beings. Now, the world is full of red carpets, the red carpets full of the rich and famous, and standing in line at the Ralphs, we learn more about the personal lives of movie stars than we know about our friends.

Still, the Oscars remains the gold standard, and like every object of obsessive desire, it sparks as much loathing as love. The host, then, must serve as part therapist, part cannon fodder, walking a fine and wobbly line between celebration and deprecation. Bob Hope, the longtime favorite, was a master, using his continued Oscar-lessness (he won several special awards but never a competitive Oscar) to play on the significance and silliness of the whole process. Johnny Carson brought his brand of glib admiration and world-weary view of the industry -- no one could smirk a compliment and still seem genuine like Carson. Crystal picked up where Hope left off; his signature blend of sarcasm and schmaltz kept everyone happy enough that they didn't notice being bored.

But things have changed since Crystal hosted. The films themselves have become smaller and artier -- in 2004, the last time Crystal did one of his famous musical openers, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was poised to sweep -- and the public has grown more jaded. It's not a coincidence that the last few years have seen swings in attitudes as the academy seeks to accommodate the changing opinions of Hollywood.

Three years ago, Chris Rock was brought on to be the outrageous outsider, but in fulfilling the "outrageous" portion of his contract, he insulted Jude Law, which made the movie stars nervous and, more unforgivably, prompted Sean Penn to make a pompous little speech midshow in Law's defense. Can't have that. Jon Stewart gave it a shot, going drier, more satirical and smarty-pants, which worked for those who like their smarty pants dry and satirical but fell short for those looking for, well, actual laughs. Last year, Ellen DeGeneres was all wide eyes and oh-my-gosh-there's-Clint-Eastwood, which made for a more fan-girl, user-friendly show if not a pinnacle of sophistication.

Stewart is back this year and after the debacle that was the stripped-down, celebrity-free Golden Globes, he will get a rare pass on award fatigue. Many of us have actually not seen George Clooney in a tux for months now. If there is no big front-runner among the nominated films, there is an intriguing assortment of themes, and isn't this the first year Cate Blanchett actually has her own category?

(You can use that if you want, Jon, because the guy with the toughest job in television needs all the help he can get.) --

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