If it's good enough for "Saturday Night Live," it's good enough for … the Academy Awards?
That's the hope, anyway, of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which announced Monday that James Franco and Anne Hathaway will be co-hosting the 83rd Academy Awards. With respective ages of 32 and 28, the two actors are among the youngest hosts for the iconic award show. While both are accomplished, adventurous and well-regarded actors, their primary job qualification for hosting a live variety show is their experience toplining "SNL."
"We're not going to require them to perform six to eight skits playing different characters live in front of an audience, but if you can handle 'Saturday Night Live,' then that's a great indication of your readiness as an Oscar host," says Bruce Cohen, co-producer with Don Mischer of the show, which will air Feb. 27.
With Franco and Hathaway both getting high marks for their performances this year — Franco in "127 Hours," Hathaway in "Love & Other Drugs" — the film academy reached out to movie stars that are ascending in their career. The academy is trying everything to lure a younger audience — and Franco and Hathaway are a key part of that plan.
"It's a little younger in its approach," Mischer said. "They are attractive and young. They can be playful at times, and it felt good to us as the direction we wanted to go with the show." (Franco and Hathaway declined to comment for this article.)
It's not the first time that "SNL" has served as the farm team for the major leagues of Hollywood, stretching back to the days of Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. More recently, Justin Timberlake proved himself a nimble enough contributor to the late-night comedy sketch show for David Fincher to cast him in a supporting role in this year's likely best picture contender "The Social Network."
"It has always been a thing that happens on the show where people see that people are more than what they thought," says "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels. "Whenever people get to see something they never saw before, it has another level to it."
Still, the move to hire Hathaway and Franco is clearly a departure from Oscar hosts in the past. While Hathaway scored high marks for her brief song-and-dance number with Hugh Jackman on the 81st award show and recently played Viola in New York's Shakespeare in the Park's "Twelfth Night," her experience on live television is limited. Jackman himself was considered a surprise choice two years ago, but the Australian had hosted the Tonys three times and won a Tony for his role in "The Boy From Oz."
Franco, meanwhile, has an eclectic — some would say oddball — résumé, including performance art pieces and a recurring part on the television soap opera "General Hospital." But he's not known for live stage performances and only recently moved into the ranks of leading actor. Contrast that with last year's hosts, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin (ages 52 and 65, respectively), both longtime movie and comedy stars.
"It's a positive choice to go younger and break the mold," said Gilbert Cates, who has produced numerous Oscar telecasts. "With this show, sometimes you have to do something to learn how effective it will be. When I first chose Billy Crystal to host, some people thought it was a mistake. At the end of the day, if it works it's a great choice."
Mischer spins the news this way: He and Cohen were interested in hiring movie stars, rather than comedians, to headline the show. "Bruce and I talked a lot about what it should feel like when our hosts walk out on that stage at the top of the show. People should feel that they deserve to be there, that they want to be there and they are comfortable there. It contributes to a familial feeling in the room, and that translates into television."
Franco is already likely to have a reason to be at the show, as he's practically guaranteed a lead actor nomination for his commanding role as Aron Ralston, the hiker who cut off his lower arm in Danny Boyle's "127 Hours." Hathaway is more of a longshot for her part in the recent dramedy "Love & Other Drugs," which opened on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to mixed reviews and $14 million at the box office. But Hathaway has already been nominated for an Oscar and is widely considered to be one of the most talented of the younger generation of actors.
It wouldn't be the first time an Oscar nominee is a host, though you have to go back close to 40 years to find an example. In 1973, Michael Caine was a co-host of the show and was nominated for his role in "Sleuth," while in 1959, David Niven hosted the show and received the lead actor prize for "Separate Tables" that night. But that was prior to Oscar campaigning becoming a full-time job for potential nominees, and some within the industry wonder if Franco is not hurting his chances for the Oscar by playing MC.
In the past, the academy has used such movie stars as Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Frank Sinatra as hosts. But while Franco and Hathaway are clearly emerging talents, they don't yet have the worldwide box office appeal of stars such as Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie.
Hathaway has practically grown up on the big screen, from her early starring roles in the family-friendly "Princess Diaries" franchise. She's graduated to more adult fare in the R-rated "Love & Other Drugs" and 2008's darker indie drama " Rachel Getting Married," for which the actress won a nomination. She's also made more commercial choices, costarring in mainstream fare such as "Alice in Wonderland" and "Get Smart."
Prior to "127 Hours," Franco was best known as villain Harry Osborn in "Spider-Man," as a stoner dude in "Pineapple Express" or as Scott Smith in 2008 Oscar nominee "Milk." Taking on the Oscar hosting gig, though, is in line with Franco's recent quest to turn his career into a performance artist package. From his live art installation in New York City to his book of poetry, Franco's career has not been conventional by any measure.
Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.