Ellen DeGeneres: Unexpectedly perfect for next year’s Oscars

Ellen DeGeneres, host of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," in her studio dressing room in Burbank.
Ellen DeGeneres, host of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” in her studio dressing room in Burbank.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

Can you remember one remarkable thing that occurred the last time Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Academy Awards? No?

And that appears to be the point.

After Seth MacFarlane’s highly controversial turn as host of this year’s Oscars (jokes many found racist, sexist and anti-Semitic, a song called “We Saw Your Boobs), producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were asked back but MacFarlane (who issued a preemptive “no thanks” fairly early on) was not. And the decision to tap DeGeneres as master of next year’s ceremonies is as a 180-degree turn as it gets.

“Low key” was the catchphrase for her performance in 2007 when, under the eye of then-producer Laura Ziskin, DeGeneres introduced the ill-fated backstage “Thank You Cam” (designed to give winners a place to recite the laundry list of agents and execs other than from the onstage podium) and worked the wings to give viewers a “you are there” feel of what it’s like to host the still-biggest show in town.


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The show went almost four hours, but there were no blistering live-streaming blogs about Ellen’s performance, no riled up reviews the next day. She was nice, she was mildly funny at times, she kept things moving and Martin Scorsese cleaned up. What more could you want?

Well, ratings, for one thing. Viewership for the 2007 telecast was one of the lowest in ratings history. Things have improved, but not much; MacFarlane was brought on board to draw a new generation of Oscar viewers, which he apparently did albeit while striring much internal and external ire.

At first glance, DeGeneres is MacFarlane’s mirror opposite, light to his dark, gentle where he is stinging and, above all, nice. Nice, nice, nice. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it would seem, is playing it safe, choosing a safeguard against controversy rather than kicking up a cultural revolution.

Which is pretty hilarious, when you consider that DeGeneres was the first female performer to out herself on national television, that she has long been a vocal proponent for gay rights, including and especially gay marriage, which made enormous gains in public opinion and the courts this year.

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So in that sense, she is the perfect choice.

She is also far more popular than her reputation for kindness would indicate. As my colleague Meg James pointed out early this year, niceness is beginning to pay, for characters in scripted television and for Ellen DeGeneres.

While Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper have failed to find a daytime foothold, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” continues to grow its audience, including among the key daytime demo of women 25 to 54. She has 17 million Twitter followers and the most-watched celebrity channel on YouTube. At 55, she’s a CoverGirl, a position she used to promote and then pay homage to Talia Joy Castellano, the 13-year-old YouTube sensation who died of cancer last month, which, if nothing else, solidified her tween fan base.

In other words, what MacFarlane is to many young men, Ellen is to many young women. And as there are still more women than men in this country … well, you do the math.

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Of course, the ratings of the Oscars invariably have more to do with the nominated films than the host and still months away from Oscar season, when studios roll out their awards hopefuls, it’s hard to tell if any will catch hold with enough eyes and hearts to create a “Titanic” or even an “Argo” moment.

But her ill-fated turn on “American Idol” aside, DeGeneres is a renaissance entertainer, light on her feet (literally and figuratively -- one way or another, there will be dancing), with cultural icon cred. Not only was she among the first gay stars to get legally married, she is the voice of “Finding Nemo’s” Dory, who remains possibly the greatest animated female character of our time. And not a princess!

Nice, and a revolutionary. But will she do a sendup of “We Saw Your Boobs?”

That alone is worth tuning in for.


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Ellen DeGeneres cheerful backstage in 2007