When Brett Ratner ignominiously resigned from producing this year's Academy Awards, there was some schadenfreude from the masses. When Eddie Murphy followed him out that exit door, however, there was disappointment — and panic. But then, behold, Billy Crystal stepped in to host the Feb. 26 ceremonies.
And there was rejoicing throughout the land.
What is it about Billy Crystal and the Oscars? This will be his ninth time hosting — only one other person has hosted it more than Crystal, and Bob Hope is sadly no longer with us. That makes Crystal the reigning champ of making us laugh, snark and stay awake come Oscar night. It's not an easy task, but something about Crystal makes him the ideal man for the job.
"He's enthusiastic about being there, and he's unflappable," says comedian-actor Patton Oswalt, who will have hosted three of his own award ceremonies before the season is done. "He understands that a show like this is a liquid thing and is constantly changing. It's about creating an overall atmosphere rather than treating it like a sporting event."
Oswalt remembers clearly the year producer Hal Roach, who got his start in silent pictures, appeared at the ceremony. Unexpectedly, the centenarian got up and gave a speech — but no microphone was ready. Oswalt remembers that Crystal didn't miss a beat: "Billy went, 'That was actually very appropriate because Mr. Roach worked in silent films.' It was a big relief: He made the failure of the moment part of the delight of showbiz."
Comedians know what it's like to face tough crowds, and stand-up experience is invaluable. Virtually anyone else who takes that stage can seem stiff and untrained. "A stand-up guy can think on his feet," says comedian Paul Rodriguez. "They ad-lib, they don't need a teleprompter. If there's a problem and you need five minutes, that kind of guy can cover it."
That said, Rodriguez believes Crystal is a "safe" choice too. "He's not controversial. Most comics would try and do something shocking, but he knows what it's all about. He'll screw around a little, but he wouldn't do something that would embarrass the academy. Eddie [Murphy], Whoopi [Goldberg] — they'd have been edgier."
Of course, Goldberg has hosted the show four times — and gotten reviews nearly as good as Crystal's. "People just want to know what is in that envelope," she says. "That's the exact advice Billy gave me when I hosted. It is a tough gig, but Billy is a master. He understands playing to the room but also keeping millions of people tuned in and entertained around the world."
Yet the ceremonies' producers rarely seem to be looking for the "master" of the genre. The eternal search for a host who will bring in a younger audience gets comic Tom Papa's eyes rolling (remember last year's uncomfortable pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway?). "Producers are always talking about getting 'young and hip' people to host, but young and hip doesn't equal funny necessarily," he says. "I'd much rather have a guy who might be a little older who brings a ton of experience and has done stand-up than someone with good hair and a cute dimple."
Hair and facial features aside, Crystal can be relied on for a friendly familiarity and some established routines, some of which are likely to be recycled. In the past, he's generated successful laughs from being grafted into scenes from the year's biggest films, or singing a medley dedicated to them (he once sang the story of "Titanic" to the theme from "Gilligan's Island.") Also memorable: "What the stars are thinking about," which gives Crystal an excellent platform for instant reactions: Cameras pan to audience members, and he serves as the voice in their head. (On seeing veteran actress Judi Dench: "Oh, this thong is killing me." And on seeing Jack Nicholson: "You know what, I'm still the coolest guy in the room.")
Yet in the end, it isn't only about being masterfully funny and quick on your feet. Crystal, like only a few of the hosts who have come before him, has one other ace up his sleeve: He's among his people. One of the gang. And that, says Papa, seals the deal.
"Billy is a peer of these Hollywood stars," he says. "You could have a strong comedian who could technically do it, but there's something about the Oscars: You have to feel you're something of an equal when you're staring into the faces of every movie star you've ever known in your life. Then you've got a real shot."