Modern Oscar telecasts, like upscale restaurants and traveling viruses, tend to get the hosts they deserve.
Maybe it’s that producers intuit a prevailing vibe. Or maybe it’s just that a solid pro bends a ceremony to the moment. Whatever the reason, Academy Awards hosts can reflect a certain zeitgeist.
A roiling year of Oscars So White and Black Lives Matter yielded a race-minded provocateur like Chris Rock last February. A post-crash 2009 gave way to the song-and-dance pick-me-up of Hugh Jackman. A gay-rights movement that crested in 2014 and 2015 — and saw the best picture nominations of such films as “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Imitation Game” — brought Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris to the Dolby podium.
It’s not a one-to-one correlation, of course, and hosts and larger events don’t always line up. But look back at Oscar emcees over the past few decades and you’ll get a surprisingly representative view of where the culture found itself at a given time.
Where to put Jimmy Kimmel on this spectrum? The late-night personality, named Monday as the 2017 host, was foremost a business-driven choice. ABC, having recently paid a lot of cash for a long-term Oscars renewal, wanted its network star in the prime-time spotlight and pushed Kimmel for the gig; producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd and the Motion Picture Academy acquiesced.
But Kimmel’s hiring also is of a piece with a national moment. The emcee, 49, is the first straight white man to preside over the telecast in the last four ceremonies — and, save for the last-minute addition of Billy Crystal in 2012, the first white man over the age of 45 to host in the past seven ceremonies. If this was the year of the older white male voter — or at least the year when said group swung a presidential election — Kimmel’s presence on the country’s most-watched non-sports telecast seems fitting.
It is also a year when the academy could, not to put too fine a point on it, afford to choose a host like Kimmel. The Oscars this season will — mercifully, finally — feature a bevy of minority nominees. “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Loving” are sure to be cited early and often on the telecast. They’ll come along with the potential presence of documentaries such as ”O.J.: Made in America” and Ava DuVernay’s prison movie “13th,” each shortlisted on Tuesday, and the animation muscle of Disney’s “Moana.” The chilling prospect of a lily-white show that made Rock’s selection so urgent last year has been fortunately absent this year.
Ah, but if it’s a year of so many worthy people-of-color nominees, wouldn’t that give greater impetus for a person-of-color as emcee? And if it’s a moment of ballot-box revolt for older whites, isn’t it also a time of anxiety for many minorities? Kimmel also can be seen, in this light, as a worrying return to a politics of old. He is the first person to host the Emmys and Oscars in the same cycle, and a year in which he dominates awards podiums while much of the country worries about the status of Latino immigrants, Muslim Americans and other minorities can easily seem tin-eared.
Already that point has been raised. The website Refinery29 offered a post shortly after the Kimmel announcement strongly questioning the producers’ decision.
“This will be near the 80th time a white man has hosted the highly esteemed awards show. … It’s embarrassing on behalf of those involved in any aspect of the billion-dollar entertainment industry. It’s a lazy decision that, in turn, negates the avid work of directors, actors, and producers who, year after year, have tried to make the Oscars less white,” wrote site contributor Morgan Baila. “[C]ouldn’t a woman, man of color, or (gasp) a woman of color, do the same exact job [as Kimmel]? Why are we, or rather, The Academy, falling into the same #OscarsSoWhite narrative that we have succumbed to again, and again?”
The article went on to call the move a “slap in the face.”
It’s a legitimate criticism, and one that nobody — least of all another white man writing a blog post — should or could ever discount.
But it is worth noting that Kimmel has proved himself adept at poking under the hypocrisies of Hollywood’s attempt to diversity — if not with the flamethrowing ardor of a Rock or the toothy satire of a Tina Fey (a Golden Globes veteran and Oscar host-in-waiting), then in his own quietly subversive way. “Here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity,” Kimmel quipped at the Emmys.
Perhaps his most memorable moment at that show came when he had to take the stage after an intense call-to-action moment. “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway had just finished her acceptance speech by calling for the room, and Hollywood, to “topple the patriarchy.” Kimmel returned to the podium, and with the wry smile that is his trademark, ad-libbed, “I’m trying to figure out if ‘topple the patriarchy’ is a good thing for me or not. I don’t think it is.”
It was a perfect joke, both acknowledging a changed sensibility while also gently reminding that a percentage of the people who make and consume entertainment in the U.S. were still here too — and that perhaps, in this new age, there will have to be some co-existence. Revolts can happen, it suggested, but they need to take into account and integrate current realities. In his subtly comedic way, he was making his own plea to get along.
In this context, Kimmel’s presence at the 2017 Oscars can be seen as a representative moment in a different way — not because he’s an older white male in the time of Trump but because he stands for something else the country could use right now: some good-spirited unity.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT