Ladies and gentleman, your host for this year’s Oscars will be … no one. Or maybe someone. Or maybe everyone!
Normally at this point, with just six weeks to go until the 91st Academy Awards, the planned emcee would be starting to huddle with the show’s writers and producers. Potential monologue jokes would be bouncing around. Sketches and bits would be germinating.
But this year, of course, has been anything but normal. In the wake of Kevin Hart’s recent departure from the hosting gig amid controversy over past homophobic jokes and tweets, the motion picture academy finds itself scrambling to figure out how to forge ahead with its all-important telecast, scheduled for Feb. 24.
The academy and the show’s producers, Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, declined to comment. But sources say preparations are already well underway for a telecast with no formal host, one that would lean into the collective star power of a range of film industry A-listers and musical acts rather than a single emcee. That said, they point out, there is still the chance that a performer or two could step forward to take the lead, serving as de facto hosts for the ceremony.
For the academy, the ongoing host drama — which took several twists in the past week as Hart publicly flirted with a possible return in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, stirring further blowback — represents the latest in a string of stumbles in recent years, from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy to the naming of the wrong best picture winner in 2017 to the shelving of a new “best popular film” award last year just weeks after it was announced.
Still, despite the public relations headache it has created, some contend that forgoing a host could ultimately prove a boon to the Oscars. Ratings for the telecast have been steadily declining, with last year’s show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, reaching an all-time low audience of 26.5 million viewers, and many have long argued the show needs a fresh approach.
“I don’t feel not having one central host is inherently wrong. I actually like the idea of either segment hosts or just awards presenters,” said producer and former academy board member Bill Mechanic, who co-produced the 2010 Oscars, which were jointly hosted by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. “What you might miss in terms of pure comedy may be made up for in a good script for presenters and the surprise nature of not knowing what to expect. It should make the show less political, which would also be good.”
According to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to comment on the record, ABC, which airs the telecast, supports the idea of a host-less show, with some at the network believing it could potentially hold viewers better than one with a single emcee.
The academy had already pledged this year to trim the often-bloated telecast to three hours, reducing the time a host would need to sustain the proceedings — and arguably minimizing the need for one at all. With potential original song nominees like Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar bringing musical star wattage and Disney, which owns ABC, able to leverage its power to draw headliners of Marvel blockbusters such as “Black Panther,” which may earn a best picture nomination, and “The Avengers,” some have wondered, who really needs a host?
Nevertheless, as Hart’s hosting bid imploded, the academy and the show’s producers continued to make overtures to other potential hosts, even as they remained open to his possible return given a sufficient apology for his offensive jokes.
With the cloud of the Hart controversy hanging in the air and time running short, though, finding someone to jump into the gig proved nigh impossible. “I’m not doing it, goddammit!” former host Chris Rock empathically told the crowd at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on Monday night. “You’re not getting me.”
At Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony, co-host Andy Samberg referenced the academy’s dilemma, joking, “We’re going to have some fun, give out some awards — and at the end, one lucky audience member will host the Oscars!”
Plans for this year’s Oscars are still evolving, but assuming no last-minute host emerges, this would not be the first time the Oscars have gone without one. Since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, which was co-hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and William C. deMille, five Oscar shows have been mounted without an emcee — most recently in 1989.
Somewhat ominously for the academy, however, that particular telecast is widely considered the worst in Oscar history. Clips of ill-conceived musical numbers — including Merv Griffin crooning “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts!” and Rob Lowe dancing to “Proud Mary” with a woman dressed as Snow White — now live on in infamy on YouTube as object lessons for Oscar producers in what not to do.
Mechanic, for one, isn’t bracing for that sort of disaster. “Mainly I trust that Donna is very smart and has impeccable taste, so I would expect [a host-free show] to be an unusual but well-mounted production,” he said.
Other awards shows have also occasionally dispensed with hosts. The Tony Awards, for example, have gone without formal emcees three times in the past 20 years, and the Grammys have had eight host-free ceremonies in the same timeframe. One clear concern for both the academy and ABC, however, is that an awards show with no single face to represent it is more challenging to promote — something further complicated by the fact that much of the content of the show will be up in the air until all of the presenters and participants have been lined up.
For decades, hosting the Academy Awards was considered a plum, high-profile gig, one that luminaries like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal would return to multiple times. But in recent years, as the ratings have sagged and critiquing the show has been exacerbated by social media, many have come to see emceeing the Oscars as a thankless task, requiring weeks of preparation for relatively minimal pay. (Kimmel, who emceed the past two Oscars, told an interviewer in 2017 that he received $15,000 for his hosting gig that year.)
“Ugh, who wants that job?” actor Jack Black, whose name has been bandied about as a possible host for years, told The Times in 2015. “If you [blow it], everyone hates you. If you crush it, then you could someday, what, become the host of a TV show or something? I don’t know what it’s for.”
Another way the rise of social media has heightened the challenge of finding a host for Hollywood’s biggest night: past comments or jokes that are now seen as insensitive or out of bounds can quickly be unearthed. Explaining why she and Samberg were hosting the Globes this year, Oh quipped, “We’re the only two people left in Hollywood who haven’t gotten in trouble for saying something offensive.”
In the wake of the Hart debacle, various potential replacements were floated, from past hosts like to DeGeneres to younger stars like Tiffany Haddish. Whoopi Goldberg — who sits on the academy’s board of governors and has hosted the Oscars four times — said she’d like to see “Crazy Rich Asians” actor Ken Jeong host this year’s show. But while Jeong would be the first Asian American host, the academy generally looks to more widely recognizable names to anchor the telecast.
Rainn Wilson, who played the buffoonish Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office,” wrote jokingly on Twitter that he was taking himself out of the running: “I would do it in a heartbeat. But no one will ever ask, so no.”
After a lot of back and forth I have decided to continue with my decision to not host the Oscars this year. Unless asked. Then I would do it in a heartbeat. But no one will ever ask, so no. I’m out. Probably.— RainnWilson (@rainnwilson) January 9, 2019
The lingering uncertainty hanging over this year’s show has left some academy members bewildered and frustrated. “I do not understand the holdup,” said one longtime academy member, who declined to speak on the record due to the sensitivity of the issue.
On Jan. 22, the nominations for this year’s Oscars will be announced, and presumably by that point the guessing game about the host will be over. Either way, there will no doubt be an extra level of scrutiny this year on what is already Hollywood’s most intensely analyzed and armchair-quarterbacked awards show.
“The difference between doing this show and other shows … is the microscope the show is under,” Weiss, who has previously directed the Oscars, along with other awards shows, told The Times last year. “It’s watched all over the world. Just looking at the red carpet and how many outlets are here and the attention it gets, it’s something that is focused on and paid attention to both within the industry and outside of it.”
Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.