It’s been 30 years since the Academy Awards did not have a host. Do you remember it? That was the year Rain Man won Best Picture in a walk, leading all nominations with eight and wins with four. There were innovations and wrinkles at the 61st Oscars: Presenters began to say “And the Oscar goes to …” rather than the standard “And the winner is …” Comic writer Bruce Vilanch, a longtime Oscars staple, was hired to pen bits for the ceremony for the first time by show producer Allan Carr. Lucille Ball made her final public appearance. Throughout the night, real-life Hollywood couples like Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal, Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell presented awards. Beau, Jeff, and Lloyd Bridges appeared together, as did Vertigo stars Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. Composer and three-time Oscar winner Marvin Hamlisch served as musical arranger for the show. It was the year of Big, Working Girl, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dangerous Liaisons, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bull Durham, A Fish Called Wanda, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Married to the Mob, all of which were nominated in some form. It was a wonderful movie year. To celebrate it, the Oscars decided to open the show with this:
Please watch all of this, if you can spare the time. It is the nadir of awards shows, no easy title to claim. This clip cannot be found on the Academy’s official YouTube page. It is described by its astute uploader as “The 11 minutes that ruined Hollywood producer Allan Carr’s career forever.” That seems grand, but it’s true. Carr was a hugely successful manager and producer for decades, notably staging La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway and producing Grease. He was a no-brainer choice for the Oscars, an over-the-top showman expected to bring razzle-dazzle to a ceremony that had handed nine awards to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor the year before. His big idea—to blend old Hollywood glamour with newfangled celebrity—resulted in the show’s most infamous moment ever. There have been entire profiles dedicated to Eileen Bowman, the young actress who portrayed Snow White in that opening number. Her career, too, was ruined that night. Its legacy lives on to this day. Rob Lowe continues to self-loathingly dine out on his participation.
Seriously, this “best pop movie” category is the worst idea the Academy has had since they asked me to sing with Snow White.— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) August 9, 2018
In a time before the internet, the 1989 Oscars were a media fiasco. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin opened her review of the show like this: “The 61st Academy Awards ceremony began by creating the impression that there would never be a [62nd].” Disney sued the Academy for copyright infringement over its use of Snow White’s likeness. An open letter to Carr signed by 17 Hollywood luminaries—among them Billy Wilder, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, and Gregory Peck—derided the production as an “embarrassment to … the entire motion picture industry.” So that was tough.
There’s a lesson here: Don’t let Rob Lowe sing at your awards show. There’s one more: Hire a host. We are fewer than eight weeks away from the 91st Academy Awards, and the show doesn’t have one. And without one, trouble—and the perilous ideas of ambitious producers—awaits. We’re one month removed from the Kevin Hart mishegas, one of the most fascinating and unnecessary self-owns of the century, and a new host has not emerged. Not a credible rumor either, just a torrent of blog posts with largely unrealistic suggestions. Some, like my boss Bill Simmons, have suggested a kind of rotating committee of four or more high-grade performers—say, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, and Oprah—to serve as guides for the evening, if not exactly hosts. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. When people think Oscars host, they tend to visualize Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg or Bob Hope or Johnny Carson or Ellen DeGeneres. But the Oscars has featured three or more hosts for a single ceremony 12 times. In the mid-’70s—a period that saw Rocky, The Godfather and Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Sting, and The French Connection take home the big prize—there was routinely four hosts. The last time it happened, in 1987, Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn, and ol’ Crocodile Dundee himself, Paul Hogan, shared the honors. It was fine.
There is a feeling that hosting the Oscars has been toxified. Ratings are dropping for live televised events at a precipitous rate. Awards shows seem more frivolous than ever. And maybe it just isn’t worth it. Taking the gig means arranging a Hubble telescope directly over the database of your entire life. Bad tweets? You’re out. A history with blackface? No. Are you a “fun” actor? Beware the curse of Hathaway and Franco. Want to sing about boobs? Not here you won’t. And yet, even with these pitfalls, hosting the Oscars is one of the last true fame grabs on earth. If you want to raise your profile—and honestly, why else would one want to host an awards show?—the Oscars is the closest one can come to maximum exposure right now, shy of singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl or being blasted on Twitter by the president. Last year, 26.5 million people in America watched the Oscars. After seven football games, an episode of This Is Us that aired after one of those games, and the premiere of Roseanne, the Oscars were the most-watched program of 2018. And with a bounceback year inevitable thanks to the likely presence of Black Panther and A Star Is Born in the Best Picture race, as well as some Netflix films—particularly Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—that will likely have been seen by more people than have seen many Oscar front-runners in recent memory, there’s a case to be made that this could be the most populist ceremony since 2004, when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture. This is an easy sell. Picture the headlines: “Lin-Manuel Miranda Saves the Academy!” “Ellen Confirmed as Oscars’ Reigning Queen!” “The Rock Delivers a People’s Elbow to Falling Ratings!”
The Academy wants a host that is not socially divisive or politically outspoken and one that also does not appeal primarily to older viewers, with the assumption that they’ll be watching regardless, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. I’d argue that’s a bit like trying to buy a horse without the manure, but maybe there’s a middle ground. Feinberg suggests John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, box-tickers who are accomplished, highly visible on social media, and well-connected in Hollywood. Sure. I could see it. Because what I think Legend and Teigen most desire, where their thirst is deepest, is exposure. They want to be seen and heard, no matter the platform or the cost of embarrassment. That doesn’t exactly make them unique in Hollywood. Perhaps it’s true that the Academy has been turned down by a great many candidates at this point. And maybe that’s because the gig doesn’t pay as much as you’d expect. Or maybe everyone has bad tweets; it certainly seems that way every day. But we won’t know until this process becomes more public. I’d welcome a bake-off, a competition show to host. In some respects, the Oscars’ hosting position is hallowed ground reserved for Hollywood’s finest ambassadors. On the other hand, Paul Hogan did it once. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Maybe he was talking about hosting the Oscars.