You know the feeling—the one in which you hear a piece of good news and instinctively sense that something is off. And even though you can never quite articulate that gut reaction of impending doom, you can never forget it, either. David Wild felt this in late 2010 while he was driving on U.S. 101 on the way to his in-laws’ house in Orange County, California. He had just been asked to join the writing team for the 83rd annual Academy Awards and was waiting to learn which comedy star would hold court for those three-plus hours. Then he received the call from a production executive. “She said ‘We have our hosts!’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Great who is it?’” The answer: Anne Hathaway and James Franco.
Wild admits that his brain went “huh?” at the thought of two still-on-the-rise actors presiding over Hollywood’s biggest and most important entertainment showcase. But he responded enthusiastically and proceeded as directed. “The one thing you learn in life,” he says, “is that you have to react and address something as it’s happening. You’ve got to listen to that voice, or else.”
To be fair, few could have anticipated that the unconventional pairing would lead to one of the most notorious nights in the history of the preeminent award show. We’re not talking Rob Lowe and Snow White singing “Proud Mary” levels of epic catastrophe, but from the moment Hathaway and Franco walked onto that glossy white stage—she with a gleaming, awestruck smile; he with a smirk and a phone clutched in his right hand, recording—it was obvious that this would be a live experiment gone fantastically awry. And 10 years later, those Oscars continue to stand out for being ... well, the word strange doesn’t do it justice.
Just type in the words “2011 Oscars monologue” on YouTube and behold the results via the posted four-minute monologue snippet. She giggles nervously and exclaims, “Oh my gosh, you’re all real!” Franco barely makes eye contact and brags about landing a Best Actor nomination for 127 Hours while Hathaway was passed over (for Love & Other Drugs). “It was like the world’s most uncomfortable blind date between the cool rocker stoner kid and the adorable theater camp cheerleader,” Wild says.
Later in the evening, he dressed up as Marilyn Monroe and made a dated crack about being Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon separated from presenters Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey; she performed a musical bit set to “On My Own” from Les Miserables, lamenting former host Hugh Jackman’s absence from the stage and how he “stuck his fake retractable claws into my heart.” (Jackman was sitting in the front row.) Oh, and The King’s Speech beat The Social Network for Best Picture.
Audience members clapped and laughed politely. Critics attacked. The Hollywood Reporter blasted, “In what could go down as one of the worst Oscar telecasts in history, a bad and risky idea proved out in spectacularly unwatchable fashion” while L.A. Weekly sniped that the night was “at best qualified as lazy, and at worst, totally embarrassing.” From an insider’s perspective, “I call it an incredibly dark significant comic event in my life,” says Wild, an Emmy-winning live-event expert who’s worked on roughly 175 events from the 9/11 Tribute to Heroes to the 2021 Grammy Awards. His fellow writer Bruce Vilanch is slightly more blunt: “I think its legacy is floating somewhere near the Costa Concordia.”
Here’s the thing about hosting an award spectacle: It’s a complex, often-thankless task that requires a potent mix of quick comedy reflexes, good-old-fashioned showmanship, and extreme affability. Even the greatest actor can’t fake it. “A host’s primary job is to make the audience feel comfortable and the audience at home feel welcome at the party,” Vilanch, an award show veteran who tapped out zingers for some 25 Oscar telecasts, writes via email. You could argue every successful host over the past several decades has fit that description. “It’s no accident that Bob Hope and Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal were great at it,” Turner Classic Movies host and film commentator Ben Mankiewicz says.
The year before the Hathaway-Franco debacle, friends Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin—also Saturday Night Live hosting vets and costars of the Nancy Meyers–directed romantic comedy It’s Complicated—tag-teamed the gig. They kept it smart and classy. The problem was that the pair also clocked in at a combined age of 116 years old. And though the overall ratings for the ceremony were the highest in five years, the producers wanted to home in on a different demographic. Enough with emcees old enough to remember when there were only three networks on the dial of a rabbit-eared black-and-white TV. It was time to appeal to viewers with iPhones in their pockets who document their thoughts on new social media platforms. The Oscars would no longer be regarded as a musty 20th-century artifact; they were the bomb!
The unofficial first choice was Justin Timberlake, the former boy band star turned solo stud who had both slayed it during his hosting appearances on Saturday Night Live and held his own as tech mogul Sean Parker in the acclaimed drama The Social Network. “I had been writing with Justin and I remember the producers said to me, ‘Do you want to do a soft ask if he’d host the Oscars?’” Wild recalls. Timberlake was intrigued, he says. “He said that he’d love to do it, but he thought it was a year too early for him. He wanted to wait until after The Social Network had gone through an awards season.”
Veteran award-winning producers Bruce Cohen (American Beauty, Silver Linings Playbook) and Don Mischer (the Kennedy Center Honors from 1992 to 2005, the Tony Awards) ultimately landed on Hathaway and Franco. The actors had never worked together—though Hathaway said in later interviews that Franco personally insisted that she join him. They did bring a few key traits to the table in that they were both talented, camera-ready movie stars who had appeared in recent big-screen comedy hits. And, of course, the two were just 27 and 31 years old, respectively.
Fresh new hosts bred fresh new writers. Franco corralled Judd Apatow, his friend and Freaks and Geeks executive producer, for consulting help. He, in turn, recruited Jordan Rubin, previously a head writer on several MTV Movie Awards shows. “I was in Judd’s office one day and he asked me if I wanted to write for the Oscars,” Rubin explains. Rubin reached out to Megan Amram, then a struggling 22-year-old stand-up and Upright Citizens Brigade member (who went on to write for Parks & Recreation and co-executive-produce The Good Place). “I do think that I was brought in as, like, a youth consultant,” she says.
But even the show’s youngest writer was flummoxed by the hosts purportedly targeted to her. “I thought that it sounded at the time like someone had run pop culture through an algorithm and spit out this thing on paper that sounded like it would appeal to the youth,” she adds. “But in practice, it was very random.”
By all accounts, there was no face-palming behind-the-scenes moment that caused the night to spiral. More like death by a thousand paper cuts. Or a series of clues that led to a crime scene—witnessed by about 65 million people in more than 225 countries around the world.
Challenge no. 1 was planning a six-minute, 35-second, special-effects-heavy short film that would open the ceremony. “I had this idea of former hosts walking Anne and James through the steps of hosting a show,” says Rubin, who oversaw the production. He and the staff decided that the two would spoof Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending hit Inception and enter Baldwin’s dreams. (He and Morgan Freeman did cameos.) In the process, they’d insert themselves in scenes from Best Picture nominees such as Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and The Fighter.
During the monthslong prep, “Anne made herself readily available,” he says. “I went to her house and worked on the script and she was on a bunch of conference calls and responding to emails and was a great collaborator.” Franco, however, was smack in the middle of his academia phase. Not only was the man shooting movies, he was taking doctoral classes in the English department at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, earning a master’s degree in film at New York University and co-teaching a course on film editing at Columbia College Hollywood in L.A. called “Master Class: Editing James Franco With James Franco” during that Winter 2011 semester. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway), “He always seemed to be on a flight and it was very hard for me to get a hold of him,” Rubin says. “That was a red flag.”
By the time the two showed up and started filming, their personality differences were palpable. “She showed up ready to play and committed 110 percent,” he says. “And he was a great guy but often looked like he had just woken up from a nap. It’s almost like you’re showing up to a tennis court and one person decided that they were going to play in the U.S. Open and the other wanted to play in jeans and just kind of hit a few balls.”
Wild (who wrote for the live telecast) says that he remembers hearing that the friction started when Hathaway offered Franco a stray acting note during rehearsals. “Again, this is a memory, but [she] was like ‘Maybe you should try that,’ and he was like ‘Don’t tell me how to be funny,’” he says. Rubin says he can’t recall anything contentious—“I’d tell you if it happened”—but he suspects that Franco did make a conscious effort to counter Hathaway’s high-octane theater-kid energy with a chiller, edgier attitude: “I think he wanted to play it as buddy-cop movie with two opposite characters.”
Rubin specifically points to a passage in the opening short in which they send up a rehearsal-space scene from Black Swan. Hathaway had an idea (cut from her recent Saturday Night Live hosting stint) to dress up like a molting brown duck with Franco clad in a white leotard and tights. Several iterations of the script had been approved all the way up through the network; nearly $100,000 in budget had been devoted to the film. “So we all show up and James, in his full leotard outfit, calls me over,” he says. “Then he leans in and says to me, ‘Are we really doing this?’ We’re about to shoot! Having been around comedy my whole life, I couldn’t tell if he was just messing with me. But I couldn’t believe he was saying this to me now.”
If you want to talk about really being on your toes, consider the prep work for the live telecast. “As a writer, there’s no more of a stressful situation than writing a live show for famous actors that a ton of people are going to watch,” Amram says. “You’re expected to write a bajillion jokes and you’re not supposed to be precious about any of it and you have to keep in mind what will be best for Anne Hathaway and James Franco.” She pauses. “I mean that as a blanket statement for all writing ever, by the way.”
For weeks, Franco had his heart set on dressing up as Cher and duetting with the icon on a number from her campy musical, Burlesque. When the song failed to yield a nomination, the writers suggested a consolation prize: Wearing a strapless pink chiffon gown and jewels, à la Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “It’s such an iconic look and hey, it worked for Madonna,” Vilanch rations. And while Franco did get one of the heartiest laughs of the night when he announced he had just gotten a text from Charlie Sheen, “He got a lot of flack from people who feel drag is one of the lower art forms, not worthy of exposure on the Oscar show unless you’re nominated for it.” Vilanch adds, “I regret encouraging him to do it. There was no Cher for him to play with, but he had gotten the drag bug.”
The hosts also scrapped a duet in which they performed “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease to each other, swapping out the original lyrics with new ones written by Amram. Here’s a sample—with Amram acknowledging, “They’re awful, but keep in mind this was the 127 Hours year.”
You better shape up
’Cause you need to host
And you’re a sexy amputee
You better shape up
’Cause they need a host
Who is not AARP
Amram also shares that Hathaway was originally going to belt out her version of “On My Own” to Franco, who had left her solo on stage while he did a costume change. The musical number was ultimately pared down and written for Jackman. “I distinctly remember going to a recording studio on a Saturday with Jordan, Chadd [Gindin, another writer], Anne, her mom, and her manager,” Amram says. “She’s a great singer and it seemed like a natural idea.” She theorizes that the performance died because “there were too many cooks. The producers had a direction, the writers had a direction, and Anne and James each had a direction. It didn’t mix well.”
Amram remembers that Hathaway once pulled her into a dimly lit storage closet to ensure that her material would have a female perspective. “She wanted to make sure it was positively reflecting women,” she says. “I remember thinking that it was amazing that this was important to her and weird that I was in a closet with Anne Hathaway.”
The song-and-dance numbers weren’t the only casualty. Rubin is still disappointed that his idea of an actor streaking across the stage during one of the hosts’ segments—an homage to the infamous incident from 1974—never made it to air. “We ended up getting Will Arnett, who’s one of my favorite comedy people in the world,” Rubin says. “And the joke was that he was going to come out running and then stop and have a conversation with James and Anne. Like, ‘Hey, I can’t shake your hand right now, but we should hang out sometime and grab coffee.’”
The gag “went great” during the rehearsal inside the Kodak Theatre, with Arnett wearing only a nude stocking. But the producers axed it because they preferred an actor from one of that year’s hit movies. “I think they wanted Jim Carrey,” he says. “I also think it broke too much from the format of the Oscars and shattered the myth of these glamorous awards. It may have lost the air from the room.” (Rubin still blanches at the memory of emailing Arnett two days later with the apologetic news: “I never heard back and figured, ‘Great, he’s mad at me.’ But the truth is I was so excited to do it and bummed it didn’t happen.”)
The chaos mounted as the show barreled toward go time. Vilanch, admitting his memory is “fuzzy,” says that Franco turned himself back over to Apatow, who brought in four writers. Hathaway and her team, in turn, got nervous and asked writer and comedian Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls, Dead to Me) to show up. “I wasn’t surprised by any of this,” he says. “We were dealing with stars who, while really friendly and personable and eager, were scared. And they were surrounded by handlers who were scared.” Amram also has recollections of eleventh-hour scrambling: “A lot of stuff that made it into the show was written a few days beforehand. We wrote all these jokes, but I don’t think we ever landed on a tone or a cohesive feeling of what the show would be.”
And lest anyone forget, the hosts never did cement any sort of bond. “There was a moment the night before the show when we were in the production office in some level of panic,” Wild says. He looked at the closed-circuit TV in the corner and saw James grinning at the person next to him. “I thought ‘Oh boy, they’ve finally broken through and he’s looking at her!’” Alas, the camera soon turned and Wild’s heart sank. “Anne had gone to her dressing room for a minute,” he says. “James was smiling at her stand-in.”
As usual, the night started with an official ABC pre-show. Mankiewicz was hired to stand on the red carpet and give professional betting odds based on the main categories, fully aware that most of the winners, such as Colin Firth for Best Actor and Natalie Portman for Best Actress, were shoo-ins. “I ended up saying that it was like the Green Bay Packers were playing against a really good high school team,” he says, adding that it was his first and last night on the Oscars red carpet.
“You get the vibe pretty early if a show is going to go well,” Vilanch says. In the opening moments, he had sincere high hopes: The audience responded well to the short film, guffawing at the sight of Franco in his leotard. Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Downey Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow beamed from inside the house.
Then Franco and Hathaway appeared in the flesh, and the molecules in the room abruptly shifted. “She was embracing their arrival on stage and he was filming everyone with his phone,” Rubin says. “It was very ahead of the selfie phase but also detached himself from the moment and separated him from her. What you want is people like Steve Martin and Martin Short reacting to each other. But when you get your phone out, you’re doing your own thing.”
The pair proceeded with their monologue, with Hathaway astutely—perhaps too astutely—commenting that Franco looked “very appealing to a younger demographic.” But their awkwardness and stilted chemistry proved a field day for both couch critics and body language experts. And in a matter of minutes, all the worries and hand-wringing about these two inexperienced hosts proved correct. “Once the audience felt the hosts’ discomfort, they got quiet,” Vilanch says.
If Franco read the room, he didn’t show it. Rubin likens his MO to Andy Kaufman–esque performance art. He says, for example, that when the prerecorded package of the science and technical award highlights played on a screen, he joked to Franco that he should go back on the stage and snipe, “Well, congratulations, nerds.” It was merely an off-the-cuff behind-the-scenes moment to make the cohost laugh. “James said he was going to do it and started walking on stage,” he says. “I was like, ‘No, no, no, come back!’ And he did it. I think he was just enjoying taking the wind out of the sails of this big institution.”
Rubin does want to clear up one common misconception about Franco’s sleepy-eyed demeanor: “He was not stoned. I don’t even think he drinks.”
Rubin still has a shaky, 37-second iPhone video clip that Franco posted to his Twitter and WhoSay accounts before later deleting it. Filmed from the wings of the stage midshow, it shows Rubin and Franco kibitzing about the show’s writing while the newly minted Oscar-winning sound mixer from Inception is heard a few feet away breathlessly exclaiming, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable!!!”
Wild, meanwhile, was busy running lines with the presenters inside the VIP green room, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding on stage. He knew that 94-year-old screen legend Kirk Douglas had gone wildly off-script presenting Best Supporting Actress, but whatever. “It was a false sense of security,” he says. He hung with Timberlake and Mila Kunis to go over their copy for the animation awards, with the entertainer even loosely referencing his future hosting gig: “Justin said, ‘Next year we’ll do this ...’”
But “by the end of the night,” Wild says, “I knew there was a problem.” Indeed, as the evening wore on, the once bright-eyed A-list audience filled up with bummed-out runners-up and unknown seat-fillers. Even the most seasoned of hosts usually resort to starchy food drops to bolster spirits (and blood sugar). With Hathaway and Franco at the helm, show-saving efforts were futile—and the at-home and in-person audiences started to tune out. “I actually felt bad for the hosts,” Mankiewicz says. “They were put in this position of hosting. It’s not what they do, and they couldn’t do it. Hosting is a skill. You don’t see me in 127 Hours or The Devil Wears Prada.”
But one home viewer in particular was enthralled. “I remember thinking that it was entertaining because it was like ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen next,’” says Amram, who watched the show in her PJs from her friend’s place. “I think they felt the nervous energy going on in that theater. And instead of leaning on each other, you could see them diverge.” Amram also notes, “I was glad the musical numbers got cut. Those wouldn’t have gone over well.”
Franco didn’t stick around for the postmortem. As The New York Times reported at the time, he went straight to LAX and hopped on a red-eye flight back to the East Coast so he could attend a 9:30 a.m. seminar on medieval manuscripts at Yale. His associate professor remarked that she was delighted and surprised that he made it to class, adding that he was a dedicated student.
But over the next weeks, months, and years, he and Hathaway—separately, obviously—would ruminate on what went wrong. He explained to Letterman on his late-night show in March 2011, “I love her but Anne Hathaway is so energetic, I think the Tasmanian Devil would look stoned standing next to Anne Hathaway.” In truth, he continued, maybe he did have low energy, but “I honestly played those lines as well as I could.”
Hathaway—who would go on to win Best Supporting Actress for playing poor Fantine in Les Miserables one year later—has owned up to her mistakes with a smile. In a 2012 interview, she criticized herself for appearing “slightly manic and hyper-cheerleadery on-screen.” Three years later, she advised host Neil Patrick Harris “to do the opposite of what I did.” And last June, in one of those actors-on-actors talks with Jackman (who made a much-lauded hosting turn in 2009), she admitted, “You know how sometimes your optimism tips into delusion and you’re just like, ‘If I’m just really, really nice to everybody, everything’s going to work out?’ It did not work.”
That said, the show remains somewhat radioactive. Franco (who recently settled a sexual-misconduct suit with two of his former students), Cohen, Feldman, Mischer, Apatow, and cowriter Jon Macks all declined to comment for this story, and Hathaway’s rep did not respond to a request. But the writers who did open up are all proud to have the 2011 Oscars on their expansive résumés. “Oh yeah, it was a great experience!” Rubin promises. Seconds Wild, “It’s taken me 10 years to feel happy that I was a part of it. Maybe we didn’t do enough to help ... but it’s community property and we all own it.”
If anything, the show has become only more fascinating in time. Honestly, do you actually remember details about Harris’s 2015 stint? Ellen DeGeneres’s 2014 run as host, meanwhile, is memorable because of a single moment in which she took a group selfie (three years after Franco brought his phone on stage). “When I tell people I wrote for these Oscars—which I do fairly frequently because I’m so proud of it—people’s minds are blown,” says Amram, who also wrote for Jimmy Kimmel’s ceremony in 2018. “Like, it absolutely became a cultural moment. There are so many Oscars where the show just fell flat. But this one went down in history.”
It also provided a valuable lesson. “I know that television is changing but I’ve always had the feeling that live TV is best and most successful when it is truly broadcasting to the broadest audience possible,” Wild says. “Trying to be young and hip can limit your audience. Maybe they should have married the two ideas and paired Anne Hathaway with someone older.”
Indeed, after all that planning, the show attracted 12 percent fewer viewers than 2010 in the 18-to-49 age bracket. Eddie Murphy was scheduled to host the 2012 ceremony, a first for his career, but he dropped out when producer Brett Ratner had to resign for making a series of off-color public remarks. Billy Crystal, then 63, stepped in for his ninth go-round. The demographic numbers stayed flat.
On April 25, the 93rd annual Academy Awards will go hostless for the third consecutive year.
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.