'Good evening, Hollywood phonies' What the presenters say about the Oscars
Hope springs eternal: long-running Oscars host Bob Hope with Marlon Brando in 1955. photograph: hulton/getty
If you’re bat crazy enough to sit up and watch the Oscars live – guilty as charged, m’lord – you could be forgiven for wondering why there is so much fuss about the host. After a smarmy opening monologue during which bad jokes are made about Jack Nicholson’s sunglasses, he or she (occasionally they) vanishes for most of the succeeding backslapping and glad-handing.
The hosts are, however, the official faces of the ceremony. They are the grand marshals, the constitutional monarchs, the lord mayors. They make statements on the academy’s behalf. Decrees, even. When, last year, the producers selected Billy Crystal, after Eddie Murphy dropped out in slippery circumstances, they were tipping the hat to traditional song-and-dance values. When they picked David Letterman and Jon Stewart they were reaching out to hipper-than-thou viewers on the east coast.
The selection of the comatose James Franco and the overcompensating Anne Hathaway in 2011 said something else: “We have had a complete breakdown and urgently need to spend some quiet time by the sea.”
The academy has had trouble moving on after the eventual retirement, following eight centuries in and out of the job, of Bob Hope, in 1977.
Johnny Carson, who first took the reins, played from the same Vegas hymn sheet. He could be quite cutting, but he didn’t exactly reflect post-hippy entertainment values.
The bigwigs nudged Chevy Chase on to the podium, and he promptly pushed things too far by beginning: “Good evening, Hollywood phonies.” The sparse and – oh yes, phoney – laughter emerged through clenched whitened teeth.
They experimented with group hosting: 1983 saw Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Richard Pryor and Walter Matthau fighting to get at the microphone.
In 1989, after the Chase controversy, they experimented with no host at all. Anarchy! Nobody much liked that.
A year later, the academy threw up its massed hands and instituted the reliable, likeable show-business holding pattern that was Billy Crystal. Hollywood was becoming addicted to sequels. Bob Hope II would run on and off for another two decades.
Every now and then, the academy made another crumbly attempt to appeal to “you know, kids”. For the 1995 awards the well-known whippersnapper David Letterman (then 47) was brought in. He managed to engineer a hilarious reinvention. Who else would have thought to bring dog tricks to the affair?
It was innovative. Everybody in the business loathed it. Get back to New York, heretic. Tinkering at the edges is fine. But the Oscar host has to bow the knee to old-school shtick and cheesy musical numbers.
All of which leads us to this year’s choice of Seth MacFarlane. There have been minor rumblings. The creator of ‘Family Guy’ and ‘American Dad’ is, almost certainly, the least famous person ever to host. Despite the success of last year’s ‘Ted’ (for which MacFarlane received a best-original-song Oscar nomination), he is still primarily a television impresario.
Yet the choice is, in many ways, inspired. He really does appeal to “the kids”. He has an excellent line in tasty, nasty quips. But he is also devoted to the venerable values of Hollywood. ‘Family Guy’ and ‘American Dad’ often break down into musical numbers. MacFarlane has toured the world singing tunes from the Great American Songbook and has hosted the Proms.
Let’s call him a postmodern Bob Hope. He’d almost certainly take that as a compliment. And we mean it as one.
Give ’em hell, MacFarlane. Hell and cheesy musical numbers.