The Natural Evolution of the Oscars

I have long suspected there really is only one true Oscar host. Only one comedian with just the right combination of sharp observation and subtle expression, so outrageous yet so beloved for it, so aware of the magnitude of the task yet so utterly unintimidated by it…

…Johnny Carson.

Who, yeah, is still dead. But if this year’s Academy Awards proved anything, it’s that this is a minor stumbling-block at best. We can rebuild the Oscars. We have the technology.

It cannot at any rate be worse than the hosting solutions the Academy has thrown onstage over the last several years in the hope that this thing called ‘buzz’ might happen. Whoopi Goldberg in Elizabethan costume. Chris Rock cracking lame about Jude Law. Jon Stewart looking totally lost from the get-go. Anne Hathaway and Amiable Nonentity… who turned out to be educational at least: we now know it is physically possible for a Best Actor nominee to look profoundly disinterested while impersonating Marilyn Monroe before an audience of millions.

The correct response to all of the above, of course, is profound pity. There they stand, these ambassadors of an ephemeral place called Relevance, on a huge glittering stage in front of an even more glittering audience, the entire weight of a hundred years of Movie Magic bearing down on them. It’s the media equivalent of sending a tugboat out to single-handedly right the Titanic. (“Go get’em, kiddo! We’re all rooting for you!”)

The basic trouble is not age, nor pompousness. The average age of an Academy member is 64. That makes them precisely the generation that weathered the Oscar-night streakers and awards being refused by ersatz Indian maidens and Cher and who knows what else that didn’t make one lick of difference to the price of sequins. Because – and this is something ardent young protesters routinely forget – the more outrageous your protest against the Establishment, the more the Establishment is convinced it was right in the first place. Especially in Hollywood, where outrageous is positively welcomed as one more proof that it is in fact, Important – nay, Special.

I mean, for people who must pretend that The Greatest Show on Earth was a triumphant epoch of movie history, outrageous is just another day at the office. Aka another host search. (I think the co-opting of the movement was complete the year they got Stewart. The poor man was standing there, glancing around wildly, desperate for an ego to deflate, and they just kept cheering him on. It was pitiful.)

So what’s left? Natural attrition, that’s what. The raising of a new generation that sees no reason to fight in the first place. The magic of the movies has been slowly evaporating for a long time now… but when you reach the point where tech advances have put the dream in the hands of random guys with lightsabers — or on a good day, action figure collections — it’s time to seriously re-evaluate your ability to throw yourself gigantic splashy parties.

There were encouraging glimpses of this awareness in 2011. Starting with Morgan Freeman narrating Alec Baldwin’s dreams. Through Kirk Douglas, last of the Respected Elders, cheerfully refusing to be inspirational. Ending with Steven Spielberg – of all people — admitting that, whoops, the Academy may have screwed up every now and then.

And then they brought on the children’s choir and did not have them sing about how they were gonna change the world someday. Forget grousing about how boring it all was, people, let’s focus on the progress here!

Old habits do die hard: Melissa Leo aiming to make the most of her Moment with a dedication Jayne Mansfield would’ve envied; Hathaway gushing that it was a privilege just to breathe the same air as Oprah; the ridiculously pretentious individual intros for the Best Actor & Actress nominees, followed by maybe ten seconds of actual proof of performance. Oh, and Gwyneth Paltrow? 1994 called, it wants its annoying trends back now.

Small steps, I guess. In the critical moments the night was oddly… understated. Businesslike even.

These people were not out to shock and awe, these were people who saw no reason to bother. (That many of them were British and/or Australian may have helped; it certainly made it more entertaining.)

Amen, I say. Go with that. Give yourself the awards with a minimum of fuss, and dedicate the rest of the night to celebrating a very real century of accomplishment – possibly, even, in odd corners, magic.

Find a host who understands that they’re not expected to change the world, use every multimedia trick at your disposal to spectacle your little hearts out, and we the post-millennial audience will be cheering right along with you…

…you can skip the circus movie, though. We know, we know.