For the first time in close to 30 years, the Oscars will not have a host on Sunday. Despite the best efforts of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the show will break with tradition and instead have the show float from presenter to presenter without a unifying personality to oversee it. Members are rightly nervous about how all this will play out, jitters that were likely not quieted by a series of missteps made in the weeks preceding the show (some of which were quickly rolled back). On the other hand, not having a host means the academy finally has an opportunity to improve the show, and perhaps find new ways to update it for the next generation of movie fans.
It does seem like something needs to give. The 2018 Oscars hit an all-time low in audience ratings, causing a flurry of eventually tabled notions like a “most popular film” category, or shortening the show by cutting music performances and giving away Oscars during commercial breaks. Shortening the show isn’t the answer. But maybe inspiration can be found in what is often referred to as the worst Oscars show — a night that was also hostless.
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While most remember the terrible musical numbers and failed jokes that night, there were other changes, ones that slowly wound up rippling across Hollywood. These choices mostly celebrated the glamour of the event and highlighted the importance of celebrating as many people in the industry as possible, including those who didn't win a golden statue.
How our current situation came to pass has been obsessively documented by entertainment reporters over the last two months. Back in December, The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed hosting the show "The Least Wanted Job in Hollywood." Within 12 hours, Kevin Hart announced via Instagram that he had been offered the gig, and had accepted. An instant debacle followed as Hart's homophobic comedy routines and tweets were unearthed. Hart cycled through non-apologies and refusals to apologize. When he finally did issue a real apology, it was to withdraw from the job. Weeks later, however, Hart attempted to win the job back with a failed PR push on “Ellen.” By the time he’d officially admitted this last-minute effort wasn’t working, it was all but too late to find someone else.
But do the Oscars even need a host? The ceremony started out back in 1929 as a 15-minute affair in a hotel, with Douglas Fairbanks less a host than a one-man presenter. As the show has grown and changed over the decades, there have been several years without an official host, from the 11th Academy Awards in 1939 to several years running in the 1970s, when a rotating cast shared presenting duties. The last time the show went hostless, it did so consciously, with new producer Allan Carr arguing the move would raise ratings. That gamble failed. The 1989 show is now sometimes referred to as the most infamous Oscars or "Oscar’s biggest goof.”
The last time the show went hostless, it did so consciously, with new producer Allan Carr arguing the move would raise ratings. That gamble failed.
Carr’s idea was to turn the Oscars into a campy comedy variety show. It wasn’t the worst notion. Some of the most memorable moments throughout Oscars history have been impulsively silly. (Remember Roberto Benigni literally Tigger-bouncing around the auditorium on his way to the podium? How about Ellen’s selfie?) But Carr was a creature of old Hollywood, whose idea of campy included things like “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a long-running San Francisco musical revue that was well known in the theater community …and basically nowhere else. The opening number featured actress Ellen Bowman as Snow White flitting about through an 11-minute sketch, starring everyone from Merv Griffin to Rob Lowe. (The latter performed a parody version of Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.”) Today the sketch, which is on YouTube, comes off like a bizarre relic. With no internet to consult, many of the references are frankly mystifying.
After it was all over, 17 actors, including the illustrious Gregory Peck, former president of academy, sent an open letter proclaiming the show an embarrassment to the entire industry. Even worse: Disney sued over the unlicensed use of its Snow White character. (The suit was dropped after the academy issued a formal apology.)
Still, Rob Lowe’s crooning aside, some of Allan Car’s ideas stuck. One of Carr’s most brilliant notions: emphasizing the red carpet arrivals. While it may seem wild to us now, this was the first time the Oscars treated the arrival of stars as a legitimate pre-show event. The red carpet has today become its own cottage industry, with the outfits of the stars endlessly scrutinized and analyzed and discusses. And it’s all thanks to Carr.
Just as importantly, 1989 was the first time presenters were ordered to say "the Oscar goes to...." instead of "the winner is...." Like the red carpet, this more inclusive language emphasized the idea that everyone was a winner just for being there. That notion has since trickled down to pretty much every other awards show. Even better, it was a move that actually preceded what became a hallmark of the 1990s and 2000s, when participation trophies and “everyone’s a winner” culture began to flourish. In this respect, Carr was ahead of the curve.
This year’s Oscars may frighten some Academy Awards veterans who fear another disaster. But they should remember that sometimes innovation comes from moments of failure. Carr’s catastrophe holds lessons the academy should consider heading into the 2020s. The ideas that stick are the ones that don’t apologize for what the show is, or even how long it runs. At the last minute, the Oscars announced a performance by Queen and Adam Lambert would be added, even though the band's music is not nominated for best original song. While it's not going to make the show shorter, it's inclusive, celebratory and bound to be enjoyed by those watching at home. This is the entertainment industry, after all.