It’s been a tough century for the Oscars — erratic ratings, shifting demographics, identity crises, #OscarsSoWhite. And then, consider the host.
Since 2000, there have been 20 hosts, while five of those have repeated. Until Sunday night, with the return of Jimmy Kimmel, none were consecutive — a reversal from the ’80s and ’90s when Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal were essentially like clockwork.
Who has succeeded? Who has flopped? Here’s my list, in descending order, of the best Oscar hosts of the century, so far:
1. Ellen DeGeneres (2007) The best because DeGeneres effected the perfect combination of pretending not to care while caring very much. “I think most people dream of winning. I had a dream of hosting. Let that be a lesson to the kids out there: Aim lower.” There was something effortless about all this, and it consequently dropped the temperature in the room.
2. Chris Rock (2016) This was Oscar monologue as both expiation and propitiation — a crash-the-party performance that made the audience squirm and the viewer wake up. Rock was there to school and scold the Academy for #OscarsSoWhite. That had never happened before and the result was electrifying. “No black nominees? People are like, ‘You should boycott. You should quit.’ How come unemployed people tell you to quit something?”
3. Billy Crystal (2000) He — they — didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last gasp of the old century and Oscar’s ancient regime. By this moment, Crystal had come to symbolize that Oscar style of industry self-congratulation with self-abnegation, perfected during the Bob Hope years. He managed it flawlessly this night with another ever-so-slightly off-key song-and-dance routine that reminded everyone of the past while celebrating the present.
4. Ellen DeGeneres (2014) DeGeneres strikes the right balance again, notably with one solid impromptu line (Jennifer Lawrence had earlier tripped, prompting this: “If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar”) and then this: “Possibility number one is that ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ wins best picture, and possibility number two is, you’re all racists.” This was the night she also waded into the audience to take selfies.
5. Chris Rock (2005) With Rock, the Oscars and their host emphatically — and finally — entered the 21st century. He crammed more energy and politics into one monologue than all of the previous monologues of the century combined. It wasn’t a celebration of the nominees as much as a demonstration that movies don’t exist in a hyperbaric chamber. Rock brought a messy, fraught country at war into the proceedings.
6. Jimmy Kimmel (2017) Kimmel earned this Sunday’s repeat engagement for the best of reasons. He was good last year. As he’d established as an Emmys host in 2016, Kimmel was a Goldilocks — funny but not riotous, sharp but not cutting, cool, not hot. “I want to say thank you to President Trump. Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”
7. Jon Stewart (2008) A significant improvement over his first outing in 2006, although it’s hard to imagine anyone could’ve made much of an impact this particular year. The writers’ strike had just ended, and a pervasive sourness hung over this ceremony, which Stewart duly noted (“Does this town need a hug?”).
8. Billy Crystal (2004) Crystal returns, with the same song (“It’s a Wonderful Night for Oscar”) and same montage. But by 2004, it was getting creaky. The world had changed, while this remained part of a fast receding past.
9. Whoopi Goldberg (2002) Like Crystal, Goldberg was part of the ’90s host establishment and like him, she felt increasingly out of place. She had a particularly tough job — bring some fun to this show while the country was recovering from 9/11. Mission not really accomplished: “We’ve suffered through a great national tragedy [and] security here is tighter than some of the faces.”
10. Jon Stewart (2006) With Rock the year before, the Academy had demonstrated that it wanted cultural cache, but maybe not quite that much cache. So enter Stewart, who was truly a fish out of water: stff, uncomfortable and swallowed by a podium onstage.
11. Neil Patrick Harris (2015) Perhaps more than any other host this century, NPH had the most thankless of Oscar outings. #OscarsSoWhite was just taking off and the industry was lurching toward a collective nervous breakdown. His song-and-dance opener almost invoked the Tonys more than the movies and then, finally, there he stood — only him in his tighty whities. Not a night to remember.
12. Steve Martin (2001) With Martin, the Academy hoped to find a next-generation Crystal or Carson — someone of the industry, but apart from it. Also, someone funny . . . but coolly detached. This outing instead was stodgy and old-fashioned. “Look how beautiful Julia Roberts is . . . there’s Javier Bardem . . . there’s Tom Hanks . . . there’s Ang Lee . . . ”
13. Hugh Jackman (2009) Jackman did a Crystal song-and-dance montage in better voice and with superior dance moves. But it was still Crystal’s shtick, and consequently, this turned out to be exactly what it was: a shticky attempt to find the next Crystal.
14. Steve Martin (2003) The Academy gave Martin a 13-minute opening monologue with jokes like “I’m standing 22 feet away from Halle Berry, in compliance with the court order,” or “I used the term ‘gay Mafia’ and the next morning there was a poodle head in my bed.” Martin is great — just not as an Oscars host.
15. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin (2010) Like Goldberg years before, both were lowered out of the rafters, and so (apparently) the Oscars had officially run out of original ideas. Together, these two weren’t as bad as memory may suggest, but there was a fogyish repartee between them that felt very 1950s.
16. Billy Crystal (2012) This all felt like the Oscar version of “Mr. Saturday Night,” as Crystal returned with his old hits rendered by older moves. He gamely stood in after Eddie Murphy backed out, but a wiser response to the Academy would’ve been “thanks but no thanks.”
17. Seth MacFarlane (2013) This fascinating fiasco featured the song — to the accompaniment of the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Choir — “I Saw Your Boobs.” The audience reaction shots were especially priceless — a mix of horror and bewilderment — and the Academy was so embarrassed by all this that it removed clips of MacFarlane from YouTube. Now that’s entertainment.
18. James Franco and Anne Hathaway (2011) MacFarlane has Franco and Hathaway to thank for keeping him out of the Oscar host flophouse. They represented the Academy’s pandering attempt to attract younger viewers and got flavorless gruel for its efforts. The best case made for never having Oscar hosts again.
WHERE TO WATCH SUNDAY
E! Countdown to the Red Carpet (1-5 p.m., E!)
On the Red Carpet at the Oscars (5-6:30 p.m., ABC/7)
E! Live from the Red Carpet (5-7 p.m., E!)
Oscars Opening Ceremony: Live From the Red Carpet (6:30-8 p.m., ABC/7)
The 90th Academy Awards (8-11 p.m., ABC/7), live from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
E! After Party (11:30 p.m.-1 a.m., E!)