August 02, 2013 1:23pm PT by Tim Goodman
Ellen Hosts the Oscars Again: What Took Them So Long?
It's a disservice to say that Ellen DeGeneres as Oscars host is the "safe choice" after a year with Seth MacFarlane, the Family Guy creator and, for some Americans, an unfamiliar name, played the role.
Instead, consider DeGeneres the best choice.
There's a difference between making a safe choice and a good choice, because that kind of thinking often leads to a bad choice. Billy Crystal -- bad choice. He was so clearly from a past era (last hosting in 2004) and no matter how fond the memories of his past gigs were, it was just a knee-jerk reaction.
MacFarlane was, I think, fairly inspired. And though he ruffled some feathers with his Family Guy-esque humor, he was largely gracious to tradition and seemed to be going out of his way not to prove naysayers right. But MacFarlane was not a natural choice because his selection seemed to be pandering to a younger demo at the risk of alienating older viewers (and moviegoers). But choosing him also put MacFarlane in a kind of defensive, "I'll-prove-I-can-do-this-with-respect" position that didn't really allow him to be himself.
DeGeneres, on the other hand, is a natural for the job. She's not too old. She's not an Old School Male. She's not a desperation "reach" as a selection, and she won't have to change who she is or what she does. She hosted in 2007 and did a fine job. The real question about the Academy's decision to bring her back is this: What took them so long?
You can say that the Oscars want to be feel-good and less snarky and whatever you can dream up but, again, that makes DeGeneres seem like the "safe" pick rather than the "best" pick. Look, she's funny. She always has been. She can joke with celebrities in the audience if she chooses and they won't recoil in horror, for starters, but more importantly, that kind of schtick will be genuinely funny and less cringe-inducing or obsequious.
This raises the obvious question: Who can do that? Not a lot of hosts. There's a very small group that has the skillset that DeGeneres has, so it's kind of shocking that it took the Academy this long to circle back to her. The Academy has had a long record of thematically bizarre choices for host. And that's because, year after year, the Oscars hasn't figured out what it wants to be.
There was a consistent stretch with those who we would now consider Old School (Crystal, 1990, '91, '92, '93, '97, '98, 2000, 2004), Whoopi Goldberg (1994, '96, '99, 2002), Steve Martin (2001, '03, 2010 with Alec Baldwin). There were "the Comedian Years" with Chris Rock (2005), Jon Stewart (2006, 2008) and DeGeneres (2007)
There was the one-off with Hugh Jackman in 2009, which was surprisingly effective and then another funny and effective one-off with the Martin-Baldwin combo. While it might have behooved the Academy to go with DeGeneres again in 2009 after Stewart (which would have had them both covering the last four ceremonies), the choice of Jackman seemed to signal a "let's do something different" phase. And that worked out well as far as presenting an enjoyable, well-paced telecast. But the urge to keep experimenting has gone terribly wrong since then -- James Franco and Anne Hathaway in the trainwreck of 2011, the loss of Eddie Murphy who pulled out when package-deal director Brett Ratner shot his mouth off and decided to pull out, resulting in the knee-jerk return to Crystal.
Say what you will about picking MacFarlane -- he at least steadied the ship. But again, just as the latter-year Crystal was a mistake, the demo-saving selection of MacFarlane just didn't suit the needs of the show. Opting to try the "fresh and new" approach when someone like DeGeneres would have been familiar, embraced and accomplished, can now be seen as a tactical error.
Which is why, if the Academy Awards wants to build something consistent, either DeGeneres or Stewart should be tapped for 2015. Those are the kinds of hosts the Oscars needs. They're funny, likable and respected. They have the same inherent comic's desire to fire off a few close-cutting jokes, but know where the line is in terms of tone.
The Academy Awards would be well-served to focus on this skillset and then stick with it until all signs point to a change -- whatever fresh blood seems smartly appropriate. But that should be, at minimum, several years away. A DeGeneres-Stewart every-other-year rotation would be perfect if each were willing. What the Oscars definitely needs to do is get the hell out of the business of looking to shock or surprise or shift the demo each year. What people want from their Oscars host is a little magnetic, upbeat, personality and a keen sense of when to step aside so that the films -- the reason people watch the awards show in the first place -- can get the attention.