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Why the Academy Is Going Back to Ellen (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst says that the return invitation to the popular comedienne was driven by a desire to rebut the notion that the Academy is an old white man's club.

Ellen DeGeneres Oscars Headshot - H 2013
A.M.P.A.S
Ellen DeGeneres

This morning Hollywood is abuzz with the news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tapped comedienne/TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to host the 86th Oscars telecast on ABC next March 2, exactly seven months from todayWhy did they pick Ellen, who hosted the show once before, seven years ago, earning decent but not great ratings and polite but not ecstatic reviews?

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Only a few people inside the Academy know for sure, but I think it's a safe bet that this choice was as much about symbolism as anything else.

Like the recently released list of people invited to join the Academy this year, which was as diverse as any they've ever issued, and like this week's election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a widely respected marketing exec who is a black woman, the DeGeneres selection helps to counter the perception -- which was substantiated and highlighted by a 2012 Los Angeles Times study -- that the Academy is a club of old white men.

Also, the DeGeneres selection strikes me as a tacit response by the Academy to the additional barrage of criticism that it faced, just five days after that embarrassing LA Times study was published, when Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars and behaved in a way that many felt was misogynistic -- singing a song about Oscar-nominated actresses entitled "We Saw Your Boobs"; joking about Chris Brown's battery of Rihanna; insinuating that 9-year-old best actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis would grow up to have sex with George Clooney; referencing best original song nominee Adele's weight; mocking the Kardashians for being hairy; suggesting that Jennifer Aniston was once a stripper; etc.

And that happened only a year after homophobic comments by the announced producer of the 84th Oscars telecast, Brett Ratner, led to his resignation from the production before it ever got off the ground -- and had the ricochet effect of causing the announced host of the show, Eddie Murphy, to withdraw as well, throwing things into chaos.

What better way could there be for the Academy to distance itself from offensive comments about women and gays than to hire the world's most famous and popular lesbian entertainer to be its public face to millions of people around the world?

That's not the only reason, of course. DeGeneres is funny, unflappable and has a Q score that anyone would envy. Moreover, she's a relatively safe pick. She's familiar (everyone in Hollywood has, at one time or another, danced and joked with her on her daytime talk show); she's savvy (even though she'll be on TV a lot between now and March she's not the sort of person who is likely to put her foot in her mouth); and she's not going to hurt anyone's feelings on Oscar night (her comedic sensibility is centered around awkwardness rather than mean-spiritedness -- while hosting the 79th Oscars she pitched a script to Martin Scorsese and asked Steven Spielberg to take a photo of her with Clint Eastwood).

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Sure, she's not going to particularly appeal to young men (women between the ages of 25 and  54 are her key demo), which is something that MacFarlane was brought in to do, and certain parts of the country that aren't high on gays aren't going to tune in (they are fewer and farther between these days, anyhow) -- but they probably wouldn't be watching the Oscars anyway.

For the record: Ellen's 79th Oscars brought in 39.92 million viewers, roughly the same as the 40.3 million who watched MacFarlane's 85th. Her telecast ran 3 hours and 51 minutes, slightly longer than his, which ran 3 hours and 35 minutes.