Ever since the last time Billy Crystal hosted the Academy Awards in 2004, the Oscars have been trying desperately to be cool. Just look at their post-Crystal hosting choices. They brought in Chris Rock. They brought in Ellen DeGeneres. They brought in Jon Stewart twice, once at a very specific cultural moment — the never-ending Presidential campaign of 2006-08 — when hiring Jon Stewart felt extremely transgressive. They brought in non-comedian Hugh Jackman. The 2010 Oscars felt like an old Saturday Night Live episode, with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as co-hosts. The 2011 Oscars, conversely, felt like a new SNL episode, with bright young things James Franco and Anne Hathaway modeling their respective youth-group charms: winking irony for him, breathless exuberance for her.
As EW columnist Mark Harris pointed out earlier this week on Grantland, the Oscars’ choices lately have focused on making the show younger, hipper, faster, cooler, buzzwords, etc. They got rid of the honorary Oscars. They expanded the Best Picture field to 10: Make way for Inception and The Blind Side, toot-tooooot! They had Miley Cyrus present something. Not all of these decisions were bad. In particular, I think Franco got a bad rap. I know plenty of people were put off by his holier-than-thou attitude, but considering the material, he had a lot to feel holier-than about. (Recall: They put him in a dress and gave him a Charlie Sheen joke.) I laughed constantly at Franco’s sidelong glances at the camera, usually deployed during one of Anne Hathaway’s adorability assaults. It was sort of like watching Jim from The Office host the Oscars alongside Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation.
But I’m in the minority; certainly, my parents despised Franco. And he didn’t exactly bring in the young people, either. The decision to hire Brett Ratner to produce this year’s Oscars was a final youth-demographic Hail Mary. And it could have been interesting — I’ll always wonder just what an Eddie Murphy Oscars would have looked like. By comparison, the decision to bring back Billy Crystal may seem like kind of a safe choice. It feels like an admission by the Academy Awards that, well, they’ve tried everything. They’re out of new ideas.
I say: Thank goodness. There’s no reason for the Academy Awards to pitch themselves to snarky young people. Young people will be snarky about anything, most of all things that are trying to appeal to them. When I was a kid, I loved watching the Oscars specifically because they didn’t kowtow to my specific tastes. Too often lately, the Oscars seemed almost embarrassed by themselves. None of the presenters ever made jokes about the sound effects Oscars; nobody invited Colin Farrell onstage to talk about partying in Tijuana with Jeremy Renner. And the honorary Oscars served as quick-hit film classes: I learned about cinematography the year they gave the honorary Oscar to Jack Cardiff.
That’s why I’m especially excited about the return of Billy Crystal. It’s almost as if the show has been going through a midlife crisis — buying a shiny new car, dating people young enough to be its grandchildren — and now it’s admitting that, well, sometimes the safe choice is the best choice. Crystal will probably be mildly amusing. He won’t ruffle any feathers. He won’t convince teenagers to watch the show. He won’t tweet. I hope he hosts for 10 years.
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