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Billy Crystal on hosting the 2012 Oscars: ''Rehearsals are for gags''

That’s what he has to say in response to onetime Oscar producer Brett Ratner’s now-infamous comment, which has led to Crystal’s highly anticipated return as host. In an exclusive interview, Crystal talks about taking the reins once again, trying to build a show that’s better than last year’s, and what it’s been like watching the ceremony from home (on the phone with Robin Williams)

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The first time he hosted the Academy Awards, in 1990, Billy Crystal felt instantly at home. ”I remember walking out and seeing Francis Ford Coppola and Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson and feeling — boom! — this is pretty great,” he says. On Feb. 26, the 63-year-old Crystal will be the master of ceremonies for the ninth time — but that Oscar stage may not be as comfortable a place as it was 22 years ago, or even eight years ago, when he last hosted. The Oscars have lost some of their mojo in recent years, as reflected in their sagging ratings. Last year’s show, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco, was widely seen as a ham-fisted attempt to lure younger viewers. This year’s Oscar season began with controversy last November, when producer Brett Ratner resigned amid a furor over his comment that ”rehearsal’s for fags,” leading his handpicked host, Eddie Murphy, to drop out as well. Against that less-than-glittering backdrop — not to mention a slump in domestic movie attendance in 2011 — Brian Grazer, who’s co-producing this year’s telecast, believes Crystal is the perfect man to put a smile on the industry’s face on its biggest night. ”I don’t want to be cynical about the Oscars — we want to celebrate the collective experience of going to the movies,” Grazer says. ”Billy does this with a lot of love and enthusiasm.” Co-producer Don Mischer concurs: ”Billy brings confidence to what he does. There have been many wonderful hosts of the Oscars, but when you look at the big three, it’s Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal.” While Crystal will certainly trot out some of his well-honed crowd-pleasers (don’t be surprised to see him inserted into clips from this year’s movies), he has no intention of coasting on past glories. ”There’s a big responsibility to the job — I think more so this year because people were not happy last year,” he says. ”I’ve got to deliver.” EW had a wide-ranging, and exclusive, conversation with the host.

When you came out on the stage at the Oscars last year to present a tribute to Bob Hope, you got a huge standing ovation. What was that night like for you?
I still get emotional when I think about it. It’s very rare I’m at a loss for words, but it took me a while to get my breath. It was very moving — and it did get me a little itchy…. They hid me in a tiny, freezing room that night because no one knew I was there. I’m watching the show and Wally Pfister wins for cinematography for Inception and his glasses are on his forehead the entire speech, which is funny. Then Kirk Douglas comes out and does what he did. Then Melissa Leo drops the F-bomb. And [Hathaway and Franco] didn’t say a word! And I’m back there going [makes shocked, sputtering sound]. That’s when I knew maybe I should come back. It’s fun to be out there when moments like that happen.

Did you think the hosting job might come around to you again?
I’ll tell you what happened: [Longtime Oscar producer] Gil Cates called me last May or June. I did six shows with Gil. He said, ”I think I’m getting the job. Would you host? Let’s do one more together.” I said, ”Gil, I’m tempted, but I don’t know when this movie [I’m doing] is going to start shooting. I’ve got to say a firm maybe.” Inside, I thought I was going to do it, but then tragically Gil got sick and he had [heart] surgery and he passed away.

Not long after Cates’ death, Ratner resigned as producer and Eddie Murphy bowed out as host. What was your first reaction when you got the call from Brian Grazer and Don Mischer saying they wanted you to step in and host?
I was shooting a movie [the comedy Parental Guidance] in Atlanta when this all presented itself. This was a movie that had taken me five years to get made, a real passion project, and I didn’t want to be interrupted. So when Brian called, I initially said to myself, ”No, no, no, no. This movie is too important.” I actually was angry, going, ”Goddamn it, now I’ve got to think about this!” It’s like waking up with someone you don’t want to wake up with every day — that’s a lousy feeling. Then that night, I woke up at two in the morning with an idea [for the show] and I started to giggle about it. Then I went back to sleep and I woke up with another idea. I called [my wife] Janice — we’ve made every decision together for 46 years — and said, ”What do you think?” She said, ”How do you feel?” I said, ”I’m smiling.” She said, ”I think you should do it.” I thought, ”All right, I’m in — I’ll tweet it.” It just felt right [to come back and host]…. In a way, the karma was kind of perfect.

How so?
When I saw it all unraveling, I kept thinking of Gil. [Ratner’s] comments, the way things were being talked about — I kept thinking Gil would have been rolling over in his grave.

Are you going to work any jokes about the whole Ratner controversy into the show?
No. I wouldn’t dignify it.

I assume you’re in favor of rehearsals.
[Deadpan] Rehearsals are for gags.

It’s been eight years since you hosted. What was your Oscar-watching ritual in the years you didn’t host?
There were sometimes small parties, or some years it would just be two or three people and I’d be on the phone with Robin Williams if we weren’t together. It was kind of nice to sit home and watch the show and say, ”Why is this so long?” [Laughs]

Having hosted so many times, do you find it hard not to be an armchair quarterback, yelling at the screen?
I remember Whoopi [Goldberg] hosted the year of Schindler’s List. One of the early awards was for art direction, and the woman who won for set design was named Ewa Braun. I went, ”This can’t be possible that Eva Braun won for Schindler’s List!” Robin was on the phone going, ”I can’t believe it!” I said, ”Come on, we’ve got to call Whoopi backstage. She’s got to say something!” [Laughs]

The conventional wisdom has always been that hosting the Oscars is a hard and thankless job. What does the audience not appreciate about the challenge of hosting?
As a comedian, you have everything working against you: The lights are on, cameras are roaming through the audience, people are nervous, it’s freezing cold. So… ”Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” It’s always a very hard audience for me to break through. About an hour and a half into the show, four out of five people in the audience have lost. That ain’t a happy crowd. It’s like a really bad seder towards the end: We’ve had plagues, we’ve had pestilence, it’s been three hours — and we still haven’t eaten. My opinion about it is you really have to want to be up there — and those who haven’t, you could tell they really didn’t embrace it the way you have to.

It didn’t look like James Franco really wanted to be there last year.
Yeah, I think you really need to know what the job is. It’s an ability I’ve always had since I was a little kid: to get up in front of people and be relaxed. I’ve often said this is just like playing to my relatives in the living room except there’s a billion people sitting in it.

As the ratings have dipped in recent years, there’s been a perennial debate about how to make the Oscars more exciting. What’s your take?
When I grew up, there was the Oscars and the Emmys — and they both were exciting. Now the problem is there’s all these invented awards, so by the time we get to the Oscars, you’ve seen the same people, you’ve seen them in their clothes, and they’re exhausted. I still think you just put on a great, traditional Oscar show if you can. All of the people who criticize the show never say how to change it. There are 26 awards or whatever it is, and you have to honor [them all]. Not every [nominee] is a George Clooney. Otherwise, the show could be 20 minutes long and you’d just do the red carpet for two hours. The best shows are when there are moments that are unpredictable: the streaker, Jack Palance [doing push-ups]. You just hope that’s going to happen.

In all your years of hosting, what was your favorite unpredictable moment?
The Hal Roach thing — that was a near disaster. Hal Roach was one of the fathers of comedy: Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy — he was one of the giants. I was supposed to honor him for his 100th birthday [at the 1992 Oscar show], and he was just going to wave to the crowd. So I make my speech and he stands up and he starts talking — and there’s no mic! And he’s 100 years old! [Mimics a barely audible mumble] The audience is going ”Huh?” [Laughs] I was there center stage and I said, ”I think that’s fitting because Mr. Roach started in silent films.” It was a great moment. To this day I go, ”I was good that night.”

The other dilemma surrounding the Oscars in recent years has been how to get younger viewers to tune in. Last year’s attempt to lure them with Hathaway and Franco backfired.
Last year they went for the younger hosts, and it didn’t work. I say if there are young filmmakers making really good, strong movies for that age group — and not just vampire movies — [and those movies are nominated] then young people will watch. But, I mean, look at the nominees this year for Best Director: Woody is 76, Marty is 69. Those are the best films. Is Twilight a Best Picture?… I went to the movies with Bette Midler in Atlanta when Moneyball opened because I was dying to see it. We’re sitting there and there were coming attractions for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and some others — and every trailer was exactly the same and they were so intense and loud. We looked at each other and went, ”We can’t be this old. Where’s a story?” I think that’s what keeps people away from the movies. We also have a world now that just looks down all the time. [Mimes texting on a cell phone] I don’t want to sound like some old guy at the Friars Club, but you go to the movies and everyone’s got this glow. I hate it. [A cell phone in the room vibrates.] Was that my phone that just went off? [Laughs] I think we’re going to talk about that [at the Oscars]: how we watch movies now. I’d like the monologue to not just be one-liners about who’s in the audience — I’ve done that. I want it to be thematically about where we’ve come in the 21 years since I’ve been doing the show.

Some people argue that the Oscars need an edgier host. What’s your feeling about the approach of someone like Ricky Gervais, who mercilessly goes after celebrities?
[Shakes his head] That whole concept of ”I want to really go after people” — I don’t understand that. Is it a roast or is it an awards show? Do you dislike these people? I have a different bar. If there’s a good target and they deserve it, you can kid them in the right way. But it’s not the place to go out there and hammer people, because who am I? There’s many times we’ve kicked out jokes because they were too personal.

Like what?
I remember when Robert Downey Jr. was having trouble, there was a very funny joke about him: ”Tomorrow morning, some of you will go home and find an Oscar on the mantel — and one of you will find Robert Downey Jr. on the curb in front of your house.” And I remember saying, ”I don’t know him very well, but that’s too personal.” You’ve got to know your room. There’s a lot of people I’d like to hit hard, but it’s just not the right place.

As the host trying to put on a funny show, it must be a big help to you when comedies are nominated — which a lot of people think doesn’t happen enough.
Yeah, it’s great. I thought Bridesmaids should have been nominated [for Best Picture]. It’s not going to win, but let it [be in there]. But it didn’t get the percentages of votes. I think the whole thing of percentages is all crazy. Woody’s film [Midnight in Paris] was lovely, but there’s a whole different palette of comedies that were really good, some that didn’t get nominated. 50/50 was a good movie. Win Win was one of the better movies I saw all year. I thought Beginners was terrific.

Making fun of the Academy Awards has become like a blood sport. Do you read reviews of the show?
I’ve never read any reviews. There’s so many more critics now, it’s terrible. Everyone’s vicious. It’s not just the critics — it’s all of the blogs and the comments. The New York Post in particular has been awful to me. This writer said they have a host ”who’s old enough to have gone to film school with [Georges] Méliès.” What? I wanted to call him and go, ”What did you do that for?” It really takes the fun out of it.

There’s obviously a heated presidential campaign going on this year. Will that work its way into the show?
Well, how funny are these idiots? There will be something that will filter into it. But you’ve got a big part of the country that likes one of these guys, and you don’t want to be offensive. This is a pretty passionate year for [politics] — and it’s been a hard couple of years for the audience. You don’t want to piss people off. You don’t want them to go, ”Oh, here’s a smart-ass from Hollywood making fun of us.”

Can you imagine a future where the Oscars ever become as irrelevant as something like the Miss America pageant?
No. There’s been 84 years of this show, and there’s still a mystique about the movie business. I hope the Oscars are always there. When I would first watch it — [at] 6 or 7 years old, watching on a black-and-white TV — I very rarely could stay up until the Best Picture award, so my mother would write down who won and when I came into the kitchen the next morning, the list of the winners would be in my cereal bowl. It’s important that the show be good, and I take it really seriously. There’s a younger audience — some of them will be seeing me for the first time. Hopefully, they’ll watch the show and they’ll say, ”He’s really funny.” That’s important to me. I think about what Joe DiMaggio said once to a young rookie named Mickey Mantle in spring training. DiMaggio knew it was his last year, and Mantle’s this 19-year-old kid, and at the end of the day Joe starts running in after a hard workout. Mantle said, ”What are you running for?” And Joe said, ”Somebody might be watching. If some kid is watching, I want to make sure he sees me running.”

Billy’s Hosting Highs
The eight-time vet has always found laughs in unepxected places. A look at hi finest moments.

Channeling Hannibal Lecter (1992)
In a history of great entrances, one of Crystal’s most memorable came when he was wheeled out on stage à la Anthony Hopkins’ serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, the film that ended up taking home the Best Picture award that night.

Crystal inserts himself into the movies (1997)
That year’s Oscar nominees were dominated by independent films like Fargo and Secrets & Lies, which hadn’t all been widely seen by the audience at home. The ingenious solution? To open the show with a montage placing Crystal in scenes from the films — a trick he’d bring back to great effect in later shows. ”It blew the roof off the place,” Crystal remembers.

A Titanic opening number (1998)
How do you make a tragic epic about a ship that hits an iceberg funny? Recount the story to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song, of course! At one point in the song-and-dance medley that opened the show, Crystal went into the audience and wound up in Jack Nicholson’s lap.

A comedic tour through classic films (2000)
The opening to the telecast inserted Crystal into iconic scenes throughout Hollywood history: eating a shoe with Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, seducing Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, conferring with Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and getting vomited on by Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

”What the Stars Are Thinking” (2004)
Crystal reprised a bit he’d first done in the 2000 show, telling the viewers at home what celebrities in the audience really had on their minds. Coincidentally, Renée Zellweger and Charlize Theron were thinking the same thing: ”Mrs. Billy Crystal.”