Will the Ratner debacle prove that a good awards show doesn't require pushing the envelope?

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated November 18, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

The Academy Awards is getting things a little backward this year. Someone apparently didn’t see the memo that all of the drama and suspense is supposed to come at the very end of Oscar season, when everyone’s dressed up fancy and the envelopes are opened on live TV — not at the very beginning, when the show is still nearly four months away. Last week, during a tumultuous three-day period, the original producer for the 84th Academy Awards, Brett Ratner, resigned amid controversy over several boorish comments, including his use of a gay slur, and his host, Eddie Murphy, stepped aside, forcing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to scramble to lock in a new producer, Brian Grazer, and a replacement host, Billy Crystal. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but Academy president Tom Sherak insists it could have been worse: ”It was good that it happened early. God forbid this had happened in January.”

That’s about the best that can be said of the situation, which cast a stark light on the Academy’s ongoing struggle to figure out how to transition the much-loved but timeworn awards show into the 21st century. In recent years, as the ratings for the telecast have ebbed, there’s been an urgent debate over whether the Academy needs to make bold changes to its marquee event or stick to its hallowed traditions. This year’s bid to freshen up the show with cohosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, in an obvious effort to attract younger viewers, flopped; viewership dropped 9 percent, and the show drew brutal reviews. For next year the Academy tried to double down on edginess, bringing in Ratner — the director of broadly commercial fare like the Rush Hour movies and Tower Heist, and a man not exactly known for conducting himself publicly with great decorum — and Murphy, an unpredictable choice with a hint of danger. When that risky experiment imploded, the Academy retreated to the safety of überproducer Grazer and eight-time host Crystal. ”I appreciate any effort they’re making to evolve,” says one top Hollywood executive, who’s a longtime Academy member. ”Anytime you’re pushing an 85-year-old institution forward, you’re going to fall down — it just happened to be extremely public in this case.”

It remains to be seen whether the 63-year-old Crystal, who hasn’t been acting much on the big screen in recent years, can bring in the ever-elusive young audience the Academy is seeking. Grazer, for one, says he’s not overly concerned with that: ”I think Billy is awesome, and he has the same goal as the audience, which is to have a good time. But there are many components to the Oscars, and there are ways to artistically counterpoint Billy — putting great artists in the show and paying attention to other demographics — that can create a fabric that’s seamless and is different tonally than what we’ve seen before.”

The irony is, despite these efforts to define what the modern Oscars should be, there’s a good argument to be made that what ultimately drives viewership is not the host or the style of the show but rather the popularity of the movies and stars who are nominated. The best-rated shows in recent years have come when huge blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Avatar were in the mix. ”It makes sense that if films are nominated that have a strong fan base, the number of watchers will go up because people are invested,” says actress Melissa McCarthy, one of the stars of the hit comedy Bridesmaids, which has a decent shot at nods for Best Supporting Actress (McCarthy) and Best Original Screenplay. Aside from expanding the number of films in the Best Picture race — which hasn’t seemed to help ratings — the Academy can’t do much about which movies and stars get voted in. So perhaps they should relax and quit trying to impress the cool kids. As one Oscar-winning actor puts it, ”They’re trying to hip up the Oscars in a world that isn’t necessarily all that hip. I think they should just go back to doing good, solid shows and stop trying to do all the stunts.”

Oscar Struggle Timeline

Brett Ratner
The outspoken Tower Heist director resigned on Nov. 8 after a series of offensive statements. He wrote, ”I deeply regret my actions and I am determined to learn from this experience.”
Eddie Murphy
The original host for the 84th Academy Awards bowed out on Nov. 9. ”I’m sure that the new production team and host will do an equally great job,” he said.
Brian Grazer
On Nov. 9, the producer stepped in to helm next year’s Oscars. ”It was almost like a civic duty,” Grazer tells EW. ”I just had to go ahead and do it.”
Billy Crystal
The eight-time Oscar host announced his return on Nov. 10 by tweeting: ”Am doing the Oscars so the young woman in the pharmacy will stop asking my name when I pick up my prescriptions.”

(Additional reporting by Carrie Bell and Dave Karger)