The last time that the Academy Awards went without a host, Rain Man sparred with Working Girl for Best Picture, Beetlejuice won Best Makeup, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was up for Best Foreign Language Film, and Glenn Close lost Best Actress to Jodie Foster. The earth was cooler, the hair was higher, and George H. W. Bush was barely two months into his presidency. The year was 1989.
The Oscars had been host-less before; indeed, after Bob Hope’s 17th (but not last!) turn at the wheel in 1968, there wasn’t another emcee until 1972, when Helen Hayes, Alan King, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jack Lemmon all divided duties. But the 1989 ceremony was definitely weird, and not least because of its infamously bizarre opening number, masterminded by producer Allan Carr. (The unfamiliar need only imagine Rob Lowe, Snow White, a bunch of people dressed as tables, and a lengthy rendition of “Proud Mary” to get a sense of how it went. As Lily Tomlin wryly mused at its conclusion, “More than a billion-and-a-half people just watched that. And at this very moment, they’re trying to make sense of it.”)
Most befuddling to the show’s critics was how joyless the whole thing seemed, despite Carr and director Jeff Margolis’s best intentions. Efforts to ramp up the evening’s glamour—by replacing the host with a long and starry list of presenters, for example, and announcing winners with the then newfangled phrase, “And the Oscar goes to . . .”—were drowned in a sea of shtick. “The contributions of Allan Carr, who produced the show for the first time, involved camping up the musical numbers and cleansing the format of most of its fun,” The New York Times reported two days later. “Gone were the always enjoyable audience reaction shots (although some of the acting nominees could be seen rolling their eyes in disbelief as Snow White worked her way past the front row). Gone was the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Gone was an entire generation of Oscar regulars, from Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston to Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine.” (Another New York Times review stated: “The 61st annual Academy Awards have come and gone. They said the show would be shorter. It wasn’t. They said it would be funnier. It wasn’t. They didn’t say it would be any less tacky. One out of three ain’t bad.”) Somewhere between the hack theatrics and stilted presenter patter, the Oscars, it seemed, had lost more than just their host—it had lost its heart.
Thirty years later, astonishingly little has changed. The Academy is still trying to make the Oscars shorter; most controversially, by publicly planning to move certain technical awards—including those central to the realities of filmmaking, like film editing and cinematography—to the un-televised commercial breaks, before reversing course in response to the outrage. In tapping Kevin Hart to host, it seemed eager to make the proceedings funnier, too. But rather than replace him with another, more palatable, choice when Hart fell through in the wake of resurfaced homophobic tweets, the Academy pivoted to the 1989 approach: eschewing a host altogether, and doubling down on star power. Among those slated to present awards at this year’s ceremony are Jennifer Lopez, Awkwafina, Amandla Stenberg, Emilia Clarke, Jason Momoa, and Constance Wu—talent obviously meant to attract a wider (and younger) demographic to the telecast.
The Academy can’t be blamed for trying. There’s a heaviness about the Oscars that’s hard to get around. Watching scrubbed-up Hollywood types congratulate each other and themselves for hours (and hours . . . and hours) isn’t inherently compelling television, love them as we might. But this is where a skilled host can step in, and remind us why we seek out entertainment in the first place. More than stage presence and a sharp sense of humor, hosts like Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ellen DeGeneres all shared a sense of perspective: They played to both the room and the people watching at home, pausing to wink at the fans between rounds of inside baseball. In that way, they recalled the power that films have to thrust people from all walks of life and corners of the earth into the same story. The end of Carson’s monologue in 1980 struck that note exactly. “So, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me,” he said. “Let’s all relax back, and watch the show together.”
What the Oscars risk this year without a dedicated master of ceremonies—or even a hosting duo, or quartet, as was the norm from about the 1950s to the 1980s—is losing the live wire that, at the best of times, gives that beloved, beleaguered dinosaur of a ceremony not only a consistent pulse, but a conscience, too. I’m prepared for this year’s show to be weird; and anyway, between Kevin Hart and no host, I’ll take the latter, thank you. But one can hope that in its angling for sexiness, the Academy doesn’t strip away the charms that make the Oscars worth watching.