The 1st Academy Awards was truly like no other in the ceremonies’ history.
It was a private dinner held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Thursday, May 16th, 1929, with under 300 guests in attendance for $5-a-ticket, and lasted a mere 15 minutes. The moment was not broadcast on radio (or television, obviously) and was hosted very briefly by Academy “President” Douglas Fairbanks. (Telegraph)
The nominations and winners were announced publicly three months beforehand in only 12 categories. Rather unsurprisingly, the question of what deserves Best Picture – arthouse or blockbuster, niche or mainstream – was an issue from the very beginning, spawning both the Outstanding Picture and Best Unique and Artistic Picture awards. Henceforth, the Academy Awards would never be this small, informal, or private again.
So, when the ceremony became a publicly accessible media event over the course of the 20th century, the matter of choosing a host became not only an issue for those present but for the likely millions of listeners (and eventually, viewers) across the country (and eventually, the world).
From there, we can recognize four kinds of hosts the Academy has historically selected over 90 ceremonies: actors (32 percent), comedic personalities (62 percent), non-actor film contributors (6 percent), and musical entertainers (7 percent). Now, let’s break that down, from least to most frequency.
WHO ARE THE TRUE FRIENDS OF OSCAR?
The least frequent kind of Oscar host is that of the non-actor member of the film industry, more often than not, a director, screenwriter, producer or combination of all three in one, but has not been a typical host choice since the mid-1970s. If I could hazard why, it is likely that directors lack the instant recognizability or celebrity of an actor and believe it or not, many are not flamboyant artistic personalities (especially now) who would volunteer for such duties, regardless of conflicting projects. Like could you imagine Christopher Nolan stepping in for that job?
The second least frequent kind of Oscar host is the choice of musical personalities, another category largely defunct since the mid-1970s. Now, such musical stars (in this case) are singers/dancers with crossover careers in film and television, like Fred Astaire (23), Frank Sinatra (35, 47), Diana Ross (46), Sammy Davis Jr. (44, 47), and Gene Kelly (48).
However, as is made apparent, they are all known for musical parts, meaning Sinatra will sing and Astaire will dance, even at the Oscars. With the burgeoning gap between the music and film industries after the end of the Classical era, and the birth of music-centered awards shows with show-stopping artistic showcases, the cross-pollination dwindled to basically nothing ever since.
With those out of the way, it’s time we talk about the two most common types of Oscar hosts – actors and comedic personalities.
The first ceremony was indeed hosted by actor Douglas Fairbanks, but the event has not been helmed by any actor since the disastrously-received 83rd Academy Awards, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco. This host list includes the likes of actors and actresses James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Frederic March, and Claudette Colbert of the Golden Age to Goldie Hawn, Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine, and Jane Fonda of New Hollywood.
My best guess for why they initially chose actors as hosts goes as follows – their automatic Academy membership, recognizable presence and voice, celebrity, and a potential transference of charisma from big screen roles to master of ceremonies (which was not the case in most scenarios). Surprise, surprise, but playing a charismatic character in a film with multiple takes isn’t precisely a one-to-one experience for live hosting.
Nonetheless, the most popular Oscar hosts are the comedic personalities, or comedians with multimedia appeal, from radio and stand-up to film and television. The most famous and frequent hosts are the majorly massive, national comedy stars that either double as movie stars or as television hosts – Bob Hope (19 ceremonies), Billy Crystal (9 ceremonies), Johnny Carson (5 ceremonies), and Whoopi Goldberg (4 ceremonies) – the Oscars’ mainstays and icons.
This category can be expanded to include Jack Benny (16, 19), Jerry Lewis (28, 29, 31), Richard Pryor (49, 55), Chevy Chase (59, 60), and even Carol Burnett (45). In the 21st century hall of hosts, we might be most familiar with Chris Rock (77, 88), Jon Stewart (78, 80), Ellen DeGeneres (79, 86), Seth MacFarlane (85), and Jimmy Kimmel (89, 90).
So one wonders, why comedic personalities to host the Oscars?
Well, they often have hosting experience, comfort on stage, great improvisational skills, can contribute to the script, provide a safety net via national recognizability and acceptance, and have the expertise to balance charm and humor so the Academy can appear to take a joke and poke fun at itself. Now, does this always come across successfully? Obviously not. Attempts at diversity can lead to problematic humor (Rock), appeals to unity can come off bland (Ellen, Harris), conformity to tradition can convey antiquated material (Hope), and efforts at edgy comedy can evoke insensitivity and offense (MacFarlane).
Therefore, in this chaotic year, the question a lot of people are asking themselves is:
WHAT DOES A HOST-LESS OSCARS REALLY LOOK LIKE?
Over the course of 90 ceremonies, the Academy Awards has only gone officially without a host FIVE times until this year: at the 11th, 41st through 43rd, and 61st ceremonies in 1938, 1969-1971, and 1989, respectively. Let’s look at each one of these scenarios individually and together.
The 11th Academy Awards was held on Thursday, February 23rd, 1939 at the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, starting at 8:30 p.m. and lasting 2 hours and 6 minutes. Not aired on radio since a partial recording in 1932, the night’s security guards were very surprised to find a local reporter broadcasting 12 minutes of the event live while locked in a phone booth, before being dragged out.
Note: However, less than 2 minutes of footage of the ceremony was filmed and archived, capturing the creepiest obscure moment in Oscar history that no one talks about.
Unlike the previous 10 occasions, this Oscars was the first to have no official host. As the votes were cast and winners pronounced, awards were presented by fellow actors like Tyrone Power and Cedric Hardwicke instead of hosts, typical presenters, or ushers. Obviously, this is still a much more private event without public accessibility or national media fanfare.
Some 30 years later, the industry, Academy, and ceremony would experience a complete metamorphosis.
For the 41st through 43rd Academy Awards, I’m going to discuss them all together, because they are incredibly similar as host-less affairs.
These ceremonies were hosted in April(!) in the years 1969 to 1971 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, also in Downtown Los Angeles, but all beginning at 7:00 p.m. and lasting between 2 ½ and 3 hours.
The Academy membership hovered between three and four thousand, and the night awarded 22 categories rather than 24 (missing Animated Feature, Makeup & Hairstyling, and the distinction between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing). The smaller venue and stage appeared to fit everyone quite snugly, even though SEVERAL people each year did not actually pick up their awards (like at least a third don’t show up).
Aesthetically, the ceremonies date themselves adorably. The audience is dotted with jarring yellows, oranges, and greens, and everyone often looks sweaty and sickly-colored, their hair and “cool” beards a little off, and their faces disgusting and contoured like they’ve been smeared with Vaseline. Teleprompter technology had not evolved for widespread use until the 1980s, so the staffer tasked with holding massive cue cards is visible in crowd shots. Furthermore, there are lighting issues and sound inconsistencies, and so many instances of awkward silence. Highlights included:
- Walter Matthau rattling off a few good jokes while holding a chimp in a tuxedo, in order to award make-up artist John Chambers for his work on that year’s Planet of the Apes; (HERE)
- The somber moment when Robert Kennedy Remembered won Best Live Action Short less than a year after his assassination (d. June 1968); (HERE)
- When Rosalind Russell, Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, and Diahann Carroll came on stage to lament the absence of female-driven pictures and equal representation in the Best Picture line-up (while also taking a jab at HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey for being maybe effeminate or gay);
AND THE MOMENT THAT TAKES THE WHOLE GODDAMN CAKE – It is beautiful, mesmerizing, glorious and f***ing weird!
- When, for the Best Costume Design Oscar, they had models do a runway walk in the nominee’s corresponding clothes and dance for a whole minute to groovy 60s music, including Romeo and Juliet, The Lion in Winter, and Planet of the Apes (THE SHOW’S PRODUCER WAS A CHOREOGRAPHER!)
The 42nd Academy Awards is characterized by a feast of bits, special insert pieces, and jokes that would be considered in bad taste or politically incorrect by today’s standards. Most interestingly, they screen a documentary short asking master directors across the world – Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, John Schlesinger, Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols, Franco Zeffirelli, and David Lean – what they believe onscreen freedom from censorship can mean for the future of film.
But beyond all the up-and-coming actors sporting hippie beards (plus Jon Voight, the human Ken doll), the night’s “comedic” highlights included:
- Raquel Welch and Claudia Cardinale being reluctantly forced to make jokes about their sizable busts and foreign accents (yep, shout out to Sofia Vergara); (HERE) & (HERE)
- Bob Hope being astounded that Richard Burton could play “a queen and a king in the same year,” because he portrayed both a gay character (Staircase) and King Henry VIII (Anne of the Thousand Days) in 1969; (YIKES)
- Bob Hope decrying that, since the official end of the Production Code in 1968, there was a “fortune to be made in adultery, incest, and homosexuality;”
- Basically, 90 percent of all the jokes Bob Hope tells that just do not land for most of the audience.
The 43rd Academy Awards focuses more on the internal mechanisms of the Academy, such as a piece showing how they put the Oscars together and a long speech discussing all the grants and resources the organization offers to filmmakers, writers, students, and educators. Looking back, this show has fewer noticeable highlights, including Quincy Jones as the sassy lead composer, Orson Welles’ Brechtian pre-filmed speech about his honorary award, and Merle Oberon captured in-color in all her multiracial glory. Oh, and another Bob Hope cameo monologue where none of the jokes land.
Now, this brings us to the most infamous host-less Oscars ceremony in the event’s history – the 61st Academy Awards held on Wednesday, March 29th, 1989. Widely considered the worst Oscars EVER, the ceremony received harsh, negative criticism from the media and industry professionals alike. So before I go into the hottest of hot takes, there are a few things I’d like to tackle first about this supposed disaster.
As you might imagine, 1989 has a very alien aesthetic to today, one that is very excessive but also iconic and recognizable. From minute one, you’ve got big hair, metallic tones, popped collars, pleated dresses, mullets, and creepy big serial killer glasses plus that 1970s Oscars sweat.
In addition, the ceremony shines with dated onscreen graphics, sound inconsistencies, interference, and the unfortunate issue of being able to hear everything at the podium (even during clip shows and over clapping). Of course, one must be reminded that this is 1989, evidenced by the announcement that for the first time, the ceremony is being broadcast to the Soviet Union, in addition to a plethora of George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle jokes.
OK, so you ready for my hot take?
The 61st Academy Awards – the reputedly worst ceremony in Oscar history – isn’t . . . ACTUALLY BAD. Before you shake your head in horrible confusion, I can explain. That year’s Oscars weren’t perfect: It drags and feels too long; some of the bits feel awkwardly improvised; the drug addiction and recovery jabs just write themselves; and, they still revel in their own problematic sense of nostalgia.
BUT the ceremony itself is pretty standard. However, the first 12 MINUTES are so incomprehensibly terrible and bizarre that it so completely tainted the other 3 HOURS for all of history. So, let’s get to the real weird sh*t this ceremony is now infamous for.
The absence of a host was a major point of emphasis from the very beginning of the night. The charming Tom Selleck makes the evening’s quasi-introductory monologue about this point, encouraging the audience and viewers to be open-minded about this new kind of Oscars. However, the true opening piece of the awards was meant to convey glamour and spectacle and collide the young and new with the legendary and classical.
It did not. It really did not.
Basically, they took a naive aspiring actress named Eileen Bowman, dolled her up to look like Snow White (without asking Disney first), and sent her into a disastrous setpiece so ill-conceived and poorly executed so as to earn a formal complaint with the organization, calling it an “embarrassment to both the academy and the entire motion picture industry.” (Los Angeles Times)
This Snow White, channeling Betty Boop more accurately, flitters down the aisle making everyone in attendance cringe with unease, so she can follow dancers dressed as giant stars (and that definitely cannot see). We then enter the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub with dancing tables and Golden Age stars trotted out looking sedate, lost, and downright decrepit (except for Cyd Charisse).
Then Rob Lowe shows up as her “blind date.” He proceeds to make “f*ck-me” eyes at her the whole time, all the while they perform an unequal duet. Rob Lowe cannot sing; Russell Crowe is 100 times better. Lowe then disgustingly open-mouth kisses her hand. In the end, as this joke bombs continuously for over ten minutes, a very shocked Lily Tomlin enters to say a few jokes, even though a dancer is frighteningly crawling down the stairs face first to pick up and throw a discarded shoe into the orchestra pit.
And, let’s not forget the child’s recital where children, grandchildren, siblings, and friends of already-famous people sing, dance, and sword fight. (Stars of Tomorrow)
Yep, it’s pretty bad.
Bowman was forced to sign a 13-year gag order so as to never talk about that ceremony to the press. Oscar producer Allan Carr (flamboyant and not exactly closeted) never produced another ceremony or hit film ever again and instead returned to the theatre, dying ten years later from liver cancer. Two pieces that provide insight into that infamous opening come from Oscar head comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and Bowman herself (Hollywood Reporter).
In essence, these ceremonies can teach us two things –
1) what the Oscars look like consistently without a host in a modern era and
2) how little the choice of a host can really matter to the overall quality and legacy of past ceremonies.
For hosting duties, the ceremonies in question sew the event together with recurring presenters so as to avoid overwhelming episodic disconnectedness in the absence of a central host. With short comedic bits, specialized shorts and setpieces, and musical numbers, these Academy Awards of the past, significantly, remain tight and extremely short due to nonexistent speeches/platforming, fewer nominees and categories, endless host monologues, and substantially shorter commercial breaks.
Most importantly, however, is the diminished capacity and role of a single host. Instead, former hosts like Bob Hope as well as Academy president Gregory Peck become narrators and moderators rather than the master of ceremonies. If this were the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, they’d be the edges of the river, keeping the boat on track rather than the ad-libbing skipper we all have come to expect.
But . . .
More often than not, what sticks the most is the much-deserved wins, the unbelievable snubs, and shocking upsets. However, underneath most ceremonies is a central conflict or question, usually determined by the industry’s and Academy’s feelings about itself and each other as well as the medium’s evolving relationship with culture, technology, and commerce.
When you watch Oscars of the 1970s, look no farther than the Best Picture winners for proof, as Oliver! became the only G-rated film to win while Midnight Cowboy was the only X-rated picture to do the same, the very next year. Hollywood of the 1970s, or New Hollywood, lies between the eras of Classical Hollywood and the studio system/Production Code of the Golden Age and the mass conglomeration, globalization, and rating systems that would lead to our current industrial milieu.
And that time of cultural, generational, and economic upheaval is painfully communicated during the Academy Awards each year – the clash of old and young, the past and the present, the industry’s history and potential future. Or in today’s parlance, the ongoing discord between Old Guard and rising artists, a problematic (read: nostalgic) relationship with the past and the open-minded, conscious understanding of the present, all with hopes for a more relevant, inclusive and representational future.
This piece originally appeared in 24 Frames of Silver: A Cinema Blog for the Soul by Lee O, written by Elise Williamson.