Hollywood’s most thankless job has been filled. Ellen DeGeneres was just announced as host of the 2014 Oscars ceremony ... and for that, we’re thankful.
By and large, no one likes the Oscar telecast. No matter what the Academy has tried to do in past years to fix it—young hosts like Anne Hathaway and James Franco! Old hosts like Billy Crystal!—critics and audiences have panned the show. The Academy Awards is coming off one of its most reviled telecasts yet with Seth MacFarlane’s misogynistic and meandering (not to mention largely unfunny) hosting stint, capping off four straight years of critically trashed ceremonies.
But everyone loves Ellen DeGeneres. (I mean ... don’t they?) She is the comedy equivalent of comfort food, or sunshine on a cloudy day. After a series of indulgent and sometimes distasteful hosts, and a storm of negative press about the Oscars telecast, she’s exactly what the show needs.
When she emceed back in 2007, her performance earned mixed reactions from critics. The gist: she was fine. “[Ellen did] a crisp and unpretentious job,” wrote Tom Shales in The Washington Post. She was “cheeky but good-natured,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times, “bringing a casual Friday mood to Fancy Sunday.”
Now that six years have passed with only one host, Hugh Jackman, even coming close to rivaling her breezy, charming, and, if not uproarious, at least chuckle-worthy broadcast, it’s easier to value the low-key work she did. Often the Academy Awards, perhaps more than any other Hollywood awards show, comes off as full of itself. Even if Seth MacFarlane is singing a crass song about boobs or James Franco is parading around dressed as Marilyn Monroe, there’s a palpable air of stodginess and self-importance that overtakes the broadcast.
The most entertaining award-show telecasts make an audience feel as if they’re at a dinner party thrown by someone who could be one of their best friends. Watching is easy and comfortable, and viewers at home can believe they would belong with that crowd if they were in the theater. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did a masterful job creating that atmosphere at the recent Golden Globes, easily the best award-show broadcast in recent memory.
Staging that dinner party should be remarkably easy. Hire a host with a sense of humor that’s current and edgy. (Note: “current” doesn’t mean “crass,” something MacFarlane seemed to confuse.) Ditch the idea that award shows should double as A-list roasts. Who wants to attend a party where they’re in constant fear that they’re the next to be insulted and skewered? And, most important, forget pandering to a specific audience demographic.
The biggest problem the Oscars has had these past few years is how wildly reactive it’s been to that notion—that there’s an audience to seek out and cater to. With the idea that the ceremony was too “old,” Anne Hathaway and James Franco were hired, leading to the whirling-dervish-meets-comatose-stoner disaster of 2011. That didn’t work, so the Academy swung to the total opposite tone the next year, bringing back Billy Crystal. To make up for that rancidly dated and dry performance, the organization doubled down on edginess, hiring Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane for a ceremony that was, yes, progressive, but also in aggressively poor taste.
So thank god for Ellen.
As she proves on a daily basis with her afternoon talk show, DeGeneres has an almost unparalleled gift for creating an easy rapport with her audience, turning comedy and joke-telling into a casual conversation between friends. Her first stint as Oscar host was brimming with that chatty charm—sans snark, and without a hint of mean-spiritedness.
Take some of her best one-liners, like when she told Peter O’Toole, “Congratulations on your eighth nomination! You know what they say: third time’s the charm!” Or when she paraded the aisles to mingle with the nominees. (Imagine that, using the nominees to create comedy and not just as the butt of jokes.) She cozied up to Martin Scorsese to pitch him a screenplay: “It’s a cross between Goodfellas and Big Momma’s House!”
She took a selfie with Clint Eastwood to use as her MySpace profile picture (again, this was 2007…) The interplay was comedy gold, particularly when she asked Steven Spielberg to take the photo: “Make sure we’re both in, Steven.”
The most inspired bit found DeGeneres vacuuming the carpet of the theater, claiming that she was unaware of all the responsibilities that came along with being host as she asked stars like Penelope Cruz to pick up their feet. Six years later, it’s a bit we still remember. It’s been just one year since MacFarlane hosted the show. Can you remember any of his segments? Rather, can you remember any of his segments because they were good? (Again with that egregious boobs song.)
So there’s a lot of pressure on DeGeneres to deliver this time, but she’s proved time and again she’s up to the task. Never has that been more the case than when she hosted the 2001 Emmys, which were postponed twice following the 9/11 attacks. She was perfection, striking just the right tone of reverence and irreverence, letting Hollywood know that it was OK to laugh again. If she could handle that broadcast with such grace, surely she should have no problem erasing the stench of MacFarlane from our Oscar memories.
“Let’s be honest,” said DeGeneres during her first Oscar sting. “It’s not that we don’t have time for long speeches. We don’t have time for boring speeches.” The same can be said for the Oscars telecast. Year in and year out we complain about how insufferably long it is, diagnosing that as the reason why the show is so predictably bad. But it’s not that we don’t have time for long telecasts. It’s that we don’t have time for boring ones.
So thank god for Ellen.