Will the Oscars Finally Stop Trying to Be Hip, Please?

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The Academy's attempt to create buzz by hiring Eddie Murphy and Brett Ratner has backfired—just like countless previous attempts to create buzz

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When Brett Ratner (he of Rush Hour and Tower Heist fame) was announced in August as the unlikely producer of next year's Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences once again stepped out of its comfort zone. After all, Ratner didn't exactly have the gravitas or boast the same penchant for Broadway razzle-dazzle as recent previous producers Bill Condon or Adam Shankman. Outside of the well-received Red Dragon, Ratner is known for creating sometimes-politically incorrect, action-packed, crowd-pleasing fare that mainstream audiences lap up and that Academy voters ignore come Oscar time. Critics assumed his hiring was an obvious attempt to grab younger TV watchers who typically don't tune into the black tie affair. And the Academy was blessed with more of its seemingly desired edginess when none other than Mr. Raw himself, Eddie Murphy, signed on to emcee the proceedings. A ratings dream!

The Academy got what it wanted as far as edginess. Several boorish remarks about Hollywood actresses and a flat-out gay slur later, Ratner has resigned as producer and taken Murphy with him. We should have all seen this coming: More often than not, attempts to freshen up the Oscar ceremony end in embarrassment. The Oscars are like the nice-enough kid at school who isn't cool, and who isn't going to be, but won't stop trying.

The Oscars are like the nice-enough kid at school who isn't cool, and who isn't going to be, but won't stop trying.

Perhaps the Academy suffers from short-term memory loss. It was just last year when a bald-faced attempt at courting America's film-going youth yielded perhaps the most reviled Academy Awards telecast in recent memory. "James Franco and Anne Hathaway personify the next generation of Hollywood icons—fresh, exciting, and multi-talented," producers proudly proclaimed when the actors were announced as last year's hosts. The pandering for the hip, youth vote was not even thinly veiled. And as we all learned, Oscar does not wear hipness well. Franco's bored, deer-in-the-headlights routine led some to wonder if he was high; Hathaway's manic overcompensation for his lack of energy manifested itself as a real-life version of Glee's Rachel Berry. Fresh and exciting? More like stale and snooze-inducing.

It's not as if the Academy hadn't had made previous mistakes that should have hinted that the Hathaway-Franco "young Oscars" would be a debacle. To be sure, young, talented actors are often nominated for Oscars for their film work. They—not Seventeen magazine's heartthrob of the week—deserve a showcase at the Kodak Theatre. And yet, routinely over the past several years, producers have invited the nation's most popular Tiger Beat cover stars to present at the ceremony. Twilight's vampires and werewolves, Mamma Mia's wide-eyed belters, High School Musical's smiling faces, Miley Cyrus—all walked the red carpet and rattled off stilted banter at recent ceremonies.

Did that inspire tweens stay up past their bedtimes to see the indie Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker take home Best Picture, or Slumdog Millionaire the year before it? 2009's ratings were dismally low, and '10's hardly better enough to justify the prestige that the light-weights siphoned away from the proceedings. In fact, a musical number starring High School Musical's Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens and Mamma Mia's Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper is considered one of the sole lowlights of perhaps the classiest Oscars telecast this decade.

The Academy hasn't just proven itself a failure at capitalizing on youth appeal. Its attempts at seizing on pop culture buzz have been historically laughable as well. Before James Franco, the last time an Oscar-nominated zeitgeist dominator to host the show was Crocodile Dundee's Paul Hogan in 1987. The Academy really pegged a future film icon with that decision. That same year, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morito, riding high on the popularity of The Karate Kid: Part II), Kojak (Telly Savalas, starring in a series of popular TV movies based on his crime show), and Dom De Luise performed "Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls during that ceremony. Really.

Then in 1989, the Academy booked who they must have thought was a big get: Rob Lowe, who was just beginning to rebuild his image after suffering an embarrassing, headline-making sex tape. So confident they appeared to be in his star power, they did not even hire a host for the show. Instead, the telecast opened with perhaps the most notorious Oscar moment of all time: A 20-minute duet of Ike and Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" sung by Lowe and an actress dressed up as the Disney version of Snow White. It was so bad that 17 Hollywood actors and producers signed a letter of disgust to the Academy, calling it "an embarrassment to both [the Oscars] and the motion picture industry."

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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