The Academy's attempt to create buzz by hiring Eddie Murphy and Brett Ratner has backfired—just like countless previous attempts to create buzz
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.
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."
And then there's the edginess. The Oscars are not an edgy show. It's a ceremony steeped in 84 years of tradition, put on by a group whose members' average age is 57, and attended by artists in penguin suits and evening gowns. It shouldn't be a shock, then, that attempts to be edgy hardly ever resonate. Chris Rock bombed rather spectacularly as 2005's host, coming off as mean-spirited and overly acerbic. Sean Penn even chastised him while presenting during the show for going overboard with an inappropriate roast of Jude Law. The ratings tanked. Even a fairly cut-and-dry hip-hop performance by Three 6 Mafia of their song "Hard Out Here for a Pimp," which deservedly won the Best Original Song Oscar in 2006 for Hustle and Flow, was met with blank, confused stares by the audience.
So why try to rewrite the formula again with Ratner and Murphy? The Academy, despite history's proof, seems oblivious to the fact that it cannot manufacture ratings. Viewership of the ceremony ebbs and flows. Some of that has to do with the nominated films. A small bit of that has to do with who the host is. But most of it is out of the producers' hands. Yet with every Oscar telecast, the media scrutinizes every rise and fall in the ratings from the previous year's ceremony, attempting to attribute each percentage point one way or another to an aspect of the telecast that worked and didn't work. When all that is accounted for, the typical takeaway from those critics is that nothing worked. And with their marching orders to find yet another way to make the telecast fresh, the producers go back to the drawing board.
Yet the best they can do is just keep the awards classic and classy. As Deadline Hollywood's Pete Hammond put it, "What will save the Oscars is nothing more than a good show about some good movies." It should be no surprise that best part of Hathaway and Franco's hosting stint was the segment inspired by Billy Crystal's beloved montages in which the actors inserted themselves into the year's nominated films. Or that Hugh Jackman, a charming song-and-dance man, is seen as setting the bar for successive hosts to live up to. Or that now that Murphy's out, critics are campaigning for the Academy to return Crystal to his rightful throne as King of the Oscar hosts.
Perhaps Ratner being forced to resign is a blessing in disguise for the Academy. Seasoned Hollywood producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) has already been booked for his replacement. He has a history with the awards and actually earns his place in the control booth. He may not be bring any sort of new edge into the proceedings, like the Oscars no doubt hoped Ratner would, but as we've learned, that may be a good thing.