The perceived success of Oscar night hinges on many factors — how dull the speeches are, how interminable the musical numbers are, whether Debbie Allen is involved, etc. — but no element, it seems, is more important than the host. A good Oscar host has to be something of a miracle worker: they keep the show moving, react spontaneously to whatever clusterfucks occur (and they always do), rib the royalty but only gently, and make the night edgy enough for home viewers, but not too edgy for the Cryptkeepers in the audience. Many have tried, but only a few have succeeded, so in anticipation of Ellen Degeneres’ second run at the job, we’ve ranked every Oscar host from the last 25 ceremonies (save 1989, which had no host).
Not ranked: Ellen Degeneres (2007)
Confession: your film editor cannot rank Ms. Degeneres’ first time in the host tux, back in 2007, because I never saw it — I boycotted the ceremony that year, still shell-shocked from Crash’s notorious Best Picture prize the previous year. An overreaction? Perhaps. Inconvenient for the purposes of the job today? Most definitely. But I can only beg your understanding; when you witness a mugging, well, you just can’t return to the scene of the crime as quickly as you might need to.
13. James Franco and Anne Hathaway (2011)
Three years back, in an ill-fated attempt to court “the young people” at home, producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer tapped renowned multi-tasker (and Best Actor nominee, for 127 Hours) James Franco and a pre-backlash Anne Hathaway to host the ceremony — in spite of the fact that neither of them had ever done anything resembling the job. And when the big night came, you could tell; Franco tried to turn his hosting duties into some kind of performance art piece about boredom, while Hathaway’s attempts to overcompensate for her co-host’s low energy drenched the evening in flop sweat. It was a bit of a disaster, and evidence — and we’ll see more later — that it’s a job best suited to (intentional) comedians.
12. Seth MacFarlane (2013)
After going back to wheezy ol’ Billy Crystal post-Francaway, last year’s producers again made a desperate bid for young viewers by hiring piss-poor cartoon creator and third-rate Rat Pack imitator Seth MacFarlane. The Family Guy mastermind’s bits for the night rotated, predictably, from bewildering to tasteless to frat-boy sexism, with his nudity-checking “We Saw Your Boobs” number (including such dubious choices as Boys Don’t Cry’s rape scene) the nadir of a wildly unlikable evening.
11. Billy Crystal (2012)
The 2012 ceremony was a bit of a behind-the-scenes nightmare — original co-producer (and Rush Hour director) Brett Ratner, an unfortunate choice to begin with, was booted for, well, basically for being Brett Ratner. After his exit, original host Eddie Murphy (who would’ve been a daring and interesting choice, oh, a quarter-century earlier) followed suit, leaving substitute producer Brian Grazer to desperately hire Billy Crystal for one more go-round. It was his ninth time on the job, and it felt like it; the entire evening played like an encore that had gone on for too long, with the aging host trotting out his signature tired bits, the Oscar equivalent of a circa-2008 Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon.
10. Hugh Jackman (2009)
Hey, did you know Hugh Jackman can sing and dance? You were certainly in no danger of forgetting it at the 2009 ceremony, when the X-Men star apparently decided to punish audiences for skipping his movie musical Australia by turning Oscar master of ceremonies into Cabaret‘s Master of Ceremonies. Yes, it’s neat that the action star is also a song-and-dance man, but by the third hour, his vaudeville schtick had worn out its welcome.
9. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin (2010)
Steve Martin is a reliable pro, and back in 2010, we weren’t yet quite aware of what a raging crybaby homophobe blowhard Baldwin was. Putting them together was a good idea on paper, but their two-act as hosts of the 2010 ceremony was only intermittently amusing; instead of allowing them to work and vibe off each other, their segments instead had the forced byplay of the presenters’ cringe-inducing “banter.” Then again, maybe it was just the whole “Oscar hosts as marketing tool for It’s Complicated” angle that rubbed this viewer the wrong way.
8. Billy Crystal (2000, 2004)
Crystal was (rightfully, as we’ll see) the king of the Oscars in the 1990s, hosting the ceremony an astonishing six times that decade. He only did it twice in the 2000s, and it wasn’t that he was bad, per se — merely that his act was getting stale, with the feel of an amusing party guest who hadn’t properly timed his exit. Not quite the equivalent of his mothball-reeking 2012 turn, but certainly not his best.
7. Chevy Chase (1988)
Chase co-hosted the 1987 ceremony with his pal Goldie Hawn and momentary star Paul Hogan, and did well enough to get the gig solo in ‘88. The following year would see the release of Christmas Vacation — so in other words, we were nearing the end of the era when Chevy Chase was genuinely funny. But he was, still; when he first broke out in the mid-‘70s, he was mentioned as a possible heir to Johnny Carson, and he hosted the Oscars with much of the same smirky skill that Johnny had in years past.
6. Whoopi Goldberg (1994, 1996, 1999, 2002)
Looking at the rundown of Oscar ceremonies and hosts, it’s easy to see Whoopi as, basically, who they got when her frequent Comic Relief co-host Crystal was unavailable. But it’s easy to forget, in her years of cuddly comedies and half-assed talk shows, that Whoopi was once a comic with real personality and edge, and she brought at least some of that to the job of Oscar host — her jabs occasionally cut, and she had no problem with periodically puncturing the pomposity of the evening.
5. Chris Rock (2005)
Rock was the first black man to host the awards since Richard Pryor’s two turns (in 1977 and 1983), and he brought some of his admitted influence’s style to the night — his barbs were frequently sharp, sometimes to the chagrin of clueless celebrities (Sean Penn’s smug and humorous retort to Rock’s Jude Law joke was officially the moment this viewer was Over Sean Penn). He may have been a little too hip for the stodgy ceremony, but for home viewers, Rock went over big-time.
4. Jon Stewart (2006, 2008)
Stewart has mocked his two turns as Oscar host on several occasions, and critics at the time weren’t altogether kind — though they clearly had no idea that, compared to the depths the show would sink to in subsequent years, Stewart was a capable, quick-witted, and frequently hilarious host.
3. David Letterman (1995)
Yes, seriously. Letterman’s 1995 turn at the host’s lectern, which came during his brief, pre-Hugh Grant period of late-night domination, was seen as another opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his idol Johnny Carson. But the oddball evening was deemed a massive failure (most of all by Letterman, who never missed an opportunity to skewer himself afterwards), and his name became a shorthand for terrible Oscar host. But what did he actually do wrong? In retrospect, it seems that he committed the crime of not being Billy Crystal. And while the major dig at the Letterman telecast was that he turned it into an episode of his show, that criticism was always leveled as though it were a bad thing — as if having a host weird up the night a little with absurd taped bits and bizarre running gags weren’t preferable to the typical predictability of the night. It’s best to think of Letterman’s ceremony in terms of the night’s big loser: Pulp Fiction, another rule-breaker that was just too cool for the room.
2. Steve Martin (2001, 2003)
His “wild and crazy guy” days long behind him, Martin cultivated a secondary persona, from the late ‘80s forward, of a straight-faced, cultivated, literary wit who was still capable of utter silliness. It was a good fit for Oscar night, where he could do the bespectacled classy-guy thing, yet go for the broad (and often improvised) laugh when needed. His shows aren’t talked about all that much now, a decade hence, but that’s not surprising; he just did the job well, with unassuming professionalism.
1. Billy Crystal (1990-1993, 1997-1998)
For all the worn-out Borscht Belt gags of his later gigs, it’s easy to forget that when Crystal was in his ‘90s prime, nobody did this job better. He did it with style and grace, his ad-libs were aces (like his running jokes after Jack Palance’s one-armed-push-up acceptance speech, or his quick-on-his-feet explanation after Hal Roach’s microphone failed: “I think that’s fitting because Mr. Roach started in silent films”), and though he later flogged them to death like an overworked SNL sketch, his signature bits — the opening montage editing himself into clips from the year’s big movies, the goofy medley mashing up the titles and premises of the nominated movies with popular songs, etc. — were initially inspired and hilarious, pulsing with a genuine affection for moviedom, but without undue reverence. And that’s an approach that all Oscar hosts would be wise to strive for.