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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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The Best, Worst, and Weirdest Hosts in Oscar History

For every Whoopi Goldberg, there was a David Letterman.

Hosting the Oscars is not your average gig. Younger, less austere awards shows can go for surprising picks—remember when Lindsay Lohan hosted the MTV Movie Awards, or Drake at the ESPYs last year?-—but the Academy has 85 years of tradition to uphold. They usually go for the safe choice, though when they do experiment (like with James Franco and Anne Hathaway back in 2011), it's certainly...well, something. Join us as we take a stroll down Oscar hosting lane.

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Janet Gaynor Academy Awards 1929

Douglas Fairbanks, 1929

Janet Gaynor receives the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929. Photo: Getty Images

As the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Douglas Fairbanks had the honor of hosting the first Academy Awards. Famous for his turns as a swashbuckling stud in silent movies, Fairbanks was married to "America's Sweatheart," actress Mary Pickford (and the two shared a portmanteau-perfect Beverly Hills estate, Pickfair). There's no way to know whether Fairbanks's charms translated to the hosting role, however, because the event wasn't broadcast and the ceremony itself only lasted 15 minutes. Not to mention, all the winners had already been announced three months beforehand.

Will Rogers, 1934

Will Rogers, vaudeville comedian-cowboy and one of the most popular entertainers of his era, hosted the 1934 ceremony and was responsible for what The Academy Awards: The Unofficial History calls "one of the most famously humiliating scenes in Academy Awards history." Announcing the winner for Best Director, Rogers ad-libbed, "Well, well, well, what do you know. I've watched this young man for a long time. Saw him come up from the bottom, and I mean the bottom. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Come up and get it, Frank!" Frank Capra, nominated for Lady for a Day, stood up and made his way to the stage, but the spotlight settled on the real winner, Frank Lloyd, who had directed Cavalcade. Capra described getting back to his seat as "the longest crawl in history." Lesson learned: These days, the only first name that stands alone is "Oscar."

Bob Hope, 1940-1978 (on and off)

Bob Hope's Oscar-hosting career spanned 38 years and 18 ceremonies, more than any other host. That included the first televised ceremony in 1953, the first awards shown in color in 1966, and the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1978. "To baby boomers, it looked as if Bob Hope had been appointed host for life," the New York Times observed of the long reign of Hope's ski-jump nose and crooked grin. The Paley Center for Media agreed: "The Academy seemed to have found its perfect master of ceremonies, someone who could toss off easy-to-take barbs at the expense of the industry, but who kept things classy just the same." At the 2004 ceremony, the first after Hope's death, Tom Hanks introduced a tribute montage that touched on one of Hope's tried and true gags: how he was Oscar's perpetual also-ran, always a host, never a winner (not quite true, as he had several honorary Oscars and a humanitarian prize).

Dick Powell and Agnes Morehead, 1948

Here's where things start to get weird: The 20th Academy Awards were co-hosted by actor and director Dick Powell and Agnes Moorehead, who you might know as Endora from TV's Bewitched. How in the world did Endora end up emceeing? According to the Paley Center:

Moorehead had at that point earned two Oscar nominations of her own (for The Magnificent Ambersons and Mrs. Parkington), and would go on to chalk up two more nods (for Johnny Belinda and Hush, Hush...Sweet Charlotte), but it's likely she was chosen not so much for being one of the best and busiest character actresses in movies but because the ceremonies were being heard on radio. It was in that medium that Moorehead had made her greatest impact in the 1940s, portraying the bed-ridden victim in the classic Sorry, Wrong Number; a performance she repeated multiple times over the airwaves throughout the decade.

Considering a woman wouldn't host the show solo until Whoopi Goldberg did it in 1994, it's downright impressive that Moorehead did the honors, along with Powell, in 1948.

Frank Sinatra, 1963

Did you know that Frank Sinatra hosted the Oscars in 1963? (And again, with several co-hosts, in 1975?) This would be like Justin Timberlake hosting today...which actually doesn't seem that far out of the realm of possibility. Sinatra, in a tuxedo with tails, opened the '63 ceremony with a monologue about how the Mona Lisa might be received by modern Hollywood producers: "You know, Leonardo, baby, I like it, I really like it." Highbrow! Sinatra's monologue begins at 4:30:

Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, & Richard Pryor, 1977

The 1977 Oscars were hosted by a diverse group of stars, chosen by first-time Academy Awards director William Friedkin for their countercultural appeal: Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, and Richard Pryor. According to The Big Show, Pryor especially made the Academy nervous; the first thing he said as host was, "I am here tonight to explain why black people will never be nominated for anything." Burstyn, meanwhile, wore a men's tuxedo. At the time, the ratings were the lowest in the show's history.

Johnny Carson, 1979-1982 & 1984

The Academy finally found a successor to Bob Hope in the form of late night host Johnny Carson. As the Times put it, "A single host was assigned to guide the ungainly Oscar proceedings through preening, joking, song, dance, movie lore, kitsch and 23 awards, trying to make it all seem shorter than three hours-plus." Carson's Tonight Show experience meant he knew how to play to the crowd without overstepping his bounds. In 1980, he even bantered with Miss Piggy! The L.A. Times recalled:

The older Academy members were used to Bob Hope, who, at the very least, had done films. Johnny, on the other hand, was TV. But he soon made the show his own by doing it in his totally irreverent style. ... What Carson had was perfect pitch. He knew exactly how far to go with an audience and whether a line was right for them or not. He knew exactly how much the audience could take.

Some of Carson's best-remembered quips still hold true today: "Welcome to two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show." Yup. "This is a night when Hollywood puts aside its petty jealousies and brings out its major jealousies." Indeed. "I see a lot of new faces, especially on the old faces." Oh, yes.

Chevy Chase, 1988

After a good showing as co-host in 1987, Chevy Chase was invited to solo-host the awards in ‘88. He didn't exactly live up to Johnny Carson's or Bob Hope's examples. According to the Times, "Mr. Chase said he thought he might have offended the Academy when he dropped his trousers as Paul Newman stepped on stage to present an award. Then again, saying ‘Good evening, Hollywood phonies' as he took the stage may not have been a wise opening gambit." Others have remembered Chase's performance more kindly, but the fact remains that he was not invited back the next year.

Billy Crystal, 1990-1993, 1997-1998, 2000, 2004, & 2012

Why did Billy Crystal, of all people, of all actors, always seem to be hosting the Oscars for a solid two decades? Because he actually respected the show. Crystal "made fun of Hollywood and the year's crop of movies without being subversive," the Times declared. "No one in the audience got the feeling that he thought the entire idea of the Academy Awards, and of Hollywood for that matter, was absurd." With nine ceremonies under his belt, Crystal is now second only to Bob Hope when it comes to number of hosting gigs. Let's revisit his Hannibal Lecter-inspired bit from the 1992 show, shall we?

Whoopi Goldberg, 1994, 1996, 1999, & 2002

If the long march of time has resulted in your forgetting how much you love Whoopi Goldberg (and/or your VHS copy of Sister Act 2 has been lost to the ages), get thee to YouTube for clips of her Oscar gigs post-haste. There, you will reacquaint yourself with some great ‘90s punchlines (Heidi Fleiss! Bob Dole!) along with your everlasting fondness for Ms. G, who peppered her monologues with "honey"s and in 1999 opened the ceremony dressed up as Queen Elizabeth I because why the heck wouldn't she? In 1994, Goldberg became the first woman and the first African-American to host the show on her own, both feats that were a long time coming. Some found her humor a little too edgy (the queen costume prompted a few jokes concerning virgins, ahem), but most critics put her right up there with Billy Crystal as one of the Oscars' best.

David Letterman, 1995

Talking about what a terrible job David Letterman did hosting the Oscars became such a cliché that maybe the pendulum has swung back to the other side, and the clichéd thing to do is defend his Oscar performance. But isn't the fact that it's remembered at all 20 years later proof that it had staying power? Though they may not have endeared him to Hollywood, Letterman did get some good quips in. As famously liberal then-couple Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins walked onstage, he said, "Pay attention, I'm sure they're pissed off about something." This was pre-Twitter, people! This was also the year of costume designer Lizzie Gardiner's dress made entirely of American Express cards. After a commercial break, Letterman announced, "Bad news, ladies and gentlemen: While we were away, Lizzie Gardiner's dress expired." We may never live to see Letterman host again, but we'll always have "Oprah, Uma."

James Franco and Anne Hathaway, 2011

After the Billy/Whoopi marathon that was the ‘90s, the aughts were a decade of respectable Oscar hosts: comedians who did solid work (Ellen! Steve Martin! Jon Stewart!), but never strayed too far from the Hope-Carson paradigm. You'd think that was exactly what the fuddy-duddy old Academy wanted. But no, they went ahead and baffled the world by giving the 2011 ceremony to none other than James Franco and Anne Hathaway in an unapologetic attempt to court younger viewers. Though this wasn't quite as out-of-left-field as it may have seemed at the time (did you know that in 1983, Liza Minelli and Dudley Moore were among the Oscar co-hosts? Or that Donald Duck co-hosted the '59 awards?), in the end almost everyone agreed it was embarrassing, maybe even disastrous. Franco was criticized for looking bored and over it; Hathaway got flack for trying too hard. (Her many costume changes, however, did yield some cuter-than-usual host duds.)

Seth MacFarlane, 2013

Controversial. Offensive. Hostile, ugly, sexist. Those are just a few of the choice words critics had for Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane's performance as host of the 2013 Oscars. Sure, Bob Hope was old-fashioned, but he never sang a song called "We Saw Your Boobs," as MacFarlane did. He even managed to make an anti-Semitic joke during the show that got slammed by the Anti-Defamation League, a rare achievement for an Oscar host. He also earned some of the highest ratings in years.


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