By the time you read this, Billy Crystal fans everywhere (and I count myself among them) will have had a chance to decompress and begin re-inflating their hopes that one year in the future his price will finally be met and he will agree to return to the stage of the Academy Awards. In the meantime, it’s not too early to start thinking and talking Oscar—or, at least, Oscar hosts—now that Eddie Murphy has been officially tagged as the man in charge of the merriment in 2012.
Is Murphy getting the gig a great idea? A terrible idea? Evidence the Mayans were right about 2012? A piece of news you couldn’t care about in the least because you believe the Oscars are absurd and you turn up your nose at the very idea of watching the telecast?
As always, the announcement of the Oscar host brings about a great deal of second-guessing and chatter. It’s not always immediately clear, pre-show, whether or not a chosen performer will do well navigating the vague expectations of Oscar night, which, if nothing else, should tell us that it has less to do with innate talent than a wide variety of other unpredictable factors. However, I’m going to steam ahead and make something of a predictive evaluation of my own about Murphy’s take on the Big Night:
Count on quite a few biting jokes about African-Americans and their history with the Academy Awards. Murphy himself will arrive on stage with his own baggage surrounding comments he has made about it (“I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this…”) and actions he has taken when the voting didn’t go his way (the story of him leaving the ceremony immediately after “losing” the Best Supporting Actor honor to Alan Arkin, Murphy nominated for Dreamgirls and Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine), but I would not be surprised at all to see Murphy eager to target himself with some well-crafted, self-deprecating digs in the early going.
Then, however, Eddie will have the opportunity to offer the Academy—and viewers at home, perhaps even more importantly—the chance to laugh, and hopefully learn, a little more about how things really are with respect to Hollywood tilting the scales of recognition fairly grossly to one side.
In other words, whitey wins most of the awards. I’m hoping he uses a hundred-foot tall, high-definition pie chart to lay out the statistics plainly.
He can start with a feint at the outset of the routine by offering that yes, there haven’t been that many, but he’s not the first black host of the Oscars. We’ve seen African-Americans shine previously in co-hosting capacities (Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, Richard Pryor); we’ve had a black star go solo (Whoopi, in 1994, 1996, 1999, and 2002); and, he can point out that he’s not even the first “edgy” black comic to take the stage alone (that was Chris Rock, in 2005). So, out of 84 Oscar ceremonies, we can rack up a total of 11 separate occasions (counting Murphy) when black performers helped host, or hosted alone, the often-gaudy pageant.
That’s over 10 percent! Not bad, huh?
But, let’s compare and contrast that now with, say, how many black directors have been nominated for the top prize in the history of the Academy Awards:
Two. They directed these movies, both of them fantastic:
Two, out of 410 total nominations. Zero, out of 85 awards. Do go ahead and check my counting, but I believe those numbers to be correct.
The other categories are scattershot when it comes to being much “better” than that unfortunate statistic (you can’t get fewer wins than zero, so none would be “worse”), but none of them stand out as shining examples of the Academy’s progressivism. The first black producer whose film was nominated for Best Picture? Quincy Jones—for The Color Purple.
And we all know what happened with The Color Purple.
The first black director whose film was nominated for Best Picture? Daniels, Precious. In 2009. That’s twenty-oh-nine. Two years ago. Go ahead, do your own research for the other categories—this is not a history that speaks particularly well of itself in this regard, and for my money, Murphy is now the right man at the right time.
In a year when the Academy—a group that loves nothing more than to try to make up for past sins, however deep and however long—will be doling out honorary awards to Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones, perhaps at some level in response to the critique that last year’s awards were visibly monochromatic, and likely heaping some Oscar glory on The Help, the acclaimed, black-history-themed hit arriving with its own “Driving Miss Daisy problem” (or is that “its own Mississippi Burning problem”?), Murphy will be well-positioned to mine some cutting comic gold.
The game of judging Oscar hosts now, pre- and post-show, has become a parlor favorite, especially by way of analyzing how contemporary performers stack up to the “gold standards” set by Crystal—not to mention by vintage troupers like Bob Hope (who maintains a record total of hosting gigs at 19) and Johnny Carson (who, yes, comes in third with five to Crystal’s eight).
I was too young to be paying a lot of attention when Hope took the stage for the last time in 1977—not that I ever found him to be terribly funny in the first place. (Feel free to supplement all of your how-dare-you-think-Hope’s-not-funny commentary by bopping over to my post Is W.C. Fields Still Funny? , where I will Hope—ha ha—I can continue to gather all our readers’ accumulated rage over my personal taste in comedy being so terribly, objectively wrongheaded). I’m a child of the Carson era, and Carson was great.
Masters of ceremony for Oscar night always have to balance a need for irreverence that livens up the show with an equal requirement of reverence for the long history of artistry the event celebrates—not an easy tightrope to walk, with audience taste for a greater degree of one or the other never terribly clear until well after the fact.
Nobody should expect the Eddie of Delirious or Raw to show up—as much as anybody might say they want him to go that far, nobody really does (who has a liking of the Oscars in the least, anyway). That would be more ghastly than the show’s worst interpretive dance number. Having said that, it’s fair to suggest it is almost incumbent upon Murphy to say exactly what he wants to say, within broadcast standards, with the Academy damn well owing it to black America to give the man the oxygen to speak his piece. If he wants to sit down with Spike Lee, Melvin van Peebles, or anyone else who wants to offer him a few piquant jabs to deliver in their place, I say great.
Conversely, he shouldn’t feel the least “required” to speak for anyone but himself, of course, but having watched Murphy commentate on the awards in the past, I have little doubt that while Oscar has largely ignored his terrific work, he has had a long time to form some strong opinions, and hopefully, more than a few good jokes that walk right up to the bleeding edge of what mainstream America thinks would be “acceptable,” and maybe even a couple that stomp right over that line.
Eddie Murphy is the perfect choice to host the 2012 Oscars. His career arc as a high-voltage movie star has been fascinating, to say the least, and he has the comic chops to take center stage during an Oscar year bound to be fraught with charges of tokenism and egregious political correctness, if for no other reason than a sudden wave of celebrating black cinema talent appears conspicuous—but that’s only due to the majority of years that pass with their absence at the podium sadly regarded, without much noise, as the normal state of affairs.
Pressure? What pressure?