Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz. So who better to helm our ranking of the best Oscars hosts of the last 30 years?
This Sunday's Oscars will induct three more people into the exclusive club of Academy Awards hosts. Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes will share hosting duties, making this the first year since 2018 that the Oscar ceremony will have a host. Traditionally the job of Oscar host has been a prestigious and scrutinized position, as much exalted as it was picked apart the morning after. Over the past 30 years, fourteen individuals have served as either host or co-host of the Academy Awards. Some successfully, some not so much. Sykes, Schumer, and Hall will each find their place on this list before long, but let's see where everyone ranks as of now:
The 2011 Oscars were so notorious for the poor hosting job of James Franco and Anne Hathaway that one's instinct is to be contrary and say it wasn't as bad as people remember. Wrong: it was exactly that bad. But one of the hosts was unquestionably worse than the other, and it was Franco, a fact that was apparent from his very first dead-eyed, lethally flat line delivery. He not only didn't have any chemistry with Hathaway, but he seemed to actively resist any efforts that might have been made to create that chemistry, resulting in a vibe that felt both toxic and cringey. Bah, never speak of it again.
The morning after the 2013 Oscar ceremony, Seth MacFarlane caught a lot of crap for the more crass moments of his hosting performance, which included (but were certainly not limited to) making a domestic violence joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown, a joke that ended up weirdly sexualizing nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, and the incredibly notorious "We Saw Your Boobs" musical number. History has largely forgotten that the latter was part of a high-concept bit (prominently involving William Shatner in character as Captain Kirk) about all the things MacFarlane could do to make his hosting a disaster, but his Family Guy-esque inability to do an interstitial bit without it lasting two whole minutes added up to him just doing the song anyway. The New Yorker called it "an ugly, sexist night," and it's hard to argue with that assessment.
The 2010 Oscar ceremony received largely poor reviews, although a lot of that was for producer Adam Shankman's decision to include song-and-dance numbers. Baldwin was paired as host with Steve Martin, with whom he'd just recently co-starred on the Meryl Streep movie It's Complicated (Streep was nominated for Julie & Julia that year and some of the hosts' best bits were directed at her in the audience). Baldwin wasn't terrible, but he didn't make much of an impression either.
Neil Patrick Harris actually got something of an Oscars tryout during the 2010 ceremony, presiding over a song-and-dance number reminiscent of the stuff he'd brought to hosting both the Tony Awards and the Emmy Awards in 2009. In the ensuing years, he hosted the Tonys three more times and the Emmys once more, making his eventual call-up to the Oscar stage a fait accompli, despite the fact that he had never really been much of a presence in movies. While the kind of showman energy that NPH brings can often work for an Oscar host (see Hugh Jackman further up this list), Harris struggled to come across as genuine or all that engaged with the nominated films. His most remembered bit was an extended — and constantly harped on — goof about locking predictions for the winners in a box that pretty much no one thought paid off.
So, yes, we're giving Anne Hathaway a bit of a bump up the list in recognition of the fact that she was being dragged down by the anchor that was James Franco. Hathaway was at least game for the endeavor, which should count for something. The problem was Hathaway's "I can't believe this is happening to me" theater-camp vibe ended up overwhelming her performance. Sometimes you can be too excited for the moment, and Hathaway's Oscar hosting is a reminder of why sardonic has often worked so well for the hosts you'll see farther up the list.
Here's one where your mileage may vary, as many critics have expressed a hearty appreciation for Chris Rock's hosting performances, although a lot of that appreciation seems to come from people who don't seem to like the Oscars all that much. Which makes sense, because Chris Rock doesn't seem to like the Oscars all that much either. This allowed his monologue material to be more cutting, which can mean big laughs if you're tuning in to see the Hollywood elite cut down to size, but it just as often led to awkward moments in the room, and while it's not Chris Rock's fault that Sean Penn took his jabs at Jude Law too seriously at the 2005 ceremony, you still kind of wonder what Jude Law ever did to Chris Rock to earn his derision in the first place (I mean, Alfie was bad but still!). When Rock was asked back to host in 2016, it was seen by many (including Rock, as he joked) as a damage control tactic after the disastrous "Oscars so white" reaction to that year's nominees. Even that didn't go over well, with Rock getting in hot water for jokes made at the expense of Asians and taking what a lot of people saw as an unnecessary jab at Jada Pinkett Smith.
Jon Stewart hosted the Oscars twice, and yet most of us would probably be hard pressed to remember anything about either one of his performances. Nothing egregious or cringeworthy, but nothing particularly great either. That's how you end up smack in the middle of a ranking like this. He does get points for bringing Best Original Song winner Marketa Irglova from Once back onstage after the orchestra played her off so that she could finish her speech.
Kimmel hosted back-to-back Oscar ceremonies in 2017 and 2018, after having been ABC's in-house late-night guy for many years. And while he brought plenty of bits and jokes and stunts to his two hosting performances, he will be forever emblazoned into Oscar history for being there during the notorious Moonlight / La La Land Best Picture cock-up. Amid the chaos happening onstage — one La La Land producer continuing to give acceptance speeches after they knew they'd lost; another commandeering the mic to announce Moonlight had won; Warren Beatty stepping back into the spotlight to explain his mistake — Kimmel stepped in and tried to offer some kind of guiding hand. It wasn't a moment of high comedy, but it was a necessary bit of emcee work that should serve as a reminder why having an Oscar host is important.
It is, as ever, wild to think about just how much Ellen DeGeneres's public persona used to be rooted in her innate affability and inoffensiveness. This was the vibe the Oscars were going for when they first asked her to host in 2007 and then again in 2014. As she'd done on her talk show, Ellen was chummy with the celebs while opting for gags that played to that fact. She had food delivered to the audiences, vacuumed up and down the aisles as the hours grew late, and famously took a record-breaking selfie that managed to enshrine Kevin Spacey and Lupita Nyong'o's brother in history together forever.
Few Oscar hosts have been so ostentatiously maligned as David Letterman was for his 1995 outing, and to be fair, he did elicit more awkward silence from the audience then he did laughs, particularly as bits like introducing Oprah Winfrey to Uma Thurman went on and on past the point of anyone in the room besides Dave finding them funny. But there was something weird and wonderful lurking in Letterman's performance. He was the exception to the idea that you shouldn't have someone who doesn't like the Oscars host the Oscars. Letterman's relationship to celebrity has always been more complicated than its been depicted — he doesn't hate movie stars, he just wants to make them fidget as much as possible in exchange for all this exaltation. His Late Show-esque bits were hit and miss, with the hits ultimately worth the misses, and while it may be for the best that he only hosted once, it's also for the best that he hosted at all.
Hugh Jackman's turn as Oscars host in 2009 is the best case scenario when it comes to having a non-comedian host the awards. The history of the Academy Awards, so dominated by Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal, has created a template for a host that relies heavily on a background in stand-up or sketch comedy. Jackman, instead, came from a background steeped in musical theater as well as being a giant blockbuster movie star, which meant that while he wasn't mowing the audience down with a comedy monologue, he was instead able to charm and entertain the audience as one of their own. His opening bit where he song-and-danced his way through the Best Picture nominees was great – his bit about having never seen The Reader remains one of the great jokes by a host — and his willingness to model Old Hollywood showmanship was a delightful change of pace. Bring him back!
It could not have been easy for anyone to step onto the Oscars stage after Billy Crystal had spent four consecutive years re-shaping the role of "Oscars host" in his own image. Perhaps it was Whoopi's close relationship with her Comic Relief pal Billy that made her seem like his natural successor. In many ways, she shared Crystal's inherent advantages: she straddled the worlds of comedy and film perfectly, as comfortable shouting out Goldie Hawn and Debbie Allen from the stage as she was making topical jokes about those clowns in Washington and insidery jokes about those clowns at CAA. While her first gig was a more subdued and even shaky affair (it was the Schindler's List year — you try making that funny), her subsequent hosting gigs saw her ramp up the pageantry (costumes galore) and sharpen her jokes. Her best performance was her final one, hosting the post-9/11 Oscars with the exact tone needed for a ceremony that argued for the movies' place in a newly uncertain world.
Sacrilege not to put Mr. Oscar Night in first place? Perhaps. By any reasonable measure, Billy Crystal is the definitional Oscars host of the last 30 years, and is the yardstick against whom all other modern Oscars hosts are measured. His sense of humor has always fit the auditorium like a glove, and at least throughout the '90s that humor translated to the home audience as well (his rather disastrous outing in 2012 was probably proof that he hadn't aged into the 21st century quite as effectively). And as cringeworthy as the puns often were, his show-opening medleys of classic songs retrofitted to the plots of the Best Picture actually set the table for the evening very well and were memorable, whether you loved them or hated them.
This is a taste thing more than anything else, but for this writer's money, Steve Martin has shown himself to be the ideal Oscars host of the last 30 years. Like Crystal and Goldberg, he's got comedy bona fides while also being a legitimate movie star — the kind of movie star that the current blockbuster-choked climate doesn't create anymore, in case you were wondering why new iconic Oscar hosts have been hard to come by — and he holds the audience in the room in the palm of his hand with jokes that manage to puncture them without seeming like he's sneering. Those jokes also have a remarkably high hit ration when you look back, and without a lot of the pre-produced segments favored by more modern hosts, Martin was able to keep the night chugging along even as the hour grew late. There was talk this year that the Oscars wanted Martin and his Only Murders in the Building co-stars Martin Short and Selena Gomez to host, and it's a true shame that couldn't come to fruition, because in a year when the production of the Oscars seems so hostile to what used to make them good, Martin would have been an ideal bridge.
The 94th Academy Awards air on ABC Sunday March 27th at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: 94th Academy Awards, Alec Baldwin, Anne Hathaway, Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, Hugh Jackman, James Franco, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Neil Patrick Harris, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg