News that "Rush Hour" and "X-Men" filmmaker Brett Ratner has been tapped to co-produce the Academy Awards is enough to inspire wisecracks (Will Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker co-host and crash onto the Kodak Theatre stage? Will Rebecca Romijn show up in blue body paint as Mystique to hand out the Special Effects award?).
The news, more importantly, also inspires some hope: Enlisting Ratner is a bold move, one that could help widen the show’s appeal and shake it back into relevancy.
But if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science wants to be really daring – and guarantee a crowd – it should make Ricky Gervais the host and be sure to give Harry Potter his due.
As we saw with this year's lackluster effort, picking youthful hosts is no guarantee of an innovative broadcast or of drawing a younger audience, as the 4-million-viewer dip in the ratings suggested. James Franco's lethargic slog through the show and Anne Hathaway’s overdone perkiness didn’t exactly make for Chan/Tucker-like chemistry.
We expect Ratner will quicken the pace so that we're at least still reasonably awake when the awards everyone cares are announced as midnight looms. "I am the worst ADD filmmaker around so I guarantee it’s gonna kick in," the filmmaker told The Wall Street Journal.
Keeping the show bouncing along is important. But strength of the host and the nominees are the keys as to whether the next morning we’re gushing over, say, “The Return of the King” or still groaning over Franco in drag as Marilyn Monroe.
We’ll humbly suggest casting a wide net for new hosts: Neil Patrick Harris, quick on his feet, literally and otherwise, has done a great job with Emmy and Grammy telecasts, even if some might mistakenly think he’s not a big enough name for the worldwide broadcast. Jimmy Fallon proved surprisingly strong in his recent Emmys turn, infusing the program with quick humor and a talent for musical parody honed on his late-night talk show. Few possess the wit and combination TV-and-movie chops as his former “Saturday Night Live” cast mate, Tina Fey. Conan O’Brien, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert would bring different, winning comic sensibilities to the gig. Perhaps Ratner might consider turning to one or both of the stars of his upcoming flick, “Tower Heist”: Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller.
Our top choice – one we're sadly guessing will never cut it with the Academy – is Gervais, who infuriated Hollywood by skewering all celebrities in sight (and in hiding) at the Golden Globes earlier this year. Gervais' unabashed irreverence – he called Bruce Willis “Ashton Kutcher’s dad” – is a crowd pleaser for all but the crowd at the Kodak.
That speaks to the disconnect between Oscar and the public – the show should be for the entertainment of the TV audience, not for the glory of the red-carpet-ready set. Putting on a good program also entails giving viewers an emotional investment in the outcome – which means getting more high-quality box-office hits in the awards mix. You could guarantee a strong young audience with well-deserved major category nominations for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II," which is shaping up as the most successful – and perhaps the best – film of the year.
Oscar's virtual snub of the Potter franchise (no wins and no nominations in major categories) is a slap at a generation that grew up on the films over the last decade. It also is emblematic of the kind of snobbery that a host like Gervais would target from the podium.
Ratner, a popcorn-movie machine, clearly is no snob. That he took on the job and that it’s news in August, six months before the show, is a testament to the enduring power of Oscar. The Academy’s job, after recruiting Ratner, should be to sign off on an equally bold hosting choice and provide a mix of nominees with appeal far beyond the art house crowd. Ratner’s challenge is to use the next six months wisely to make the Oscars the rush-hour-paced spectacle movie fans deserve.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.