Oscar's Crystal Clear Challenge

After last year's mess, Billy needs to be more than a placeholder host.

When Billy Crystal walked onto the Academy Awards stage for the first time in 1990, he answered rousing applause with an opening crack about the previous year's infamous musical number featuring Snow White and Rob Lowe.

"Is that for me or are you just glad I'm not Snow White?" he asked.

We'll see on Sunday if or how he addresses last year's disaster duet – lackluster co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco. But it will take more than a couple of quips to joke away Oscar's troubles.

Crystal's challenge is to revive a moribund show that lost its way with a lame attempt to grab the young viewers it needs to stay relevant. The 63-year-old comic, whose first hosting gig came before much of the "Harry Potter" generation was born, faces the additional hurdle of luring a crowd in a year when the boy wizard's final movie and other youth-friendly hits were snubbed by Academy voters.

For Crystal, there's more at stake than ratings: a poorly received performance could tarnish his deserved legacy as the only Academy Awards host worthy of mention in the same sentence as Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.

Crystal's unlikely comeback – his ninth Oscars stint and first since 2004 – was spurred by Eddie Murphy's November departure after filmmaker Brett Ratner's unceremonious ouster as producer for uttering an anti-gay slur. The Ratner controversy clouded the award spectacle's attempts to regain its luster after a 10-percent ratings drop last year compared to 2010, when "Avatar" was in contention and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin co-hosted.

Blockbusters nominated for big awards are the Oscars’ primary draw. But a strong host, as Crystal has shown in the past – by being wheeled in Hannibal Lecter in 1992 and arriving on the Titanic six years later – can create memorable moments by playing off unforgettable films.

Crystal's a pro, but there are others who, as we’ve noted, might have been bolder choices to shake the telecast out of its morass: Neil Patrick Harris, Jimmy Fallon and Ricky Gervais have breathed new life into various awards shows. Conan O'Brien, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert also could up for the challenge.

Colbert's first big splash beyond "The Colbert Report" came in 2006 at the White House Correspondents' Association, when he delivered an in-character, in-person skewering of then-President Bush, a routine that earned cheers and jeers. The Association responded the next year by enlisting impressionist Rich Little, a quality entertainer but long past the height of his fame and largely without comic edge.

Crystal needs to be a lot more than just this year's safe choice. We'll take some cause for hope from his previous outing when he starred in a "Zelig"-like montage that put him in the big movies of 2003, including a cameo as Gollum in the final "Lord of the Rings" film – the last time a high-quality box office smash stole the Oscar Night show.

We'll see in Sunday’s edition of  “The Return of (Hosting) King” whether Crystal again proves himself a worthy ring bearer on Hollywood’s biggest night.

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. Follow him on Twitter.

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