Will the Oscars Be a Hot Mess Without a Host?

Jimmy Kimmel Oscars
Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

Who will host this year’s Oscars? With one month left until the telecast on Feb. 24, there’s still no definitive answer. Insiders tell Variety that the ceremony will likely buck the tradition of having a master of ceremonies. Instead, organizers have chosen to patch together a host-less show.

That could mean a lot of airtime to fill for Academy Awards producer Donna Gigliotti. But now that the nominations are out, at least we know who’ll be attending. “Roma” and “The Favourite” lead the pack with 10 each, followed by “Vice” and “A Star is Born” with eight per film. “Black Panther,” which picked up seven nods, became the first comic-book film nominated for best picture. One of the highlights of the ceremony will probably be the live performance of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” nominated for best song.

But will a host-less Oscars manage to connect with viewers? Variety‘s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman says maybe, but New York Bureau Chief Ramin Setoodeh thinks not. Here, they duke it out.

Setoodeh: At best, the decision not to have a host for this year’s Oscars is lazy. At worst, it’s really lazy. And it makes the organization that hosts the Academy Awards look like they are in over their heads. Is it really that hard to find a single entertainer in Hollywood to agree to appear before 30 million viewers to crack some jokes and congratulate the lucky winners? And it looks worse, because we know that the Academy wanted a host. They chose Kevin Hart, who self-destructed (twice!) as he refused to offer a real apology for his previous comments where he encouraged violence against the gay community.

I know the Oscars are trying to pivot and pretend that the show can work without a host, as long as they gather a room full of A-list presenters. But I’m worried that’s going to feel like getting into an Uber that changes drivers every few blocks. The telecast needs a single person (or two) to steer the ship, to draw in viewers and to keep the show moving along. Some critics thought that Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg were an odd pairing as the co-emcees of the Golden Globes, but at least they were there. Imagine having a show that kicked off with an empty stage. It’s not going to work.

Gleiberman: I actually agree with much of what you’re saying. Yet I have some sympathy for why the Academy has arrived at this fluky decision. Oscar hosts tend to come in two flavors, naughty (Chris Rock, Seth MacFarlane) and nice (Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris). But whichever way they go, everyone winds up complaining. Either the host was “bland,” or he went over the line. But after the Kevin Hart debacle, the Academy truly is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they choose an overly safe host, they’ll be mocked for succumbing to a case of fatal caution. If they choose an edgier host, they now risk being skewered for tone-deafness, insensitivity, etc. What to do?

That’s why I welcome this year of the non-MC. First of all, after the first 18 minutes of the show, the Oscar host could practically be a hologram anyway. He or she is just bringing on the presenters, cracking the occasional forced jokey reference to something that just happened, and generally acting like a glorified head waiter. The hosting job is really all about the opening monologue, and frankly it’s the monologue itself that’s gotten old. We get it, and can already anticipate it: A joke about Bradley Cooper’s one-man-band vanity! A joke about how only 14 people saw “Roma” in theaters! It’s a ritual that’s worn out its welcome. So why not try something else? What will a host-less Oscars look like? I’m not even sure. But I’m honestly curious to find out, and that curiosity has me more jazzed to see the show than I would be if learned that [fill in the name of slightly hip talk-show host or aggressively “likable” multi-quadrant TV/movie/theater actor] were donning the MC mantle.

Setoodeh: So you’re game for climbing into an Uber with no driver?! Here’s my biggest concern about no host. On paper, it might sound audacious, especially if you — like most of the executives at ABC, concerned about the drop in Oscars viewership — believe that some of the stodgy conventions associated with awards shows need a shaking up. But in reality, what does that look like? You need someone onstage to navigate unexpected moments. All the Oscars host does is present his or her monologue and check in periodically throughout telecast. But that’s still an important job! Imagine having no host in 2016, when “La La Land” was accidentally named best picture. Without Jimmy Kimmel onstage to offer a few quips and assurances that everything would be alright, we would have been left with the look of terror from the accountants at PwC as the screen faded to black. Speaking of which, at least they weren’t asked to host.

That brings me to an honest question for this year’s Oscars team. There was so much pressure to pick the perfect host, it feels like they caved and gave up after the Hart debacle. Whoopi Goldberg volunteered to do it, but I hear that the Academy Awards producers were worried that she’d be too political since she’s now so closely tied to her role as the moderator of “The View” (which, ironically, is an ABC property). Oh, come on! Whoopi has hosted four times before, and she’d have done a great job on her fifth round. Or, if they wanted to go the “hipper” route, there are so many other comedians that would have jumped at the chance. Not having a host is like refusing to take the SATs, because you ran out of time to study, and then pretending that you’re too smart for them. That’s not the way to save the Oscars, and I predict, as a result, this year’s show will be a hot mess.

Gleiberman: Ramin, I think it captures our contrasting view of the Oscars that when you were imagining what that infamous “La La Land” moment would have looked like if we didn’t have Jimmy Kimmel around to save the situation, my thought was, “And that would have been bad because…?” No slur on Mr. Kimmel, but that’s just one example of how a little chaos at the Oscars can actually be a good thing. In hindsight, the “La La Land” glitch is as classic an Oscar moment as the Rob Lowe/Snow White dance debacle of 1989. Who would want to be without such moments? And who needs a talk-show host in a tux to restore order?

Seriously, though, the Oscars do sort of need a shake-up. I fear that the telecast this year is going to be fighting the same ratings slippage it’s been dealing with for a while now, and the fact that the show itself is so formulaic is part of it. Why not do something truly audacious? (Like, you know, choose a popular movie for best picture? I kid!) It all depends on what the plan is, right? If, instead of a conventional host, they simply trot out a series of handsome actors named Chris and a bunch of punk-cute actresses named Zoë, all of whom would otherwise have been second-tier presenters, then we might be sunk. But what if they figure out a way to actually use all the famous personalities on display? What if they make a joke — and, yes, a celebration — out of the fractious community that is Hollywood? I know, I know: It’s the Oscars. They don’t take chances. But I can dream, can’t I? At any rate, it beats dreaming of Conan O’Brien.