the year with no host
predicting this year’s oscars by looking back at 1995’s
It seems disastrous: For the first time in three decades, the Oscars will be presented without a host. While terrible choices are, to some extent, a conceptually necessary element of the Academy Awards—a ceremony that routinely honors the dubious likes of Sam Smith, Jared Leto, and Harry and the Hendersons—2019’s decision to ditch the emcee isn’t the same kind of terrible choice (at least, not the same as painting Billy Crystal in blackface—look it up). No, this was less like a blunder and more like a last resort. Just two months ago, Kevin Hart was set for the gig, and the choice of the sorta-hip, kinda-young comedian suggested the Academy had finally, perhaps, set its dying-old-man touch somewhere near the pulse of things. But alas, the star stepped down when the history of his offensive tweeting resurfaced—a now-familiar cautionary tale that’s still much hipper and younger than Kevin Hart.
But for anyone baffled by the cultural distinction that follows the Oscars through all its forms—be it a questionable list of winners to canonize forever or a butt-numbing television “event” to suffer through right now—this year’s ceremony unbags an exciting possibility: Are we finally getting rid of this sh**? If you know the real deep-state secret about the Oscars, it’s that it’s a capitalist scheme operating under the pretense of saluting artistry. As wins and nominations boost box office for 2018’s films, studios reverse engineer 2019’s contenders from their template. Prestige filmmaking becomes a safe, homogenous landscape of rock biopics and weepy romances.
Yet cinephiles have long held faith that the Oscar ceremony would one day destroy the Oscars themselves. Each year, our nerdish grumbling about snubs and undeserving winners is dwarfed by the mass popular annoyance of normal people: They just want to go to bed. On average, the show will unpack its trophy case across four long, arbitrary hours, with unfunny schtick and self-satisfied tributes to classic cinema designed to pad things out for maximum advertising dollars. If America sits through it, it’s because the Oscars still possess enough cultural mystique to gather significance around who wins them. But glamour fades, and 2018’s ratings were the lowest yet. You can google Best Picture in the morning.
That’s why the solo celebrity host—a relatively new concept in the ceremony’s 90-year history—has been so important: It provides the illusion of a human sensibility. Hosts are the conceptual limb that can fold a needless sprawl into the appearance of a spontaneous evening. In 2014, when Ellen Degeneres interrupted the show and broke Twitter with a group selfie, it felt like the earnest whim of her dorky, internet-mom persona. In truth, it was a product placement paid for by Samsung.
What will it mean when the show has no friendly face to disguise its opportunism? We’ll find out Sunday, but for now the answer may lie back in 1995—the popular choice for the worst Oscar Ceremony ever. Though nerds grit their teeth remembering the year Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump, most recall it as the year a smirking, irreverent David Letterman played host. Through a series of deliberately unfunny jokes and pointless detours, the Late Night star verbalized the Academy Awards’ unbridled contempt for its audience—their confidence that we’ll watch no matter what. At his core, he was no different than hosts future and past; each is a prop extending a meaningless show into longer forms of meaningless. Letterman just made the function impossible to ignore.
Of course, it’s not as if there had been no precedent for that kind of self-awareness. The ’90s were, after all, the Seinfeld decade, when sarcasm and irony made their big cultural splash, and Letterman’s Late Night debut had been key in predicting that shift. The disinterest with which he interviewed celebrity guests had been a true breath of fresh air, his barbs poking through their airs and endearing him to workaday Americans. But as with much ’90s culture, Letterman’s postmodern innovation was more a product of laziness than generosity: Speaking to Vulture in 2017, he admitted, “I was single-minded in getting through my hour, and sarcasm is so easy.”
Just like the Oscars, then, Letterman didn’t actually give a shit about America’s time. Watching him host, you can sense his delight in wasting it. After the opening musical number, he strides in to riff about the show already running “five minutes late”—a total punk move. From there, it’s on to a string of outrageously protracted non-jokes—the most infamous of which sees Letterman simply repeating the first names of Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey for a minute straight. And his triple reuse of a punchline about sitting Attorney General Janet Reno might be even worse. At first, audience laughter is as nervously boisterous as ever, but as the celebrities realize they’re not being cut to anymore, it begins to die off. Soon, only Letterman is laughing, and he gives all his gags a big self-satisfied guffaw. Whether this signals his contempt for the gag or private recognition of some brilliance the audience cannot perceive, it’s clear he knows he’s wasting our time.
Letterman’s a strong troll, and his comedic terrorism would be theoretically admirable were it not so obviously reinforcing the Oscar mission. Any time the ceremony threatens to accumulate meaning, to be about something more than itself, Letterman shuts it down. Jamie Lee Curtis, pointing to the absence of female tech nominees, gets deflected with a joke about her sex life. The activist efforts of actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon are belittled as “pissiness” before the stars are even allowed to speak. When Letterman is loosed on the street to talk cinema with ethnic New York taxi drivers, he chooses to linger racistly on their inability to recite Robert De Niro’s famous line: “You talkin’ to me?” The message is clear: we are in control, and we have decided nothing matters.
That’s what’s instructive about the hatred for the 1995 ceremony: Letterman made no effort to disguise Oscar’s inconsequence. If people hate 2019, it’ll be because without a host, the show was unable to hide it. Will audiences be savvy enough to know? There is one symbolic moment near the end of 1995 that gives me hope they will. Letterman strides on stage with a rug tucked under his arm. He finds room for a wan joke about this hilarious incongruity, but quickly sets the tube on the ground. Stepping forward to the audience, Letterman points to some unseen attendee and asks “Can you help?” The camera crew have no more idea who this mystery figure is than the audience, so they leave the camera on Letterman, creating the impression that the host is now recruiting the viewer to help him. Turns out that’s not far from the truth, because after a long pause, the angle changes, and Letterman has been pointing to none other than Tom Hanks—America’s everyman! The actor seems genuinely surprised and runs gamely on stage to help Letterman unfurl the rug. Hanks asks if he can sit down, but Letterman says to stay—there’s a surprise coming. He tells the audience to hold their applause as a mangy-looking dog runs in from the wings and instantly begins to chase its tail in circles on the carpet. Taken aback, the host introduces the animal as Sadie—his face falling—“the dog who spins when you applaud.” Though the audience quickly begins to clap its hands, the Oscars’ cynical trickery stands exposed. Tom Hanks cannot conceal his disgust. Sadie scratches her thigh with her nose.
Each year, the Oscars spin in a long, trivial circle for nobody’s entertainment but their own. This year, don’t let them think they’re doing it because you’re clapping for them.