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OUTSIDE HOLLYWOOD, A GOOD ACADEMY AWARDS HOST IS HARD TO FIND

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You don't have to look very hard to find evidence that no one seems to know what makes for a successful TV awards show host anymore, particularly when it comes to the biggest video gala of them all, the Oscars.

After years of declining ratings and scathing reviews for its comedian-hosts, the Emmys this year went with five hosts, all of them from the reality TV genre. But the ratings and the reviews only got worse.

The Grammys, meanwhile, taking a page from the Golden Globes, gave up on hosts altogether this year. The ratings improved marginally, but the show was widely panned.

Tonight comes the Oscar telecast, casting aside a tradition of comedian-hosts that stretches back to Bob Hope and Johnny Carson in favor of actor and entertainer Hugh Jackman. The Australian-born performer is not such a risky choice, given the success he has enjoyed as host of the Tony Awards telecast, but that is very different kettle of fish. The Tonys are New York instead of Hollywood, with a tiny, tiny audience watching instead of the largest one this side of the Super Bowl.

The Academy Awards telecast is one of those societal barometers that almost always has something to tell us about ourselves. We know Consensus America is long gone - and with it the ability of a white, male, mainstream comedian like Hope or Carson to speak for tens of millions of viewers. It seems like there are now tens of millions of Americas.

But that's why Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart were brought in as hosts: to try and connect with more diverse and younger audiences. Only it didn't happen.

Rock was too insulting to film stars like Jude Law, while DeGeneres was judged too tame and boring. Stewart did better in 2008 than he did in 2006, but in the end, he was still found by some critics to be too political and smug.

So, why should anyone think Jackman will be the answer? Or, is he simply a product of the confusion over what America wants in a TV awards show?

"There has been confusion in recent years by the people who stage the shows as to what a host should be - no doubt about it," says Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times' awards site, theenvelope.com. "But it's because they have lost sight as to what the Oscars fundamentally are - or maybe, they never understood the awards gala in the first place. But you would think as movie pros they would at least get the casting right."

According to O'Neil, the Academy Awards are a "family reunion." And like any such gathering, "They should be presided over by an intimate of that community."

O'Neil says no one fit the bill better than Hope - "real Hollywood royalty," a movie star in his own right who also happened to be a marvelous master of ceremonies who could keep a show rolling with one fast-paced quip after another between awards.

Carson, his successor, was not a film star, but he lived in Hollywood. More important, when he took over the job of Tonight show host in 1962, TV was starting to become the principal storyteller of American life - and concurrently the most effective way to advertise feature films to a mass audience.

Carson was the first late-night host to bring movie stars on his show to promote their films on the eve of release. He might not have been an intimate of the movie community, but better yet, in prosperous post-World War II America, he was in business with them in a big way.

And on-screen, no one was a better master of ceremonies.

Carson's tremendous success has "bedeviled" the Oscars ever since, according to O'Neil.

"In hopes of finding the next Carson, they keep bringing in these comedians, but many of them are from New York, and most have been classic disasters - in part because they are not Hollywood insiders," he says.

The one exception is Billy Crystal, says Paul Levinson, a Fordham University pop-culture professor who blogs about TV at infiniteregress.com.

"Crystal's success alone makes me believe that the days of the comedian as emcee are not necessarily over," he says.

Levinson further believe that the failure of New York comedians like Stewart, Rock and David Letterman is not so much a matter of geography or societal change as it is less-than-stellar performances once they were onstage.

"They just didn't rise to the occasion - even Letterman and Stewart, who I think are otherwise terrific," he says.

But there's a difference between the way in which Crystal, who has starred in successful films, and all the other comedians approached the hosting job. Rather than playing it as a standup comic cracking jokes, Crystal took the stand as a ringmaster presiding over both the awards show and his own spoof of an entertainment extravaganza. (Think of his Mel Brooks-like opening musical medleys featuring lyrics mocking the nominated films and stars.)

O'Neil believes Jackman was chosen because he has created that same kind of awards-show persona at the Tonys.

"The thinking is, let's repackage the show as a big evening of entertainment and get a ringmaster rather than a comedian to emcee it," he says. "That's Jackman - and unlike those comics, he's a member of the filmmaking community."

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