With Billy Crystal hosting, have the Oscars given up on youth?
For a television event bent on attracting younger viewers, the Oscars' naming of 63-year-old Billy Crystal as its host seems like the strangest of moves. Crystal was last seen in a hit film in 1999, a year when 25-years-olds would have been in the full flower of puberty and were unlikely be to watching that hit, "Analyze That" (though their grandparents surely loved it).
Yes, Crystal generates a lot of goodwill for his impressive Oscar tenure. But that tenure began in 1989 -- a fuzzy pre-Bill Clinton era for most who fall into any kind of choice Madison Avenue demographic.
Yet all the hand-wringing over Crystal's appeal suggests a different question: What if the Oscars chose the actor not in spite of his age but because of it? The common belief is that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants to freshen up the show to reel in young viewers. But the truth of it is that the Oscars have already tried a youth movement, and it hasn't worked.
Back in 2006 and 2008, it tapped Jon Stewart, a paragon of campus comedy, to host the show. The move flopped: His 2006 reviewers were middling. And while they were better in 2008, the show drew the worst ratings (31.7 million total viewers) of the modern era. Whoever came because of Stewart was more than offset by those who tuned out.
Last year, the academy went with the youngest co-hosts in history in James Franco and Anne Hathaway (the latter of whom, incidentally, was 6 years old when Crystal hosted his first Oscars). The move backfired -- ratings were tepid, their reviews were icebaths and the show gained attention mainly because Franco and writer Bruce Vilanch spent the next five months sniping at each other.
This year, of course, the Oscars hired Brett Ratner, who with the "Rush Hour" and "X-Men" franchises made movies the kids did come out to see. But It backfired in an even bigger way when Ratner went on Howard Stern to talk about his sexual habits. Sometimes when you go young, you wind up with juvenile.
So here we are with Crystal, along with producer Brian Grazer, who's had many hit films, the bulk of them in the 1980s and 1990s, too (his 2011 movies: "The Dilemma," "Cowboys & Aliens," "Restless," "Tower Heist" and "J. Edgar").
If there's a comfort level for the academy in choosing two veteran hands such as that, there's also a comfort-food element in it for us: We see them and we know what we're getting.
Maybe most significantly for the academy, Crystal's Oscars telecasts were some of the highest-rated the ceremony have ever known -- his 1998 show, in fact, attracted the most viewers in history, a whopping 57 million (admittedly aided by "Titanic"). And most of the people who watched and liked him then are still around now.
Crystal also proved his enduring stage appeal with his Bob Hope tribute at this year's Oscars, and, more comprehensively, with his 2005 Tony winner "700 Sundays," a show about his late father that was moving and funny, if also a little too willing to pound the nostalgia ivories. ("Remember records?" he asked the audience, which evidently did.)
Crystal also clearly really wanted the gig, something that can't be said of Eddie Murphy and others who've been named host in recent years.
The performer will bring his own appeal, his own sensibility, his own writers. The youth movement has by and large not worked. The academy knows this, and decided, apparently, that it wanted numbers more than buzz. There's always the possibility that younger people tune in to see what the fuss is about, or even make Crystal a kind of mascot, Betty White-style, though that seems unlikely.
The higher-ups in the academy seem to have decided it wouldn't chase young viewers, at least not this year, and go instead with those who made it the event it's become. In political terms, it's decided to consolidate the base instead of pursuing the disaffected. And for all the easy shots you can take, can you blame them? That move might not make for groundbreaking candidates or policy. But it's won more than a few elections.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Billy Crystal at the 2000 Oscars. Credit: Gary Hershorn / Reuters.