Hugh Jackman: Oscar's hosting gig gets a face-lift
I'm beginning to think that Larry Mark and Bill Condon, the producers of this year's Academy Awards telecast, actually have a few tricks up their sleeves. More important, I think they're determined to take the woebegone Oscar telecast in a fresh new direction. That's the clear message of today's selection of Hugh Jackman as the host of February's broadcast. By opting for Jackman, a classy movie and theater star instead of a big-mouth comic, Mark and Condon are signaling that they're trying to turn the Oscars into a party instead of the usual three-hour-plus cobwebby self-congratulatory snooze-athon.
The first thing Mark said when I got him on the phone this morning told me all I needed to hear. "In keeping with the thinking that the event needs to be more like a party," he said, "we're trying to make it very much like a party." Mark believes Jackman has the perfect party-host persona. "The Oscars are a celebration of movies, so who better to host than a movie star," Mark said. "Hugh can not only hold the screen, but he can hold the stage too, which is no small feat these days. He's done major theater work, from 'Oklahoma!' to 'Sunset Boulevard,' and he's not only hosted the Tony Awards, he actually won an Emmy for hosting them."
Mark laughed. "That's not to suggest that the Tonys were an audition, but in a way they were. The fact that he was brilliant doing the Tonys certainly spoke well for his abilities."
As it turns out, before Mark had seriously thought about casting a host, he saw Jackman perform at a benefit show for the Motion Picture and Television Fund (a show that Mark produced with "Milk" producer Dan Jinks). "Hugh was a hoot," he recalled. "He did a duet with Kristin Chenoweth on 'Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,' completely off the cuff, with all sorts of improvised humor, and well, he was great. So when his name come up recently, we all thought, 'Wow, remember that night he did "Anything" and how he killed.' ''
Mark also became convinced that Jackman had a special star quality after Mark saw him in "Australia." "Our whole idea for the show is that we want you to feel like you're not at a late-night TV show, but at a nightclub, where the host is saying, 'Welcome to the party--let's have a good time.' We're going for the contemporary feel that you'd have at the Cocoanut Grove or the Stork Club, where everyone is encouraged to have a good time. If this were the old days, we'd be asking Cary Grant or Clark Gable to be the host. I think Hugh has a lot of those same qualities. He's one of the few actors who has a real sense of occasion, who can say, 'Let's have a ball.' "
So he's looking for someone who looks good in a tux? "Exactly," said Mark. "Not just that Hugh would look good in a tux, but that he looks comfortable in a tux." Would Jackman be doing a musical number himself? Mark hedged: "Let's just say that with Hugh, there'd be a good reason to do it. It's certainly extremely appealing. He's definitely not going to be doing a 10-minute comedy monologue."
So how much does the Oscar host really matter? Can Jackman actually reverse the show's steady ratings decline? "I think the host matters on that night," Mark said. "I don't believe, in general, that people tune in to see the host. They tune in to see the Oscars. If the host gets to excel, that's an extra. So really a big part of our assignment is to get people to watch the show itself. It's not all on the host's shoulders. He's really there to set the tone and make everyone feel comfortable."
Doesn't that mean that the burden to turn the show around is, well, on the producer's shoulders? Mark laughed again, this time more nervously. "I shudder to think, but I guess it is on us. But what really makes me optimistic is that Hugh was absolutely enthusiastic about doing it. He wasn't one of these people who'd said, 'I'd never want to do the Oscars in a million years.' He was really excited about it. I think that's a good sign. If nothing else, we're going to try to have a good time and really make this an event."
My colleague Mary McNamara has her own view on this. Here's the link:
Photo of Hugh Jackman by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times