When you are an Oscar producer I guess it pays to have a film coming out co-starring someone who just might be the perfect Oscar host. That’s the enviable position Brett Ratner found himself in as he landed the Oscar gig just as he was editing his new film Tower Heist, which features Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy among others and is generating good inside buzz in advance of its November release. I hear test scores for Eddie were so high they talked about enhancing his part in the film. Sight unseen, it sounds — on the surface at least — like a return to the old Eddie that made him a movie superstar. So Eddie and Brett will continue the collaboration for another few months at least, and it would seem to be a win-win all around now that Murphy has officially been named host.
For the Academy, it gives them the opportunity to return to the tradition of having a stand-up comic host the show, which has always worked best, and in Murphy they have one who is a movie star, an Oscar-nominated actor (for Dreamgirls in 2006), and a guy whose past experience on Saturday Night Live and his stage gigs gives him the chops to pull this off — and a reason for the audience to tune in.
In fact, when I was in Telluride over the weekend and Nikki first broke the news of Murphy’s possible Oscar-hosting gig, I ran into Academy COO Ric Robertson and former Academy president Sid Ganis and showed them the story. Although both had not heard the report and seemed surprised, they immediately seemed to like the idea. At least that’s the impression I got. At another party I ran into producer Michael De Luca, who told me he had been offering free advice to Ratner and said he told him the key thing was to hire a comedian as host. In Murphy they obviously have one, with the added plus that he’s fresh Oscar-host meat, lending to the curiosity factor over just how well he might do in front of that notoriously nervous and fidgety Kodak Theatre audience. It’s not an easy job, even though the best comics who have done it (Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin) make it look that way.
One of those previous hosts — Crystal, who did it eight times — seemed to be putting word out recently that he might be open to hosting again this year, but when I asked Ratner about it he said he hadn’t seen what Billy had said and that he had until mid-September to decide anyway. Obviously he went with his own guy, a sign that Ratner has definite ideas about what he wants to do and will be a strong partner for Don Mischer, who directs and co-produces as he did last year.
For Murphy, the hosting gig comes at a good time as it will be a one-two punch following Tower Heist that gives him the opportunity to remind audiences why they fell in love with him in the first place. What better way than with a potential hit movie and a hosting gig on what is traditionally the most-watched entertainment broadcast of the year?
For me, it’s a little surprising, though, since Eddie and Oscar seemed to have had a bit of a rocky relationship.
His most recent appearance, handing the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Jerry Lewis in 2009 (from one Nutty Professor to another) went off without a hitch, but in 2007, when he lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Dreamgirls to veteran Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), there were blog reports that he “stormed out” of the Kodak. He did leave the theater shortly after losing, but it wasn’t in the dramatic way gossipers presented it: He just didn’t hang around for the rest of the show. No doubt he was disappointed in losing since he came in to the Oscars that night having won most of the precursor awards including SAG, Golden Globe and Critics Choice trophies.
The biggest controversy between Eddie and Oscar occurred on the 1988 telecast, when he presented Best Picture to The Last Emperor. He began by saying he had originally turned down the Academy’s offer to present Best Pic because “they haven’t recognized black people in the motion picture industry,” and then proceeded to point out that only three African-American actors had ever won an Oscar (up until then). “I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this. Actually, I might not get in any trouble because the way it’s been going, it’s about every 20 years we get one, so we ain’t due until about 2004,” he said, adding more fuel to the fire. He then almost forgot to name the nominees before audience murmurs tipped him off.
That bit of audacity in presenting the Academy’s most prestigious award might have been inappropriate, but it’s indicative of the edgy kind of guy Murphy could be on live TV, and we can only hope he has retained some of that edge when he gets the chance to finally host Feb. 27.