Brow Beat

In Search of an Oscar Host, the Academy Should Look to Its Past

A young Betty White behind the wheel of a 1954 Oldsmobile Starfire 98.
The 1954 Academy Awards
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

The Academy Awards ceremony is just over a month away, and after the whole Kevin Hart fiasco, the show is reportedly going to be modeled after a Quaker communion: no host. That’s fine if you’re trying to abolish slavery, but Hollywood’s Biggest Night deserves High Church Episcopalian pomp and circumstance at the very least! A hostless Oscars—which didn’t work out too well the last time they tried it—shows a lack of respect for Oscar traditions, so much so that we went all the way back to the very first Academy Awards in 1929 in search of historical evidence to prove that our vague notion was correct. Then we remembered that host Douglas Fairbanks managed to squeeze the entire first ceremony into a tight—some would say curt—fifteen minutes, which didn’t really jibe with our whole theory of “Oscar tradition,” so we skipped ahead to the first televised Academy Awards in 1953. Watch host Bob Hope trick NBC into broadcasting an opening monologue dedicated almost exclusively to jokes about how terrible the new medium of television was:

Bob Hope is, unfortunately, unable to host this year—and there’s no cash or jobs either—but his 1953 turn offers a few profitable avenues for the Academy to explore in their search for Oscar host glory. First, they should obviously get someone who will spend as much time as possible criticizing ABC for broadcasting the ceremony in the first place. Roseanne Barr probably has a lot to say about the network that cancelled her, but in 2019, the Academy should think bigger and less racist. Maybe Richard Brody could open the ceremony by reading an essay about the limits of television as a medium. Maybe Banksy could cut the live feed in the first five seconds, broadcast a blank screen for two hours, and then tell us that the night’s big winner was human imagination. Or maybe the lesson to draw here is less from the content than the form. Check out this legendary riff from Hope:

Television: that’s where movies go when they die. But I want to say that tonight, you regular television watchers will see movie stars you’ve never seen before. New faces like Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Ronald Colman, and Jean Hirsholt. I hope you will give these youngsters the same welcome you give your current favorites: Theda Bara, George Arliss, Elmo Lincoln, Clive Brook, Lya De Putti, and Francis X. Bushman. After all, I’m not here to belittle television, because you can’t ignore an industry that has brought fame to Chef Milani, fortune to Hopalong Cassidy, and perpetual youth to the Bowery Boys. Just imagine how Leo Gorcey’s kid must feel watching TV and finding out his old man is younger than he is! … But movies are still your best entertainment. It’s all movies, ladies and gentlemen. And it’ll always be your best entertainment. If you don’t think so, ask Joe DiMaggio. You don’t see him going out with Kukla, Fran, and Ollie!

There is only one person in entertainment who can make jokes that cram in so many no-longer-household names, long-ago-current events, and ancient pop culture references, and that person is Dennis Miller. Who, come to think of it, could just perform Hope’s monologue word-for-word without anyone noticing the difference. But an even better Oscar host option comes from the opening of the 1954 ceremony, hosted by Donald O’Connor and Fredric March:

Did you catch it? O’Connor and March are fine, of course, but the real star of the show enters at about 11:30, during an amazing example of the sort of tasteful product placement television used to do. Here’s just that section:

It’s not every day that you watch a TV broadcast from 64 years ago and catch a glimpse of a superstar who would still be a viable Oscars host today. There’s something moving about seeing someone who has been a beloved elder stateswoman of the entertainment industry for decades back when she was a fresh-faced youngster. Bringing her back to host this year’s Oscars would draw in many more older viewers than, say, Hathaway and Franco, while still delivering young people who would be left cold by a straight nostalgia play like Hologram Donald O’Connor. I’m speaking, of course, of the 1954 Oldsmobile Starfire 98. With its long, rakish, waist-high silhouette, smartly curving panoramic windshield, spectacular sweep-cut rear fenders, a saddle-stitched leather interior in dramatic two-tone patterns, and the surging might of a new 185-horsepower “Rocket” Engine, this glamorous Oldsmobile convertible is the “show car” that can be your car! Or your Oscar host: There’s a blue 1954 Starfire for sale in Jefferson, Wisconsin right now for just $89,995. That’s more than the Academy paid Jimmy Kimmel. But then he doesn’t have a “Rocket” engine, does he?