Hosts With The Most

They're the glue that holds the show together, with the gags that keep it light. A look at Oscar's greatest emcee performances.

February 23, 2006|Steve Pond | Special to The Times

HOSTING the Academy Awards, as Jon Stewart is about to find out, is at once exhilarating, terrifying, rewarding and headache-inducing.

It's one of the most high-profile jobs a comic can land. But it's also a thankless gig in front of a distracted, nervous audience, and the truth is the host has very little control over a very long evening.

Stewart will become the 27th person to handle the duties solo. If he's really good and more than a little lucky, he may just pull off a performance -- or at least a moment or two -- that measures up to the classics on this list.

1. In the soup

In the days leading up to the 64th Oscar show in 1992, Billy Crystal was so sick that he couldn't come to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to rehearse.

Contingency plans were useless -- after all, this isn't a role that has an understudy -- but bed rest and infusions of his wife's chicken soup apparently worked wonders, because Crystal recovered enough to have his finest night as Oscar host.

He came onstage strapped to a cart, a la Hannibal Lecter from "The Silence of the Lambs," and delivered one of the best of his song medleys. Then he took Jack Palance's feverish acceptance speech, complete with its one-armed push-ups, and turned it into a memorable running gag. According to Crystal, Palance ... "is backstage on the StairMaster" ... "just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign" ... "has just won the New York primary" ... and finally, "will be hosting the [Oscars] next year."

To top it off, Crystal brought the house down with a genuine ad-lib when 100-year-old Hal Roach, who was supposed to stand and bow but not speak, suddenly launched into an unmiked, inaudible speech. "I think that's fitting," he said, "because Mr. Roach started in silent films."

2. Splet decisions

Alan Splet was simply a sound editor who couldn't make it to the Oscars, but Johnny Carson turned the man into a household name in 1980. "It always happens," said Carson when the winner was absent. "First George C. Scott doesn't show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet."

Understand, jokes like this did not necessarily go over well inside the academy, whose non-acting branches can be sensitive about punch lines predicated on the anonymity of their members.

Still, Carson kept it up. Throughout the show, he gave Splet updates -- first saying the honoree had missed his offramp and was "somewhere in Ensenada," and later adding, "He's had trouble with his carburetor outside of Barstow."

3. Martin the mediator

As Michael Moore raged, "We live in fictitious times!" from the stage of the Kodak Theatre in 2003, the audience grew restless. Scattered boos, a rarity on any Oscar telecast, were audible in the auditorium, while backstage, a few of the normally quiet union stagehands got vocal: a shouted obscenity here, a cry of "Get him off!" there.

Standing stage right, writer Bruce Vilanch looked at the angry stagehands and quickly made a beeline for the far side of the stage. Host Steve Martin was sitting there in a small booth with members of his writing team who'd also heard the shouts -- so during the commercial break, the writers quickly crafted a new gag.

Ten minutes later, Martin appeared onstage. "It was so sweet backstage, you should see it," he said with a smile. "The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo."

4. Jerry's other telethon

It was a mess, but Jerry Lewis deserves some kind of medal for trying to manage the free-for-all that was the ending of the Oscar show in 1959. As the show went into its final song, an all-star rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business" led by Mitzi Gaynor, producer Jerry Wald told Lewis they still had 20 minutes of airtime to fill.

(Yes, things like that happened at the Oscars 40-odd years ago.)

For the next 10 minutes, Lewis pulled out all the stops. He told jokes, he conducted the orchestra, he danced, he played the trumpet, he offered to show Three Stooges shorts "to cheer up the losers," he even had an impromptu reunion with estranged partner Dean Martin.

Finally, NBC mercifully took the show off the air, and Lewis was able to give it a rest.

5. Model behavior

The target was too obvious not to take a shot, so early in her monologue in 1996, Whoopi Goldberg turned her attention to "Showgirls," director Paul Verhoeven's famously awful ode to strippers, dancers and assorted Vegas lowlifes. "I haven't seen that many poles mistreated since World War II," she said.

A few minutes later, the show lurched forward with its first award, costume design, in which the nominated attire was showcased by a bevy of pouty supermodels sucking on lollipops and striding down a faux runway.

The number was silly, awkward and begging to be deflated -- which Goldberg promptly did the next time she took the stage. "They're getting 10 grand an hour," she said of the supermodels, "still they look [ticked] off."

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