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7 February 2019

The Oscars last went hostless in 1989. It ruined a man’s career

“More than a billion and a half people just watched that. And at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it.”

By Ed jefferson

So, after much speculation, the host of the 2019 Oscars will be: no one. Comedian Kevin Hart stepped down after it was pointed out that some of his stand-up (and Twitter) material was homophobic, and it seems no one else has wanted to take his place.

This is perhaps understandable – you get yelled at for being either too controversial or too boring (in both cases, often justifiably). But how can a Hollywood awards show possibly work without a host?

Very easily, as it turns out. With one exception, the Golden Globes had no host until 2010, when they decided to invite R*cky G*rv**s to be rude to everyone; and the Screen Actors Guild awards was hostless until two years ago.

In fact, it won’t even be the first time the Oscars has done it: the first time the ceremony had no official host was the 11th Academy Awards, back in 1939. That said, it was less noticeable, since only 11 minutes of the show – the amount of time before the radio reporter responsible for an unauthorised radio transmission of the ceremony was kicked out – was available for public consumption. But between 1969 and 1971 the role was again left empty, and given that the 1970 show had the highest TV ratings on record, “no one” is arguably the most popular Oscar host of all time.

Judging by the clips on YouTube, those shows worked out okay. The host was replaced with an expanded role for the presenters of the individual awards, so, for example, the 1969 award for Best Adapted Score was presented via a charmingly didactic song from Marni Nixon and Henry Mancini, who even sing the list of nominees.

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But the host-free Oscars to top all others has got to be the most recent: the 1989 show. Allan Carr (the producer of Grease, rather than the comedian or the stop-smoking guru) had been a vocal critic of the Oscars ceremonies of the 1980s, so the Academy eventually turned around and told him that if he thought he could do better, why not have a go?

He immediately set himself up for a fall by declaring that, unlike previous efforts, the 61st Academy Awards would be “the antithesis of tacky”. As with the ‘69-’71 shows, instead of a host, he decided to make more use of the individual presenters, and also prepared a very special opening sequence. Very special indeed.

It begins with the then (and apart from this, now) unknown actress Eileen Bowman dressed as Disney’s Snow White serenading the crowd with a version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” that’s had the lyrics naffly adapted to be about the Oscars: “We only have stars for you…” she belts out enthusiastically as someone, somewhere suddenly realises they never checked if she could sing.

As the camera pans across the audience, we get to witness the greatest stars of the silver screen wish they were literally anywhere else. Meanwhile, dancers dressed as actual stars (ie the five-point, glittery kind) awkwardly shuffle about behind her, silently thanking whoever decided their faces would be hidden.

The curtain rises, and the show moves immediately into another overly involved musical sequence where various octogenarian stars of old Hollywood – and 30 years distance here somehow makes the whole thing positively eerie – are introduced and forced to wander across the stage through a troupe of dancers dressed as waiters for reasons that are not really worth explaining.

At which point “Snow White” is, for no readily available reason, set up on a blind date with top celebrity Rob Lowe.

Now remember, this is not 1990s West Wing-comeback Rob Lowe. This is “had literally just tanked his career when a videotape of him having sex with a 16-year-old went public” Rob Lowe. Still, small mercies, their “date” turns out to largely involve more interminable singing of pop songs specially adapted for the occasion. Behind them, some tables stand up and turn out to be dancers dressed as tables, which, by this point, is barely noticeable.

Several minutes later, the sequence finally ends with Snow White wearing Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as a hat, out of which walks Lily Tomlin to accurately inform us: “More than a billion and a half people just watched that. And at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it,” as someone attempts to throw a shoe at her (no, really).

Carr was pretty brutally savaged in the aftermath – an open letter was signed by Hollywood figures including Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, condemning him for bringing the industry into disrepute (which looks pretty laughable at this distance), and Disney filed (but ultimately dropped) a lawsuit over the use of Snow White.

Someone would say that Carr’s only real Oscar legacy is the phrase “And the Oscar goes to…”, used for the first time in that year’s presentations. Personally I think the sequence is, possibly despite itself, by far the most entertaining thing that’s ever happened at an awards show. If the producers of this year’s show are worried that people will miss having a host: beat that.