Pity the poor Oscar host or hostess. Every year a gifted comic performer has to be cajoled into hosting the Academy Awards. If they do their job well, they tend to receive, at best, praise for not screwing up or being 'tame'. If they do their job poorly, as David Letterman and Seth McFarlane, they go down infamy for having violated the dignity of the evening.
The Academy Awards have been broadcast on television for more than six decades. And while the audience for the evening has expanded with every succeeding year, the critical response has been deflating with each successive host. I have seen the best comic minds of my generation driven to madness trying to figure out how to do it well, and any event that reduces such luminaries as Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and, as was the case this year, Ellen DeGeneres to shells of their typical selves, would surely confirm that there is something severely wrong with the entire process.
The Oscars say that they want to appeal to the hip and young demographic, but every halting step they take towards that generally falls against the fundamental demand that the evening being nothing short of a strokefest. When Chris Rock tried to pop the balloon that the Academy inflated by asking moviegoers if they had actually seen the nominated movies, everybody in the audience squirmed. When Jon Stewart made a timid joke after one of the tiring montages that barrage us ever as to how shallow those montages were, everybody laughed uncomfortably. God knows how everybody in the audience felt when McFarlane tried a decidedly modest version of his dark satiric act last year.
The problem that every Oscar host has is that he or she must play to two separate audiences--- the one in the theater and the one at home, and, while the latter is far more important,, the former gives the host instant feedback, mainly if you're doing something wrong. In the twenty plus years I've been watching the only hosts who've been able to respond to the former have been Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, and both of those comedians are 'too old' to appeal to the demographic that the Academy wants to track.
This leads, indirectly, to the other problem the Academy has been trying to solve for the last ten years--- making their nominated films more relevant. And that seems to be one they are determined to make worse, and they have only themselves to blame for that.
For decades, the Academy Awards have been pilloried for not nominated many types of films--- comedies, horror movies, action films--- but they all had one theme--- movies people actually saw, as opposed to the films that the Oscars thinks are worthy of their statues. There was damn near an armed revolt in 2008, when the Oscars nominated Frost/Nixon and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button instead of The Dark Knight and Wall-E for Best Picture. So the Academy compromised and doubled the number of nominated films per year.
But that only intensified the problem. The Oscars had their highest rated show in a decade, but it was because the highest-grossing move in history Avatar was nominated for Best Picture. The fact that it lost to The Hurt Locker, a film that barely grossed $11 million, is the Academy's problem in a nutshell---- they think only the smaller 'serious' movies are the only one worthy to take the stage. Two years, one of the highest grossing films of the year, Bridesmaids, was considered a front-runner for a Best Picture nominated. They went for the safer comedy Midnight in Paris instead.
The Academy has spent the last forty years convincing the world that box-office and critical acclaim are two separate standards. It is impossible to convince the average Academy member that The Avengers is as worthy of Oscar consideration as Beasts of the Southern Wild. But as long as the age of the voter is twice that of the average movie-goer, then we're probably going to have more years like this one, so the Academy will do what it always does--- focus on cosmetic changes rather than systemic ones. But that's Hollywood.