Anne Hathaway and James Franco: The Latest Additions to an Oscar Legacy of Surprising Hosts

Fans of movies and awards ceremonies presented over the last few decades have grown accustomed to hosts who excel at providing witty quips. The Academy Awards was hosted by a comedian for sixteen straight years until Hugh Jackman broke the streak in 2009. Remember Jackman’s duties as Oscar host? Not really? Remember his duet with Anne Hathaway? You can bet the producers of the 2011 Oscar telecast do. Hathaway was brought back for further duties, this time teamed with another actor not exactly known for being the man from funny. Yes, we’ve grown accustomed to the faces of comics like Whoopi, Billy, Chevy, Steve and the criminally castigated David Letterman who actually presided over the only Oscar telecast worth watching twice.

It has not always been thus. In fact, the teaming of stars who did not come into the public spotlight courtesy of a brick wall behind them and a spotlight in front of them may be surprising to modern audiences. The surprise would be not so much those who turn to Turner Classic Movies more often than they turn to the stories of self-absorbed Atlanta housewives and unpleasant chicks from Jersey. If you go back far enough, you may be absolutely shocked at some of the choices to host the Academy Awards over the years.

The awarding of Best Picture in 1973 to “The Sting” was overseen by one of the oddest quartets to ever take the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Wouldn’t you like to have been in on the decision-making process that resulted in John Huston, Diana Ross, Burt Reynolds and David Niven sharing Oscar hosting duties? Those who called for the head of Ricky Gervais after his attacks on the hands that feed him at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago might have done the same to Burt Reynolds. Burt commenced the 1973 Oscars with a string of insults aimed directly at anyone who dared to criticize Hollywood for not being the second coming of Ancient Greek society. His tangent ended with a raspberry surprise, otherwise known as a Bronx cheer.

David Niven’s hosting duties that night in 1973 resulted in one of the all-time classic moments with his response to the appearance of a streaker: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” As incredibly urbane as that quip was, legend has it that it was actually supplied to Niven offstage by the good ol’ boy who had started the telecast on its way.

Niven’s duties as host of the Oscars in 1973 was not the first. Two of the most elegant dramatic actors of all time–David Niven and Laurence Olivier–teamed up as a veritable murder of hosts in 1958. Surrounding these two actors who had teamed up for the decidedly unfunny “Wuthering Heights” were Mort Sahl, Tony Randall, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. One aspect of the Olivier-to-Lewis ceremony that you can bet the farm won’t happen to Anne Hathaway and James Franco is that the nutty host found himself with 20 minutes of air time following the announcement of Best Picture. Jerry did his best, God bless him, but NBC eventually cut away to a rerun of a sports show.

Jackman. Baldwin. Hathaway. Franco. Could we be witnessing the start of a sixteen year long streak in which the Oscars do away with comedians and ultimately hand hosting duties to Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson?