After 94-year-old Kirk Douglas basically stole the Oscars early on with a hilarious Best Supporting Actress presentation that included comic false starts, one-liners (“You look much better out of the cave,” he told “127 Hours” star James Franco) and some slapstick-inspired business with his cane, all Anne Hathaway could do was laugh her infectious laugh.
“It’s the young and hip Oscars!” she declared.
The moment – for better and worse – captured the spirit of Sunday’s Academy Awards, in which co-hosts Franco and Hathaway, presumably enlisted to infuse the 83rd annual ceremony with youth, seemed happy at times to play straight man (and woman) to their elders.
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Hathaway’s mother admonished her to stand straight in the presence of Steven Spielberg, while Franco’s grandmother eyed another star in the Kodak Theatre (“I just saw Marky Mark!” she gushed). The hosts’ opening number, a filmed “Inception” spoof in which Franco and Hathaway traveled through some of the year’s Best Picture nominees, via creative editing, ended with guest stars Morgan Freeman and Alec Baldwin, last year's co-host, ribbing the relative Hollywood newcomers.
“Who were those people?” Baldwin asked.
“You know, I have no idea,” Freeman replied.
Give them credit: popular actors and first-time Oscars hosts Franco and Hathaway were confident enough to be the punchline of a joke they were in on. When Franco told his co-host that she looked beautiful and “hip,” she returned the compliment: “You look very appealing to a younger demographic as well.”
Mining their youth – Franco is 32 and Hathaway, at 28, became the youngest host in the show’s history – for laughs, though, only took them so far.
The “Inception” opener offered some funny moments (the best: Hathaway doing the “Dance of the Brown Duck” during her "Black Swan” cameo). But the bit, perhaps inadvertently, set the course for an ultimately lackluster journey: Franco and Hathaway proved more Oscar tourists than hosts, dropping in and out of the show during the three-hour-plus broadcast, without having much impact on its direction. They appeared content to be along the ride, with a subdued Franco looking generally amused and an energetic Hathaway glowing throughout. But there was little evidence of them driving the action.
Hathaway’s brief attempt at song and dance, a gentle spoof of Hugh Jackman, who memorably plucked her from the audience for an “impromptu” elaborate musical number when he hosted the Academy Awards in 2009, fell flat. Franco almost saved Hathaway with a non-sequitir of an appearance dressed as Marilyn Monroe. “I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen,” he quipped.
The co-hosts gave the lead-in for a stronger musical number: auto-tuned clips from “Toy Story 3,” “The Social Network” and other films, a clever sequence that has a pretty good chance of going viral. Hathaway also introduced eight-time Oscars host Billy Crystal, who presented a highlight-filled tribute to 18-time host Bob Hope.
The clips only reinforced that unlike Crystal, Hope and others who have successfully guided the show, Franco and Hathaway, despite their easy chemistry and cutesy banter, didn’t give the appearance of being in control or prove themselves capable of inspired spontaneity.
If they get a second chance next year, the duo might want to take a close look at some Academy Awards broadcasts past – and remember the lesson that old pro Kirk Douglas delivered in front of them on how to own the world’s biggest stage.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.