Here’s the official announcement that Eddie Murphy will be the next host of the Academy Awards. This will serve them well until last year’s experimental reconstruction of Bob Hope is finally operational for an entire show. Or until Jerry Lewis, enraged at being dropped from his Telethon, comes roaring back onto the Oscar’s stage to avenge the fact that they haven’t let him host since the legendarily disastrous 1959 show.
Okay, really, I don’t know what to say about Murphy. He has this going for him: he is a comedian, a movie star, and somebody who will agree to host the show. The combination of those three things is hard enough to find that the show frequently settles for people who are two out of three: Johnny Carson was not a movie star, but hosted several times because he was the world’s most famous host (and was connected to movie stars by the fact that they sat on his couch and blabbed about their projects). He’s also the first African-American host since Chris Rock in the year of Million Dollar Baby.
Will he be funny? Quite likely not, but neither was Bob Hope when he ruled the Oscarcast in the ’60s. Making Hope the sole host almost every year (from 1960 through 1968 he hosted 7 out of 9 shows) was the Hollywood Establishment’s way of asserting its authority against all the challenges from foreign and independent films. As an older star who mostly makes bad comedies, and whose box-office power is slipping, Murphy in 2012 could sort of be comparable to Hope in 1960. And in his own way Murphy is Hollywood Establishment, someone who has been around a long time but maintained his commercial viability through various changes in the business. He’s a guy who can reassure us that not too much has changed between his ’80s Golden Age (or Golden Child Age, if you don’t look at it so fondly) and now. Plus after two years of the two-host system, they obviously want to get back to a single host who can carry the night.
He won’t be brilliant, but even brilliant performers in the prime of their careers aren’t brilliant Oscar hosts: the material mostly can’t allow it, and the material is mostly the same no matter who hosts. (Though at least Billy Crystal’s medleys, while hardly unusual comedy material, allowed him to have a specific identity as a host, something we associate with him.) The purpose of an Oscar host is to reassure everyone, implicitly, that the U.S. movie industry is stronger than ever and that nothing fundamental has really changed. This is what Murphy will do, because this is what every host has done whether he wants to or not. Even Letterman.