By NEAL ZOREN
Times Television Columnist
Only Bob Hope, who logged about 30 years as emcee of the Oscars, has helmed the show more times, and not all of Hopeâ€™s stewardships were televised.
The Academy should stop dallying and name Crystal the permanent host. In his earliest days in the role, from 1989-1992, and especially in 1992, when he came out harnessed like Hannibal Lecter in â€œSilence of the Lambs,â€ Crystal proved he was the worthy heir to Hope and Johnny Carson as a monologist, ready quipster, and stage manager. The job should have been his since then. The Academy has experimented with other hosts, Hugh Jackman being among the more charming, but Crystal is the most welcome and reliable.
The problem is, we have no master entertainer in Hopeâ€™s or Carsonâ€™s league today. I see Jimmy Fallon as a possible successor. He is slick with gags and quick with quips. Joan Rivers could probably ace the job. Maybe even someone like Bette Midler, if she remembers her New York comedy club roots and marries them with her red carpet zings. Neil Patrick Harris has done brilliantly in his stints as host of the Tony Awards. But Crystal seems to have the combination of on-the-spot comic and disciplined entertainer to do the job.
The best thing he doesnâ€™t overdo it, the problem that scuttled David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg, and others.
The Academy also has to be grateful to Crystal this year. It originally announced Eddie Murphy â€” an interesting choice, and I say that in a positive tone â€” for the job. I was curious to see how Murphy would do, but I was happy when I read in November that Crystal would control the podium after all.
Oscar telecasts usually get the best ratings when a wildly popular film or a group of well-known stars is nominated. In a year when Jean Dujardin from â€œThe Artistâ€ is a leading contender, and one of the nominees, Demian Bichir from â€œA Better Life,â€ is unfamiliar to audiences outside of Mexico, where his family constitutes an acting dynasty, general viewer interest may not be high.
Then again, the most likely recipient of the Best Actor award is longtime favorites George Clooney, who found his first fame in television, and another nominee in that category is Brad Pitt, who might draw viewers who just want to look at his ineluctable beauty.
Meryl Streep is not only amazing for amassing 17 Oscar nominations, all of them worthy recognition of her incredible skill and artistry, but for having a splendid 35-year-career without having to endure the tabloid coverage most stars of her caliber face. She is the Irene Dunne of our time, but whether she is attractive to a TV audience is a question. Besides Clooney and Pitt, the Academy is not fielding a populist roster of nominees.
Nor are any of the Best Picture nominees among the ones that sent a general audience to movie theaters in droves.
That said, the performers and pictures nominated this year make 2011 look like a better film year that it was.
Clooney, as noted, is a likely winner for his turn in â€œThe Descendants.â€ He also has the benefit of a second nomination-worthy performance in â€œThe Ides of March,â€ which he directed. Dujardin, who is exquisite in a boulevardier turn in â€œThe Artist,â€ is his main rival.
Streep, who not only has been nominated more than any performer in history but has been denied the Oscar more times than anyone in history, is a front-runner for her seamless turn in â€œThe Iron Lady.â€ Her rival is Viola Davis, wry and knowing in â€œThe Help.â€ Glenn Close from â€œAlbert Nobbsâ€ is also nominated, though not a serious contender. When Close is passed over for the sixth time, she will tie Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter as women who were nominated most without a win. (Geraldine Page held that â€œdistinctionâ€ until she was given the Oscar for her eighth nomination, â€œThe Trip to Bountiful.â€ Peter Oâ€™Toole has the overall empty-handed record with eight nominations and no wins.) Michelle Williams, who nailed Marilyn Monroe in â€œMy Week with Marilyn,â€ could â€” but probably wonâ€™t â€” upset the expected here.
Christopher Plummer seems a lock for Best Supporting Actor for â€œBeginners.â€ Octavia Spencer appears to be just as firmly entrenched for her role as the candid, rebellious maid in â€œThe Help.â€ Berenice Bejo in â€œThe Artist,â€ is her only possible competition, although the body of work Jessica Chastain, also nominated for â€œThe Help,â€ produced in 2011 may influence some votes in her favor.
Best Picture will probably go to either â€œThe Descendantsâ€ or â€œThe Help,â€ both of which were enjoyable but a little pat for my taste. I would lean more toward â€œThe Artist,â€ a possibility, or â€œWar Horse,â€ which will most likely not win the race.
The Oscars will broadcast at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 6.