In the wake of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' effort to infuse some youthful vitality into Sunday's Oscar ceremony by tapping James Franco and Anne Hathaway to emcee the event, positive praise for the hosts' joint performance has been hard to find.
The New York Times called Hathaway "charming and charismatic" but said Franco came off "a little distracted and even blasé" and that "together they had an odd absence of chemistry."
The Washington Post declared that while Hathaway "worked her derriere off," Franco seemed "sort of heavy-lidded and smirky." And USA Today simply said Franco appeared to be "preparing for a remake of 'Dazed and Confused.' "
A match made in awards-season heaven these two certainly were not, and early ratings numbers have the show's audience declining 7 percent from last year (though still higher than 2008 and 2009). At the very least, Franco and Hathaway were likeable throughout, excelling in their pre-taped segments and, if anything, suffering from weak writing during their live, scripted banter.
Last year's hosts, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, by contrast, were nearly universally lauded. The Los Angeles Times called them "the best hosts the show has had in years."
The veteran duo's jokes were hardly Ricky Gervais-edgy, but Hollywood doesn't always have the best sense of humor about itself. They zinged Meryl Streep ("[She] holds the most nominations for any actor," Martin said. "Or, as I like to think of it, the most losses"); "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (saying that it "lived up to its video game"); and didn't shy away from some entertaining presenter intros ("He directed 'A Single Man,' she weighs a single pound: Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker").
"Baldwin and Steve Martin proved to be classy and quippy throughout the night, very piece-of-cake — not that anyone expected otherwise," Hank Stuever wrote in The Washington Post last March.
In 2009, host Hugh Jackman's bravura opening musical number was enough to assure happy memories, even two years later, of the actor's time on the Oscar stage. As New York magazine put it at the time, "Hugh Jackman saves the Oscars!"
On Sunday night, there actually seemed to be lingering sadness that Jackman didn't reunite with Hathaway — after their unexpectedly funny "Frost/Nixon" duet in '09 — for another satirical tune. Hathaway was left to sing by herself, and it just wasn't the same. Yet here's the thing: Jackman hardly knocked it out of the park after his opening shtick; it's interesting what people end up remembering after the show's over. In some sort of backhanded compliment in '09, the New York Times said, "Hugh Jackman was a shrewd, even thrifty choice for a recession-era Oscar night — the hosting equivalent of a value meal."
A similar critical shrug greeted Jon Stewart in 2008, after he and his team rushed to prep an act in the wake of the writers' strike. Variety argued that the comedian "played it pretty safe" but generally "earned his keep by maintaining a playful, irreverent tone throughout the night." That was about as positive as the reviews got, with The Washington Post on the other end of the spectrum saying, he "did only a fair-to-middling job, mostly middling."
Hosting the Oscars, then, is a truly thankless task. And perhaps an explanation for Franco's sleepy performance can be found in the advice Stewart jokingly gave him on "The Daily Show" a few weeks ago.
"Go at it with the attitude that you're above it all, with an ironic detachment bordering on contempt," Stewart told Franco. "They will eat it up."
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