Hugh Jackman: A Different Kind of Host for a Different Kind of Oscars

The world was shocked a few months ago when it was announced that Hugh Jackman would host this year’s Oscars. The amiable Aussie couldn’t possibly be a bigger change in demeanor from last year’s host, Jon Stewart, and many had predicted the Academy would keep up their tradition of hiring a prominent comedian to host. The names Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert were both mentioned a lot, but it was never clear if they were really in consideration, or if this was just wishful thinking from fans hoping to see a snarkier edge brought to the ceremony. The Academy clearly had other ideas. But this morning, now that all the trophies have been handed out, the last speck of glitter has been swept off the stage at the Kodak Theatre, and Kate Winslet’s breathing has hopefully returned to normal, I can honestly say I’m glad they went with Wolverine.

In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, many worried that Jackman would fail as host because he just wasn’t as funny as Gervais, Colbert, or Stewart. The good news was he didn’t try, or even need to be. Jackman stuck to his natural strengths (singing, dancing, handsomeness), and for the most part left the comedy up to a parade of presenters who were clearly up to the challenge. Ben Stiller’s Joaquin Phoenix bit was dead on. Steve Martin and Tina Fey killed in their brief appearance. And nothing in the entire telecast made me giddier than watching James Franco and Seth Rogen reprise their roles from Pineapple Express in a Judd Apatow-penned short film meant to honor the year in comedy (if you ask Saul and Dale, the funniest films of the year were Doubt and The Reader). Even Sean Penn brought the funny in his Best Actor acceptance speech (“You commie, homo-loving sons of guns!”). Jackman was wise to delegate the jokes.

What Jackman did get to do was show off his showmanship skills. He kicked the evening off with a recession-themed musical tribute to the year’s nominated films, which culminated in a surprisingly strong Frost/Nixon duet with Anne Hathaway (because Frank Langella was too heavy for Jackman to carry up to the stage). Some of the lyrics in this number were more perplexing than witty, but Jackman was entertaining and in good voice the whole time, whether he was climbing the ropes of The Wrestler’s ring or dancing around the fact that he hadn’t seen The Reader. Later in the night Jackman sang again, in a tribute to musicals that included Beyonce, High School Musical’s Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and Mamma Mia’s Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper. This routine was put together by Baz Luhrmann, who was clearly trying to re-create the magic of his “Elephant Love Medley” from Moulin Rouge. But what worked so well in the absinthe-soaked world of Moulin Rouge came off as a little choppy and disjointed in this format. I wanted to be blown away, but every time I started to fall in love with the performance, they’d start singing something else. Still, the number worked -- mostly due to Jackman’s stage presence and ability to hold his own next to a mega-star like Beyonce.

The rest of the night, Jackman mostly stayed out of the way. In an interesting change, most of the awards were given out in the order of how a film is pieced together (starting with the writing awards and taking us all the way through to editing). This format gave the Oscars something they have often sorely lacked -- a narrative focus. As we progressed through the art of filmmaking, Jackman served only as an eloquent emcee. This was what made him a successful host. He entertained when he needed to but seemed to keep in mind that the Oscars are about celebrating the movies, not about himself (something Colbert or Gervais may have had a harder time getting through their heads). I’d be okay with Jackman returning as host next year, just as long as someone gives him the musical material he deserves.

Our Grade: B+