The Academy Awards have been absolutely flummoxed about what to do regarding hosting duties in recent years. From 2019 to 2021, there was no official host, and as ratings continue to decline for traditionally broadcast award shows, the job of hosting the Oscars is looking less and less promising with each passing year.
It’s not like the ceremony has no history of experimenting when it comes to hosts. The 1969, 1970, and 1971 ceremonies had no host, with the latter show being presented by 17 famous “friends of Oscar”. Back in 1958, Daffy Duck was technically one of six hosts, along with legends like James Stewart and Jack Lemmon. We all remember the disastrous pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway back in 2011, but the Academy loves to pair random famous people together: the 1986 ceremony featured Alan Alda and Jane Fonda paired with Robin Williams, who had enough manic energy that he should have been doing the hosting on his own.
But more often than not, the Academy loves to repeat the formula when it works. Bob Hope is the most famous example, having hosted or co-hosted the Oscars an astounding 19 times, ten more than anybody else. Johnny Carson got the job four years in a row from 1979 to 1982, while stalwarts like Jack Lemmon and Whoopi Goldberg have been tapped four times. But if there’s a modern actor with a noted reputation for hosting the Oscars, it would be comedian Billy Crystal.
From 1990 to 2012, Crystal hosted the Academy Award Ceremony nine times, including four years in a row from 1990 to 1993. He was brought back for the 1997 and 1998 ceremonies, and after returning for the 2000 and 2004 ceremonies, Crystal made his most recent, and likely final, appearance as host in 2012.
The most likely reason for Crystal’s lack of a return is that the Academy is looking for a younger and more diverse demographic going forward. 2022 is set to feature Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes as hosts, and it makes sense for the Academy to try and breathe some fresh air into the established broadcast. But there was also a specific incident that occurred during Crystal’s final time hosting the Oscars that might have gotten him permanently sidelines as host.
That was during a pre-recorded sketch with Justin Bieber during the show’s opening, where Crystal was hopping in and out of Best Picture parodies. For Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Crystal met Bieber, ostensibly to help raise the younger age demographic of the show. At the sketch’s conclusion, Crystal appears again, this time in blackface as legendary Rat Pack crooner Sammy Davis, Jr.
Crystal had impersonated Davis before, both during his brief stint on Saturday Night Live and his 1986 HBO stand-up special Don’t Get Me Started. That was during a time when blackface was still controversial, although it had less of an immediate reaction. In 2012, thanks to social media, Crystal’s imitation of Davis struck many as confusing at best and offensive at worst.
Crystal was defended after the ceremony by Davis’ daughter Tracey, who claimed that Davis had signed off on the impression back when he was still alive. “Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing,” Tracey Davis told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “I am 100 per cent certain that my father is smiling.” Still, the backlash from the public was strong enough to renew an ongoing conversation regarding blackface in popular culture, something that undoubtedly caused the Academy to think twice about their close association with Crystal.
For his part, Crystal doesn’t seem to believe, or directly acknowledge, that his take on Sammy Davis, Jr. might have cost him future hosting opportunities. “I had nine wonderful experiences for me, some better than the others,” Crystal told IndieWire in 2021. “But most of them were really wonderful experiences, to host a show and be funny and keep the audience awake, both at home and in the audience.”
However, Crystal did seem to allude to the social media backlash as a major factor. “It’s a tough gig, because when I first started, there were three critics — that, if you cared about critics, there were three that you paid attention to — which was Tom Shales in The Washington Post, Janet Maslin in The New York Times, and Howard Rosenberg in The LA Times. They were all top notch. Now there’s two billion critics, and they press ‘send’ right away. It’s a whole different scrutiny on the job, which makes a lot of people not want to do it. I wish them luck.”
Whether his blackface performance was to blame or it’s simply a sign of changing times, it seems unlikely that the 74-year-old Crystal will be asked to host the Academy Awards again. Still, Crystal remains second behind Hope in terms of most hosting gigs with nine, which is a number that is unlikely to be threatened any time soon.