Portrait of the Artist as a Young Oscars Host

Benjamin Strong


Hollywood has a problem and its name is James Franco. I’m not talking about Franco the Renaissance Man. You know the one, that overexposed celebrity who pretends—under the disingenuous guise of “performance art”—to be a fiction writer, a soap opera actor, a graduate student pursuing multiple MFAs and Ph.Ds, and an avant-garde something or other, all at once. No, I’m talking about Franco the leading man. Last night, as a co-host, along with Anne Hathaway, of the 83rd Academy Awards, Franco proved once and for all that while he may be many things to many people, one thing he is not is a genuine article Movie Star.

Interviewed before last night’s ceremony by a Vanity Fair editor, Franco explained that he had been able to prepare for this hosting gig only on weekends, since his weekdays are typically spent attending classes. Whether or not this was actually true was beside the point. (Though it’s worth noting that he and the rather overexcited, “woo-woo!”ing Hathaway didn’t have enough chemistry between them to fill a test tube). As he would continue to do later—and as he has done in every film I’ve seen him in—Franco was affecting his usual air of insouciance and mild disdain. Call it performance art, call it acting: he seems to want us to believe that he is constitutionally incapable of sincerity.

Or is it that he’s incapable of performing sincerity? I don’t have the answer. These kinds of questions are the province of an art school student, not a screen legend. And in any case, whenever Franco announced the name of the next presenter on Sunday evening, he did so with the cool, ironic enthusiasm of a burnout in the back row answering a query from a math teacher who has just rousted him from the pleasant depths of a little fourth-period shut eye. Yo, Mr. H! and such.

Look, this is no clamor for the return of David Letterman or, god forbid, Billy Crystal. The sight of the latter on stage last night gave me more heebie-jeebies than the ghostly projection of Bob Hope that accompanied him. (Was the animatronic Orville Redenbacher already booked?) But as shticks go, Franco’s is neither original nor funny, and last night it was, in entertainment terms, the worst thing possible—downright boring. If Franco had appeared as a host only, perhaps his lack of star quality wouldn’t have been so glaring. He’s certainly easier on the eyes than Crystal. But he was also there as a nominee in the Best Actor category, where he managed to lose to that British drip, Colin Firth.

Worse than that, on a night when the Academy was pandering to younger views with lots of hepcat cracks about text messages and apps, Franco was there, front and center, reminding us by his very presence that—with the possible exceptions of Cate Blanchett and Mark Wahlberg—there wasn’t a single person in the room under 50 possessing the gravitas of a 95-year-old stroke victim who, when saddled with some lame scripted banter about his lecherous designs on Hathaway, ad libbed as only a pro can. Who knows where all the real movies stars went last night? Personally, I like to imagine they were all vacationing at Lake Como, watching the telecast in Clooney’s living room. But you cannot substitute the magnetism of a Robert DeNiro or a Meryl Streep or, hell, a Woody Harrelson, with the likes of Justin Timberlake. What I’m saying is, Hollywood’s kids are far from alright.

Sure, Natalie Portman was quite effective in Black Swan. But her win for Best Actress was the result of perfect casting. She’ll never again have a role as suited to her prissy screen persona as Black Swan’s prima ballerina, and it should have been her, not Firth, recognizing out loud last night that her career had just peaked. There are a number of fine actors under 30 in Hollywood right now, and I would include Hathaway and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg in that bunch, as well as Greta Gerwig, the Greenberg actress who should rightly have been given the trophy that went to Melissa Leo but who was not even nominated. Still, not a one of these actors have that elusive quality that the older, more established actors conspicuously missing from the broadcast have in common with the Dietrichs and the Bogies who preceded them. Even Corey Haim—cruelly overlooked during this year’s in memoriam montage—contained more multitudes than most of the twenty and thirtysomethings filling the seats of the Kodak Theater. It’s not for nothing that when Jennifer Lawrence, an ingenue nominated for her performance in Winter’s Bone, arrived at the theater, I couldn’t figure out whether I was looking at Amanda Bynes or Hayden Panettiere.

I apologize for failing to devote more space here to the random moments of inanity and hilarity that make every Oscars worth watching, no matter how boring last year’s broadcast always was. But what is there to say about Best Actress nominee Michelle Williams’ bizarre, possibly drug-induced, semi-Australian accent on the red carpet; about President Barack Obama’s choice of “As Time Goes By” as his favorite movie song of all time (I would have guessed he was a “Theme from A Summer Place” man); or about the singing of Gwyneth Paltrow, “country music’s newest star” according to Jennifer Hudson, whom I guess ought to know. Instead, I keep coming back to a potty joke made by one of the co-hosts late in the evening and having to do with the admittedly lewd title of How to Train Your Dragon. "I like that you’re the arbiter of good taste on this show, James," Hathaway replied. Speak for yourself, sweetheart.


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