The last time Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars, he had hair.

In just a couple of weeks, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will announce this year’s Oscar nominees. But one choice has already generated quite a bit of buzz. Shortly after Eddie Murphy bowed out (in response to producer and friend Brett Ratner’s resignation after an unfortunate homophobic slur), the Academy approached veteran host and all-around mensch Billy Crystal.

Proving that he’s a digital hipster, Crystal promptly tweeted “Am doing The Oscars so the young woman in the pharmacy will stop asking my name when I pick up my prescriptions.”

It’s this type of self-deprecating humor that has endeared the comedian to audiences for nearly four decades. Indeed, since the news broke that he will return to the Oscars, his age has received a lot of attention. At 63, Crystal will be the second oldest Oscars host (Steve Martin, who co-hosted with Alec Baldwin two years ago, was 64 at the time). For Hollywood (which, as an industry, worships at the temple of youth) this is very old indeed. For the rest of us? Not so much.

Casting the host is always tricky, and the Academy seems to get it wrong more often than right. It’s a tough job. The show is invariably longer than it needs to be and the host has to keep the audience engaged until the bitter end. It’s a high-profile gig, and inane musical numbers or jokes that fall flat haunt the hosts for years to come. (Just ask Rob Lowe (not technically a host) about his dancing duet with Snow White. And David Letterman was never quite the same after his “Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Uma” schtick.) Comedians — especially those who have succeeded as stand-up acts and know how to think on their feet — seem to fare better than other entertainers.

And if that’s the case, a short-list for host is not going to include many women. There are simply not many superstar female comics—probably because aspiring superstar female comics aren’t afforded the same opportunities as their male peers. The prejudice starts before the Oscar host discussion.

Historically, only two women have ever served as solo host for the ceremony: Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg. The list of female co-hosts is longer: Goldie Hawn, Rosalind Russell, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli, Thelma Ritter, Claudette Colbert, Carol Burnett, Ellen Burstyn, Diana Ross, Helen Hayes, and Celeste Holm.

And certainly, Hollywood taps into its pool of stunning young actresses as presenters each year. But there seems to be consensus that a woman would not be funny enough, entertaining enough, or powerful enough to do it alone.

But there are viable female candidates. During the brief days between Murphy’s abdication and Crystal’s appointment, Time suggested “10 People We Want to Host the Oscars.” Three of their suggestions were women: Tina Fey, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Poehler. ABC published a similar host wish-list that included Oprah Winfrey, and two all-female teams: Tina Fey with Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig with Melissa McCarthy.

Various entertainment bloggers suggested Jane Lynch and the entire cast of Bridesmaids. After all, according to countless critics, that hit movie proved that “women are funny too.” Misogynistic observations aside, I think the Academy Awards deserve a bit more decorum and a bit less bathroom humor.

Last year, the Academy chose an appealing co-ed team, in an apparent effort to woo a younger audience. By any estimation it was less than a success—a ho-hum non-event or an outright disaster, depending on your point of view. Anne Hathaway was game, a true professional trudging through lame jokes and unnecessary evening gown changes. Meanwhile, James Franco was missing in action most of the evening, either literally or chemically. Unfortunately, the ill-advised pairing may have set back the potential of female hosts. When women are considered, it is all too common to point to a failed attempt. “Look, we tried it. It didn’t work.” (Last year’s cameo by Crystal and Bob Hope was a favorite of WVFC’s live blog.).

With this year’s replacement, the Academy has been criticized for taking the safe route, almost copping out by choosing a tried-and-true host. I disagree. After a misstep (Ratner’s, Murphy’s or both), the Oscars needs a sure thing. Crystal is probably as close to that as the show is going to get. This will be his ninth time, but the first in almost a decade. Nevertheless, many viewers still think of him as their favorite.

When the announcement was made, The Hollywood Reporter quickly conducted a poll and found that “A Crystal Oscars restores class and credibility to the show, but his appeal is significantly older, female and conservative.” They reported that only viewers over 45 and only women over 30 supported Crystal more than Murphy.

The way these findings were communicated struck me as odd. Women are 51% of the population (as this year’s excellent documentary—and, hopefully, Academy Award nominee—Miss Representation points out multiple times). Women also purchase more movie tickets than men. Why then are women being positioned as a niche audience? “Only women over 30″? That’s a pretty significant “only”!

Why do grownup women prefer Crystal? That’s easy. I think it goes back to an event that happened in the ’80s. We all fondly remember the time when a guy named Harry met Sally.

Next: A few Oscar predictions.



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