This weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony will celebrate a cast of film characters that challenged America’s notions of sexuality, global politics and race, from gay cowboys to a disillusioned CIA agent and a rogue cop.
But arguably none of those roles was as daunting as the one that Jon Stewart will attempt at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday night, when he takes up his assignment as host of the 78th Oscars. In so doing, the comedian will be presiding over a cultural event with all the complexity of a wedding, and similar potential for disaster.
The film industry’s pre-eminent showcase features numerous rituals that must be observed, however dated or corny, a ceremony that is too long by half, and an audience that ranges from the very young to the very old, all with their own ideas on what qualifies as entertainment.
“He has a very difficult task,” said Ron Simon, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio. “More interesting than who wins best picture is probably how Jon Stewart performs.”
In pre-Oscar interviews, Mr Stewart, anchor of the mock television news programme The Daily Show, has been equal parts gracious and class clown. “For a comedian, it feels like the ultimate stage,” he told the Associated Press, showing respect for an honour granted to the likes of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. Then, unable to resist, he noted the laughs to be mined from Munich, the Steven Spielberg film about Israel’s reprisals against Palestinian terrorists.
For the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Mr Stewart’s selection was a serious matter. As the Winter Olympics recently demonstrated, cultural institutions that were once assured a mass audience have been eroded by a proliferation of cable networks, the internet and other entertainment options.
Last year the Oscars television ratings fell 5 per cent to 41.5m viewers. There are fears those numbers will sink even further after a year in which box office attendance fell 7 per cent, raising concerns that Hollywood had lost its grip on a young generation seduced by video games.
To make matters worse, the Best Picture nominees do not include a single Titanic-style crowd-pleaser but smaller, more challenging stories, such as Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Crash. “It really does have a crusty feel,” Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said of the Oscars. “Bringing in Jon Stewart is one way to juice it up.”
Mr Stewart became a full-fledged star six years ago with The Daily Show’s “Indecision 2000” coverage of that year’s presidential race. The show made its mark by parodying not only politicians but also the absurdity of the broader American electoral process.
Mr Stewart’s popularity – particularly with younger viewers – has forced network executives to look to The Daily Show for cues on how to refresh their news broadcasts. One sign of that impact was when Mr Stewart appeared on Crossfire, CNN’s left-right shout-fest, and berated host Tucker Carlson for undermining thoughtful political discourse.
After Mr Carlson attempted to establish some journalistic equivalence with The Daily Show, Mr Stewart memorably deflated him with the retort: “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.” A few months later Jonathan Klein, the new CNN head, axed Crossfire as one of his first changes at the network.
Given Mr Stewart’s political bent, some Hollywood executives were puzzled by his selection. “They’re always trying to keep people from making politically charged statements, and yet they hire a guy who makes a living out of it,” said one.
In a broader sense, there is the question of whether Mr Stewart’s ironic humour, honed on cable television, will play to a wider network audience. Last year’s host, Chris Rock, was recruited to extend the Oscar’s brand to young and minority viewers. Yet his performance offended the old guard, and he was not invited back. David Letterman, the late-night television host, was a memorable dud a decade ago, before his humour had become mainstream.
As the film industry prepares to step on to its biggest stage, they are hoping that in Mr Stewart they have found the perfect leading man. “This is not just an awards show,” Mr Simon said. “This is the way that Hollywood positions itself not just for the home audience but for the entire world.” Break a leg, Jon.
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