LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Oscar ceremony has much to prove Sunday, including whether a blockbuster-free field can draw a TV audience and if Billy Crystal’s host routine remains a crowd-pleaser.
Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, the show’s producers, are laughing off the challenges: “Comedy is the direction we’re going in this year,” said Mischer.
The actor also is bringing back two of his trademark Oscar bits: A film sequence in which he appears via CGI in clips from the nine best-picture contenders, and a musical number that pays tribute to the ceremony and nominees.
“It’s everything everybody is going to want to see from Billy Crystal,” Grazer said. “Billy was born for this job. He loves being the host and he does it with complete zest and enthusiasm. He makes it fun for everybody.”
Crystal has help. Presenting team Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have a “great gag,” Grazer promised, with more light moments planned courtesy of co-presenters Tina Fey and Bradley Cooper and, in a group effort, the cast of “Bridesmaids.”
There’s a chance for controversy in a presidential election year and, with Sacha Baron Cohen invited, for mock political friction. Rumor has it Cohen will come dressed as the character from “The Dictator,” his upcoming movie about a faux country’s despot.
Although there were hints of motion picture academy uneasiness about the possible stunt, “we’re thrilled to have him,” Grazer said.
Among the high-wattage presenters for the 84th Academy Awards at the Hollywood & Highland Center (formerly the Kodak Theatre) are Halle Berry, Tom Cruise, Natalie Portman, Michael Douglas, Penelope Cruz and Angelina Jolie. They’ll be framed by a stage set evoking a classic movie theater and the evening’s theme: the enduring nature of the moviegoing experience.
Nominees in the lead acting categories include Viola Davis for “The Help,” Meryl Streep for “The Iron Lady,” George Clooney for “The Descendants” and Jean Dujardin for “The Artist.”
But the night’s starring role goes to Crystal, 63, who acknowledged in a Oscar.com video that “there’s so much expected” of his return. He should have the audience’s goodwill in his ninth Oscar gig since, in the best Hollywood tradition, he came to the rescue after Eddie Murphy dropped out as host.
Murphy’s exit followed that of ceremony producer Brett Ratner, who had drawn fire for using a pejorative word for gay men at a screening of “Tower Heist,” directed by Ratner and starring Murphy. Oscar-winning movie producer Grazer (“A Beautiful Mind”) jumped in to work with awards veteran Mischer.
Last year’s co-hosts aren’t a hard act for Crystal to follow. Anne Hathaway and James Franco were picked to appeal to younger viewers but while Hathaway was game, an inert Franco proved ill-suited for the task.
The nominees represent a different challenge for the show. Favorites include “The Artist,” a daring black-and-white silent film; “Hugo,” an unusual Martin Scorsese work that trades grittiness for charm; and the family drama “The Descendants” with Clooney as a cuckold.
None has soared at the box office. Among the best-picture nominees, only “The Help,” based on the best-selling book about 1950s race relations in the South, hit $100 million in ticket sales and counting (it’s at more than $170 million.)