HOLLYWOOD — The last time the Academy Awards aired without a host, 30 years ago, the result was such an infamous debacle — Rob Lowe and an actor playing Snow White sang an off-key rendition of “Proud Mary” — that over a dozen Hollywood A-listers signed an open letter slamming the ceremony as “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.”
The consensus on Sunday night’s host-free Oscar telecast was rather different.
“I thought it was really good,” Best Supporting Actor nominee Richard E. Grant told BuzzFeed News at the Governors Ball after the Oscars. “I was very surprised by that.”
“I thought it worked great!” said Phil Lord, one of the winners for Best Animated Feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. “The mood in our section was like, ‘This is fun!’ It seemed like a very well-produced night. … I didn’t do that thing where you crack open the program and try to keep from being bored.”
“I didn’t miss the host terribly, to be honest,” said Diane Warren, a nominee for Best Original Song. “It was a really good show.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not choose to forgo a host for this year’s Oscars, of course. Comedian Kevin Hart famously stepped down from emceeing the telecast in December, just three days after announcing that he’d landed the gig, amid growing criticism of Hart’s anti-gay tweets and stand-up routines from 2010 and 2011 — which Hart made worse with his initial defensive and unapologetic reaction to that criticism.
In January, two-time Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres had Hart on her daytime talk show to convince him to reconsider taking the job, claiming the Academy wanted him back. That also backfired; Hart closed the door completely on hosting, and the Academy officially admitted a month later that it hadn’t been able to line up anyone to replace him.
Instead of an opening monologue, the 91st Oscars launched with a performance from Queen and Adam Lambert to commemorate Queen biopic and Best Picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody. They were followed by a brisk comedy routine from Saturday Night Live alums Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler before the women presented the award for Best Supporting Actress.
“Opening up with a big rock and roll Queen anthem was a very smart thing to do,” said Grant.
“I thought those girls at the very beginning were good,” said Warren, a 10-time Oscar nominee who has never won. “I thought [the show] was great until ‘and the winner is…’ in my category, but I kind of expected that. I’m just kidding.”
Warren noted that she was especially relieved there were no comedy stunts that have populated Oscar telecasts of late.
“I didn’t miss the kind of pulling somebody from across the street into the theater [gags]. I didn’t like that,” Warren said. “I always thought it was making fun of those people or something, like, Look at those people, the ‘regular folk.’”
Rather than rely on a host to deploy a series of gags, the telecast’s producer, Donna Gigliotti, and director and coproducer, Glenn Weiss, allowed some of the awards presenters to dream up their own comedy bits, like when Best Costume Design presenters Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry appeared onstage decked out in garments evoking all five of the category’s nominees.
“You know, Melissa, anything she wants, she gets,” Henry told BuzzFeed News with a chuckle. “We came up with this idea, and the costume and hair and makeup departments were all game. They threw that all together in, like, 24 hours. We just wanted to go up there and just make people laugh and have a good time. Also, we wanted to give homage to every single [nominee], because all their work was incredible.”
Henry also noted that without a host, the evening felt that much more centered on the underlying purpose of the Academy Awards, for industry professionals to celebrate the year’s best filmmaking. “Which is how it should be — the artists that create [the films] should celebrate each other,” he said. “It was just an out of body experience to be able to give the Oscar to [Black Panther costume designer] Ruth Carter. I was very, very proud.”
Carter, too, told BuzzFeed News that the telecast “went really smoothly” without a host, in part because the job is inherently redundant. “The host comes out and introduces the people who are going to introduce the next category,” she said. “I think they filled the gap nicely.”
Saving time was of particular importance to this year’s Oscars producers, given the new mandate from the Academy and its broadcast TV partner ABC that the show come in at three hours. The show didn’t quite meet that goal this year, in part because attempts to shorten it — like announcing four categories during commercial breaks — were met with widespread criticism and ultimately reversed.
But Weiss told BuzzFeed News that the telecast did “gain some time” without a host, and he was happy to learn so many believed the telecast still worked. He was careful, however, to avoid suggesting that the Oscars should always operate without a host moving forward.
“This particular year worked out really well in this situation,” he said. “But they do bring a nice element to the show as well. … I’m absolutely looking forward to working again with hosts on other shows, and maybe this show in the future.”
Another major reason awards shows have traditionally had hosts is the belief that an emcee gives people a reason to tune in even if they’re not terribly familiar with the majority of nominees.
“It will be interesting to see how the ratings are,” said Warren at the Governors Ball on Sunday night. “Because that will really be the deciding factor.”
The ratings on Monday did indeed provide good news for the Academy — and the prospect of a host-free Oscars moving forward.
Nielsen reported on Monday morning that this year's Oscars brought in 29.6 million total viewers, up 3.1 million viewers from last year's all-time low of 26.5 million viewers when Jimmy Kimmel hosted the show. The show was also up 13% in the key demographic of adults 18-49, with a 7.7 rating.
Yes, that isn't better than the ratings for Oscar's telecast from just two years ago, which Kimmel also hosted. That show had 32.9 million viewers, with a 9.1 rating among adults 18-49. Ratings are down across all broadcast networks, however, and that includes awards shows — so this year, at least, not having a host actually managed to buck the trend.
Not having a host also means not having to find one, especially given the conventional wisdom that hosting the Oscars is a thankless, high-risk proposition. (Just ask Anne Hathaway.) Still, it remains the most high-profile single-night gig in show business. Even with the potential career hazards for the host and the evident success of the show without a host, the long-standing tradition of having someone stand stage center as the Oscars’ master of ceremonies could prove too powerful to leave behind.
The Academy would, at least, have one potential candidate for the job.
“I thought the show was phenomenal,” said Shangela, the famed drag queen who appeared in A Star Is Born and gave a standout song-and-dance performance at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday. “But if they decide to go back to a host, then I am available. They can call me!”
This story was updated with the ratings for the 91st Academy Awards.