Draft Billy? Draft Kermit? Oscars have job opening

LOS ANGELES (AP) - November 10, 2011

A return to the Oscar stage by Billy Crystal would be a true Hollywood ending after this week's debacle that started with Brett Ratner's resignation Tuesday as producer of the show over a gay slur, followed by his pal Eddie Murphy's departure Wednesday as host.

The most popular host of the Oscars in recent years, Crystal could be a real white knight if he returned to run the show for the first time since 2004.

"There'd be cheers across Hollywood for Billy's return," said Tom O'Neil, editor of the awards Web site GoldDerby.com. "That could be the happy ending for this story."

Murphy's replacement is the talk of the town, with people in Hollywood speculating whether other past hosts such as Steve Martin or Jon Stewart might return or whether a first-timer such as Tina Fey or Neil Patrick Harris could get the job.

There are even pages on Twitter and Facebook pushing Kermit the Frog and his Muppets pals as Oscar hosts, a truly clever notion that could be just the sort of rainbow connection to bring some fresh magic to Hollywood's big night.

With the Feb. 26 Oscars still more than three months off, organizers have plenty of time to replace Murphy, so there's not likely to be much fallout for the show itself. Just hours after announcing Murphy's exit, organizers signed up Brian Grazer, the Oscar-winning producer of "A Beautiful Mind," to fill the producing slot vacated by Ratner.

Grazer's a class-act choice compared to Ratner, who is best known for directing the "Rush Hour" flicks and drew the scorn of comic-book fans for "X-Men: The Last Stand," widely considered a feeble finale to that superhero franchise trilogy.

It's now up to Grazer and Don Mischer, who is co-producing and directing the Oscar show for the second-straight year, to find a replacement for Murphy.

Ratner departed the show because of the uproar over a pejorative term for gay men he uttered during a question-and-answer session at a screening of his new comedy, "Tower Heist." Coincidentally, Grazer is a producer on the movie.

Murphy, who stars with Ben Stiller in "Tower Heist," was picked by Ratner for the Oscar gig, a choice that puzzled and intrigued awards watchers who wondered if he would be up to the challenge as host of one of the most widely watched TV events of the year.

The once cutting-edge star of "Beverly Hills Cop" has lapsed into bland or outright dreadful family comedies in recent years, and unlike the beloved Crystal, he's not exactly known around town as a people person.

Murphy already had a shaky history with the Oscars, where he was the front runner the one time he earned a nomination, as supporting actor for 2007's "Dreamgirls." He showed bad sportsmanship that night, notoriously leaving the Oscars early after losing to Alan Arkin for "Little Miss Sunshine."

There also were homophobic overtones from Murphy's early career, when crude gay jokes were part of his standup routine.

"I'm afraid of gay people. Petrified. I have nightmares about gay people," Murphy joked in his 1983 comedy special "Delirious."

Finding the right talent willing to take on the often thankless job of playing master of ceremonies at Hollywood's biggest party is arguably the toughest task for Oscar overseers. They want a host who's edgy but not offensive, irreverent yet lovable. Someone who's liked by the stodgy Hollywood establishment but has prospects of bringing hip younger audiences to the broadcast. A star who can mock and embrace in the same breath.

Who knows if Murphy could have pulled that off? But academy overseers have been willing to try new things to renew interest in the Oscars, whose TV ratings have been on a general decline the last couple of decades.

It paid off three years ago, when "X-Men" star Hugh Jackman made good use of his song-and-dance skills as Oscar host. It backfired last season when Anne Hathaway was teamed with leaden co-host James Franco.

If he's interested in returning to host for a ninth time, Crystal seems like an obvious go-to guy, though at 63, he's no longer the sort of fresh face likely to lure younger viewers.

Sasha Stone, editor of AwardsDaily.com, suggested Oscar organizers aim for fresh blood with people such as Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert or even a pairing of "Bridesmaids" co-stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, who reunited recently on "Saturday Night Live."

"When I saw them together on `SNL,' I thought they were like Hope and Crosby," Stone said. "They had such great charisma and knew each other so well. I would love to see them on the Oscars. They could definitely have the ability to draw the higher ratings."

No matter who is chosen, though, the host likely will draw the ire of at least some Oscar viewers.

"It's a lose-lose situation for them. No matter what they do, people are going to complain," Stone said. "It's a show everyone loves to watch and everyone loves to hate."

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