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Why the Academy Picked Franco and Hathaway to Host the Oscars — and Why It’s No Easy Job

Next year's Oscar hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were picked because they're everything that this year's likely to be nominated movies aren't: Young, well-known, and glamorous. The ceremony's ratings are usually dependent on the box office of the nominees — 2010's viewership hit a five-year high, thanks to Avatar — but this year, warns a former Oscar telecast producer, "is going to be especially dominated by art movies. The King’s Speech, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, The Social Network — that sort of stuff. Outside of Inception, the biggest star in that bunch is Annette Bening. The [Academy’s board of] governors are going to love it, but ABC must be going insane.” And so, instead of going for the usual comedian, the producers sought out two movie stars: But can two actors carry a four-hour show that is dependent on witty, spontaneous moments to break up the never-ending, hyperearnest acceptance speeches?

The show's producers, Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer, thought that hiring two young stars might lure the young audiences in a way that Biutiful likely won't. Insiders tell Vulture that Hathaway was definitely their first choice to co-host; whether Franco was also a first choice isn’t clear, though he is understood to have a very close, personal friendship with Cohen, who produced Milk, in which Franco starred as Sean Penn's lover. “It’s an adventurous choice, a fun choice,” says Oscar veteran Gil Cates, who has produced the ceremony fourteen times. “But that is certainly not the same as saying they’ll definitely do a great job: The proof will be in the pudding, of course.” But the rep for a recent Oscar host is more frank: “If she was my client, I’d tell her not to do it.”

First of all, even a low-rated Oscars comes with intense scrutiny and critiquing. “It requires a lot of guts to host the show,” says Cates. “It’s not only that your peers are watching, but your family — even the guy who parks your car. If you make a bad movie, no one sees it. Here, you do a bad show? Everyone sees it. That cuts the potential of hosts by 90 percent.” And because of the nervous nominees sitting in the front, it needs someone used to working a tough room. “It’s a thankless job,” says the rep of the hosting veteran. “The problem is that crowd. I was sitting in the eighth row and I watched as the jokes were killing behind me, but those first seven rows are filled with people who are not in the mood to be laughing: they’re scared shitless. And that’s all you can really see from the stage."

When you think of the most memorable hosting moments from the past, it's usually the funny, off-the-cuff quips: Billy Crystal jabbing at Jack Palance's push-ups, Chris Rock's acidic throwaways, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin's repartee. And while Hathaway and Franco have proved adept at written comedy on Saturday Night Live, that's far different from reacting in real time. “They’re not comedians who are fast on their feet. They’re both very smart, but that’s not what the job is: You’re commenting on what happened just before. That’s a little bit of the scary part."

Certainly, no one takes the job to get rich: Hosts are usually paid "scale" — or the Screen Actors Guild minimum payment — so if it's an honor just to be nominated, it's truly just an honor to host.

Comedians have been the norm because some producers believe unpredictability is the best antidote to the innate predictability of envelope-opening and tearful gushing. Last year, producers Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman originally wanted Sacha Baron Cohen to host. “There was a feeling of ‘What the hell is going to happen tonight?’ that we liked," Shankman tells Vulture. Unfortunately, the Academy's board of governors, which has veto power over the host, exerted that right, terrified over letting the man behind Bruno and Borat loose during a live broadcast. (Second and third on Shankman and Mechanic's 2010 host list were Robert Downey Jr., himself a former SNL cast member, and Ben Stiller, a former SNL writer and featured performer; both declined. When producers finally settled on Martin and Baldwin, they chose two men who actually share the record for "most-frequent SNL host" at fifteen times each.)

But insiders say that they’ve been assured the telecast will play to the co-hosts talents as actors, not improvisers. “They’ll cater to their strengths,” said one insider deeply involved in the selection of Hathaway, “This year’s telecast isn’t just about ‘getting to the youth’ — its whole theme is going to reflect on this history of movies through the perspective of a young person experiencing the movies for the first time.”

Let's hope so: Considering this year's potential nominees, this may be the first time young people may be experiencing these movies.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images