During her first hosting gig, she was spotted canoodling with her significant other backstage
Billy Crystal was obsessively focused. Steve Martin was relaxed. Chris Rock was manic and hysterically off-color, except when the cameras were on. Whoopi Goldberg was relentlessly focused on tweaking the ABC censor. Jon Stewart was bemused, and perhaps a bit intimidated, by the whole circus.
But in 15 years of watching Oscar hosts from backstage, Ellen DeGeneres was the first one I ever saw canoodling with a significant other backstage while the show was taking place.
DeGeneres' selection to host the Oscars for the second time brought back memories of her first turn in the job, which came when the late Laura Ziskin hired DeGeneres to host the show in 2007.
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Judging by her rehearsals and her behavior during that show, DeGeneres brought to the Oscars the same thing she brings to her talk show: a feeling of comfort, a sense that she's just hanging out and acting goofy and having fun.
And she also cultivates a sense not that she's there to skewer the celebs, but to gawk at them; she may have her own show, but she loves to play starstruck.
In fact, the first thing she did when she took the Kodak Theatre stage for her first rehearsal was look into the audience and spot the seat card marking where a particularly glamorous presenter would be sitting. "Can we ask Penelope Cruz to move?" she joked. "She'll make me too nervous sitting right there."
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DeGeneres is not an edgy host, and she's not a polarizing choice like Rock or like last year's emcee, Seth MacFarlane. She's comfortable, unthreatening enough to be a happy trailblazer, not a confrontational one.
After all, this is the person who came out of the closet with a cheery "Yep, I'm Gay" on the cover of Time magazine in 1997. The "yep" was quintessential Ellen.
So was her stint as host in 2007. Where most hosts retreat to their dressing rooms when they're not onstage, or huddle with their writing staff in a small, guarded enclosure in the wings of the stage, Ellen just kind of hung out. She chatted with crew members and with Clint Eastwood and Al Gore. She spent a good deal of time unselfconsciously holding hands, hugging and kissing her then-girlfriend (now wife) Portia de Rossi, in what was certainly the first backstage public display of affection I'd ever seen from an Oscar host.
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She also headed into the wings after her opening number with a gospel choir so that medics could attend to her left hand, which she'd whacked so hard with a tambourine that she needed a cold pack and some aspirin.
And then there was a moment toward the end of the show that it'd be hard to imagine coming from almost any other Oscar host. DeGeneres had planned a comedy bit (a pretty funny one, as I recall) with Don LaFontaine, the voiceover king who was serving as the voice of the Oscar show that year. It was to take place at the end of one of the acts, just after the presentation of an honorary award to composer Ennio Morricone.
Ellen had come into the wings to prepare for the bit, and from her position next to LaFontaine she watched the 78-year-old-composer give a heartfelt, moving thank-you speech for the Oscar recognition that had eluded him despite decades of classic music and five previous nominations.
Watching Morricone speak, Ellen turned to stage manager Garry Hood. "Can we just go to commercial after this?" she said.
"Why?" he said, confused.
"I don't think we should do the bit," she said. "Can you just explain it to them [in the control truck]? It would come across as too silly."
She paused, as Hood relayed the info to Ziskin and director Louis J. Horvitz. Then she added, "I don't want to kill someone else's emotional moment."
And maybe that's Ellen DeGeneres, Oscar host, in a nutshell: somebody who'll kill her own comedy bit to avoid upstaging a winner's emotional speech.
In other words, the Academy has just booked itself a very strange Oscar host.