The Hunt for Oscar’s Host: Hugh Jackman’s Out, Who’s In?

Justin Timberlake? Robert Downey Jr.? The guessing games have begun over who’ll host the next Academy Awards

It’s that time of year again:

Time to speculate about who’ll host the next Oscar show.

Hugh JackmanThe show’s producers, Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer, have been in place for more than three months now, and we’re now past the time when the last Oscar hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, were announced.

According to Deadline, Cohen and Mischer offered the gig to the well-received 2009 host, Hugh Jackman (left), who declined; I’ve been told by someone on the production side that Justin Timberlake’s name was in the mix early on as well.

So who will they get?

These thoughts were inspired by musings at In Contention, where Guy Lodge puts in a vote for Steve Martin (his favorite past host, and mine) hosting not with Baldwin, but with Tina Fey, and by reader suggestions there and at Awards Daily  and The Envelope and Hollywood Elsewhere.

It makes sense, to begin with, that Cohen and Mischer would approach Jackman, who reportedly declined an offer to return from last year’s producers, Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic, as well. The Jackman-hosted Oscars received a significantly more positive reaction within the Academy and ABC than the Martin/Baldwin show, though that likely has more to do with the shows’ overall production than their hosts.

But Jackman represented something of a new attitude – a move away from the normal choice of a standup comic who acts, into a movie star who can entertain. Although it wasn’t completely followed through the following year, the move felt right; the standup-comic route seems a little played out, while, you know, movie stars are forever.

But there aren’t many movie stars with the charm and charisma to pull it off – and the ones who might be able to do it, including George Clooney and Will Smith and Tom Hanks, have shown reluctance in the past to take a gig that offers the opportunity to fail on an epic scale, and a near guarantee that some people aren’t going to like what you do.

Kevin Spacey and Julia RobertsThey could go younger with Ewan McGregor, or younger than that with Ben Affleck, or way younger with the Broadway-bound Daniel Radcliffe. But none of them quite feel right.

Kevin Spacey (right, with Julia Roberts) certainly has the skill set, and Bruce Cohen was the producer on Spacey’s Oscar-winning turn in “American Beauty.” But the actor lives in London, and has been spending most of his time running the Old Vic theater in London.

Robert Downey Jr. could no doubt tackle it, and might bring in a slightly younger audience than Spacey. Neil Patrick Harris always gets votes when a host gig is up for grabs, but he has very little film cachet and his choice would seem as if the Oscars were taking leftovers from the Emmys, Grammys and Tonys.

Actors known for comedy might be an easier fit, but humor can be divisive for a show that’s reaching from a broad global audience. (Hence the very mainstream likes of Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and, in the past, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson; more pointed comics like David Letterman and Chris Rock have often as not turned off too many viewers and Academy members.)

We know that last year the Academy nixed the idea of Sacha Baron Cohen. Would they be up for three hours of (sporadic) appearances from Will Ferrell? Jack Black? Ben Stiller? (Stiller has been very funny in his appearances as presenter; he’s also been a serious control freak, which might give the producers pause.)

Tina Fey has been topnotch in her Oscar appearances with Martin and Downey, and she has some film cachet because she wrote “Mean Girls.” But she really is more of a television star than a movie star – which, to be sure, is not always a significant distinction for Oscar producers.

Justin TimberlakeSteve Carell has been hotter in the past than he is now; Zach Galifianikis is just too rumpled. Ricky Gervais is taken by the Golden Globes. Conan O’Brien has all the buzz, but he’s really a TV guy. So are those Comedy Central guys, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Betty White is cute but overplayed, and the White/Sandra Bullock tandem that many people have suggested seems like a one-joke booking.

I don’t know where that leaves Cohen and Mischer, and I’m not sure if they’re still thinking about Timberlake, who has a film presence with “The Social Network” this year (above) and a relationship with at least one of the show’s writers. (No Bruce Vilanch this year.)

Amidst all this fuss, though, I do like a comment made on Hollywood-Elsewhere, where a reader who goes by “Eloi Wrath” had this to say:

“Oscar hosts are one of those things you spend ages thinking about, and then when it finally comes down to it you forget about it pretty soon. It's like couples fretting about wedding invitations. They spend forever debating what kind to pick, and then when they send them out, most people aren't interested in the stationery; they just want to know the date.”

So maybe this is the important information: the 83rd Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011.