Friday, February 13, 2009
Bob Hope: Oscar's Gold Standard
I won't be watching the Oscars this year, but if you do, please wish host Hugh Jackman luck. He has some big shoes to fill. But that’s not fair to Jackman, or any other Academy Awards host, because Bob Hope (1903-2003) is the Gold Standard of Oscar hosts. “Ski Nose” helmed the awards eighteen times:
1939, 1940, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1952, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1964, 1956, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, and 1977.
The funny thing is, when I went down the list of notable Academy Awards emcees (Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal) I laughed to myself that I was even comparing these accomplished performers to He That Was Hope. I was embarrassed for having even thought of putting someone else up against him!
One of Hope’s main gags was bemoaning his failure to be nominated, but he was entirely too modest and self deprecating to show off his countless humanitarian awards, which included Lifetime Achievement Oscars in 1941, 1945, 1953, and 1966. You can add the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, too. Growing up I never knew this, because young me fell for his schtick hook, line, and sinker.
But Hope was more than an awards-collecting machine, he was a comic master. It’s become fashionable to bash Hope for his latter-career NBC specials, when he merely read off the cue cards, but anyone putting him down for those last few years doesn’t know the extent of his power during his prime. Hope had impeccable comic timing, with his great ability to do double takes, skewer the topics of the day (something that gives me, a history buff, insight into those times) and be a most generous performer, letting his leading lady make a fool out of him to get the laughs (his Nov 13, 1943 Command Performance radio sketch about the steak with Lana Turner is a classic). Smart man, that Bob Hope. Having seen (and heard) a lot of Hope in action, he was definitely a man in command, with the charisma, presence, and quick wit to get a show moving. And during his heyday, he was great for an improvisational line and that often got the bigger laugh. The quintessential emcee. Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of Hope’s first crack at the hosting duties; I hope they give him a warm tribute. Then I'll be watching.