My first reaction upon hearing the news that James Franco and Anne Hathaway are going to host the upcoming 83rd annual Academy Awards:


My second, more measured reacion: Okay, I can see how this could work.
At first glance, hiring Franco and Hathaway looks like a radical move, but then, this is a telecast whose ever-dwindling ratings suggest it's in need of a radical move. For one thing, Hathaway and Franco aren't comics; though both have been very funny in various movies and TV shows, they're both generally thought of as serious actors. Indeed, one or both of them may be nominated for lead acting awards the night they host, as Oscar buzz has surrounded Franco's performance in '127 Hours' and Hathaway's in 'Love and Other Drugs.'

James FrancoAnd that's surely part of the point of hiring them. The big issue for the Oscar show over the last decade has been drumming up a rooting interest for viewers. After years of nominations for noble but little-seen movies that didn't command enough of a following to draw big audiences, the Academy has taken steps in recent years to make the show more populist. Such moves included expanding the Best Picture field from five to 10 nominees last year, a move that critics felt diluted the quality of the nominees' pool. Still, there was a rooting interest last year for 'Avatar' (which probably would have gotten nominated anyway even in a field of five). And then, after all that, the Academy ended up giving the Best Picture prize to the worthy but obscure 'The Hurt Locker.' So making the awards more populist by changing their nature can only go so far. This year, there are no big 'Avatar'-like movies among the likely nominees, so it may not matter who's hosting; maybe no one can make this show the draw that it used to be.

TV Squad: Why James Franco and Anne Hathaway Could Be Great Oscar Hosts

Still, the Academy may be trying to create a rooting interest, not by changing the rules, but by inventing possible drama in the hosting situation. What happens, for instance, if one of the new hosts gets nominated and the other doesn't? (Which is pretty likely, especially since critical support for Franco's movie is a lot stronger than support for Hathaway's.) What happens if they both get nominated but only one of them wins? How awkward will that be? How will it play out during the show? And even if neither of them gets nominated, or if they both win, and none of this is an issue, what kind of chemistry will they have together?

Here, I imagine the Academy thinking like the casting directors of a romantic comedy. Franco and Hathaway have never appeared in a movie together, but what if they did? Wouldn't you go see it?

Anne HathawayAnd that brings us to the other obvious reason for the hiring: they're young and attractive. (She's 28, he's 32.) The Academy notes the pair's youthful appeal in its own press release announcing the gig, quoting Oscar show producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer as saying, "James Franco and Anne Hathaway personify the next generation of Hollywood icons - fresh, exciting and multi-talented. We hope to create an Oscar broadcast that will both showcase their incredible talents and entertain the world on February 27." Clearly, the Academy and ABC want to draw younger viewers, and they've decided that hiring old fogeys like this past year's hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, won't do the trick.

The Martin/Baldwin pairing did strike up some funny chemistry, and it must also have suggested to producers that two hosts are better than one. For about 20 years, Oscar audiences have gotten used to a single host, but back in the '70s and '80s, it was not uncommon for an Oscar telecast to have two, three, even four hosts. In 1977, hosting duties were shared among Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda and Richard Pryor. In 1986, In 1986, the hosts were Fonda, Alan Alda and Robin Williams. In 1987, the emcees were Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan.

You'll notice that not all of these people are professional comics, though all have done comedy and have proved capable of making people laugh. So it is with Franco and Hathaway. Both can be funny if called upon to do so. (Hathaway certainly was during her supposedly impromptu duet two years ago with Oscar emcee Hugh Jackman. Who was also called upon to be an entertainer first, a genial host second, and a comic third.) Franco was a presenter during that same Hugh Jackman show, so he's no stranger to the Oscar podium. So maybe funny isn't necessary. Jon Stewart and Chris Rock are comics' comics, but they weren't Hollywood insiders who played well in a room full of such folk. Maybe it's better to hire performers who are well-liked within the filmmaking community than comics who theoretically play well to the TV audience but whose desperate and futile attempts to connect to the audience in the Kodak Theater creates discomfort that's visible to home viewers.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway at the 2009 Oscars

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway peforms at the Opening of The
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Both Franco and Hathaway are polished young pros with an unpredictable streak that could make for something electric happening on the Oscar stage. Both certainly bring more credibility to the job than other, hotter young performers might have. (Goodness knows, they could have gone with Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson.) And both will look smashing on the red carpet and on the stage together, especially if one or both of them leaves holding a trophy.

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

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