Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Just Baldwin, please

Welcome to the second in my series of Oscar-related posts, leading up to Sunday's telecast.

This is how I think a typical conversation probably played out between two people, regarding who's hosting this year's Oscars:

"Did you hear? Alec Baldwin is hosting the Oscars!"


"But so is Steve Martin."


Perhaps it's time for Steve Martin to get a TV show, because people I know are certainly not all that excited for the Steve Martin half of that equation. Having a TV show has worked wonders for Alec Baldwin, taking a reasonably popular film actor and turning him into the loveable cultural icon we know today. In fact, a TV show has even revived the dead-in-the-water (for nearly 20 years now) career of Martin's longtime compadre, Chevy Chase, turning him into someone possibly viable again.

Because viability is definitely what Steve Martin needs right now.

Like you, I was a big fan of Steve Martin back in the Man With Two Brains days, back in the Parenthood days (speaking of NBC TV shows), back in the Bowfinger days. But 21st century Steve Martin has left me wanting. 21st century Steve Martin is the Steve Martin who has been involved in two soulless franchises containing two movies apiece (Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther, though I should be fair and say I haven't seen any of those four movies). 21st century Steve Martin is the Steve Martin who has struck out when he's gone for a tone other than comedy (Novocaine, Shopgirl). 21st century Steve Martin is the Steve Martin whose other film after the year 2000 -- besides the six mentioned and the two mentioned in the next sentence -- is another brainless comedy (Bringing Down the House). The only two 21st century Steve Martin performances that are even worthy of hope are his supporting turn in Baby Mama, in which he was definitely the funniest part of a bad movie, and It's Complicated, which I have not seen but which looks kind of funny.

And this is who we want hosting our Oscars?

Don't get me wrong, I see the logic. Martin has not only done it before -- twice -- but he also probably appeals to middle America the way Jay Leno appeals to middle America. That's certainly not how Martin would see himself, but he's downright conservative compared to that hippie Alec Baldwin on that socialist, elitist 30 Rock program. Plus, Baldwin's a first-time Oscar host. The theory is probably that he needs someone to anchor him. Never mind that the two are undoubtedly friends, as both appeared in It's Complicated, and Martin had also guested on 30 Rock -- where he was quite funny, lending credence to the idea that he might benefit from a regular stint on the small screen.

But there's something else we're probably not considering. Baldwin probably needs him, not just because he's never hosted the show, but because his humor is necessarily interactive. When you look at funny people who have hosted the Oscars over the years -- Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Letterman, Martin himself -- they predominantly have a history in stand-up comedy. Which means they are accustomed to living (or dying) on stage all by themselves, without assistance from anyone else -- as much as they might sometimes need it.

Baldwin is different. Baldwin had always been a dramatic actor, who was always very funny when he hosted Saturday Night Live. (Though, to be fair, one of his first film roles was a comedic one in Beetlejuice). In fact, I can't think of another actor who so radically changed his/her career trajectory because he/she was so good on SNL. But that's Baldwin. He's never done a day of stand-up comedy in his life, and it shows in the kind of comedy he does now.

Quite simply, Baldwin needs someone to play off of. Does anyone think he'd be nearly as effective as he is on 30 Rock if he didn't have such terrific chemistry with Tina Fey? In fact, his chemistry with her is so good, almost all of his scenes are with Liz Lemon, with a little Kenneth or Tracy thrown in every once in awhile. I'd go further and venture to say that all his great SNL performances were a perfect synergy of his skills and the skills of whichever SNL cast members were featured prominently in those skits. Same probably goes for him and Meryl Streep in It's Complicated.

It's unclear how many scenes he shares with Martin in It's Complicated, since I haven't seen it, but let's hope they too have a great synergy that we'll see on Sunday night. I'll be grateful as hell for the Steve Martin half of that duo if he coaxes a classic performance out of Alec Baldwin.

And maybe, just maybe, that'll help me start to feel fondly about Martin again, too.

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