Whoopi Goldberg on What It Takes to Make a Great Oscars Host
Art and Experience:
The 1991 best supporting actress Oscar winner has also hosted the Academy Awards four times, making history as the first (and still only) Black woman to emcee the broadcast solo in 1994 and hosting again in 1996, 1999 and 2002.
“I had a great time,” Goldberg tells Variety of her experiences hosting the show. “The critics didn’t love me, but I never cared much what the critics thought as long as people had a good time.”
So, what is the key to successfully managing the gig?
“Whoever the host is has to love the movies, because they have to keep you engaged,” Goldberg explains. “They have to be talking to you as the show has a break, and talk about what’s happening or what’s coming next. And the best person at that was Billy [Crystal].”
Crystal has hosted the event nine times, including the 1991 broadcast, thus witnessing his friend and “Comic Relief ” partner’s win in person. “It was like two of my brothers were there — Billy and my brother Clyde.” Goldberg says. “It would’ve been brilliant if Robin [Williams] had been in the audience. Then the three most important men in my life would have been there. But he was watching.”
The trio of Goldberg, Crystal and Williams hosted eight “Comic Relief” telecasts from 1986 to 1998 (plus a 2006 event for Hurricane Katrina relief), helping the organization raise more than $80 million to support America’s poor and homeless populations.
“Billy is one of those people who you know loves cinema. He loves the movies,” she explains. “When he would talk about what was happening, or he had some comment about a film, you knew he knew what he was talking about. And that’s what you want. Because there’s nothing worse than a three-hour deadly show. You don’t mind if it’s three hours, if you laughed a lot.”
When the Oscar winner took on hosting duties for the first time in 1994, she received some advice from Crystal ahead of the broadcast.
“He said, ‘Listen, there’s only three things you have to remember: ‘It’s not your show, it’s their show,” Goldberg recalls. “Second thing: They will love you for five minutes and then they want to know, ‘Did I win?’ So, keep it moving.’”
The final piece of advice, she notes: “‘Keep your eyes open because there’s all kinds of stuff going on.’ And that’s what I did.”
In her opening monologue for the 1994 show, Goldberg took the stage in a garnet Giorgio Armani gown, flaunting the train and quipping, “Things are a little different, the host is wearing a dress and that is a first.”
“I want to put a rumor to rest, I did not get this gig because I’m Sidney Poitier’s daughter. There’s been a lot of speculation,” Goldberg joked. “I got it because I seem to cross so many ethnic and political lines. I’m an equal opportunity offender.”
The host then launched into a rapid-fire list of causes she supported and a few time-sensitive points. “Save the whales, save the spotted owl, gay rights, men’s rights, women’s rights, human rights, feed the homeless, more gun control, free the Chinese dissidents, peace in Bosnia, health care reform, choose choice, ACT UP, more AIDS research, let Frank Sinatra finish, Lorena Bobbitt please meet Bob Dole, and somebody stop these damn earthquakes,” Goldberg said breathlessly.
That type of quick and quippy monologue was a trademark of Goldberg’s hosting style. The entertainer credits longtime Oscars writer Bruce Vilanch for their punch. “He’d say ‘What’s on your mind?’ and I’d say ‘Blah, blah, blah…’ and he made me a monologue,” she recalls. “It was brilliant and still is brilliant.”
Plus, as a woman hosting the big show, Goldberg says she had more freedom to do things differently than the male hosts who came before her, adding wardrobe, costume and jewelry changes throughout the show. Goldberg wore a reported $41 million worth of Harry Winston diamonds to host the show in 1999.
Some of Goldberg’s favorite moments include descending from the ceiling clad in showgirl attire a la “Moulin Rouge” in 2002 and her Elizabethan entrance in 1999, paying homage to best picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” and nominee “Elizabeth.” For the latter costume, the entertainer walked onstage in full regalia, including the powdered white makeup that the ruler wore to cover scars from contracting smallpox in 1562. The move proved to be controversial.
“Reading the next day how I was wearing white face in order to counter people talking about me and Blackface, it was like, ‘Did you not see the movie?’” Goldberg says, adding that she quickly realized it was better to let these things go.
When it came to courting controversy overall, Goldberg and Susan Futterman, who was in charge of the broadcast’s five second delay, quickly landed on the same page.
“She got used to me,” Goldberg explains. “And was able to get the humor and understood that if I saw something and connected something, I’d try not to be too bad. But something could come out of my mouth, so she was always ready.”
Goldberg was ultimately nominated for an Emmy award for hosting the 66th Academy Awards in 1994. She was nominated again in the outstanding performance in a variety or music program for hosting the 69th edition in 1996. That year, the entertainer earned two appearances in the category, also earning a nod for hosting that year’s “Comic Relief” special with Crystal and Williams.
Though it’s been 19 years since Goldberg last hosted the broadcast, she’d be up for the challenge again.
“I would. Because I love it,” she says. “You have to be part babysitter and part psychiatrist and psychologist when you’re up there, because you want to put people at ease.”
“They’re all nervous [wondering,] ‘Did I win? Oh my god, what am I going to do if I won? Oh, how’s my face? I hope my face is okay,’” she explains. “You want to say, ‘You’re fine. It’s okay to look disappointed. You just can’t give anybody a middle finger’”