In Memory of Robin Williams #4: Good Will Hunting (dir by Gus Van Sant)


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After being nominated three times, Robin Williams finally won an Oscar for his performance as Dr. Sean McGuire in 1997’s Good Will Hunting.  The first time I ever watched Good Will Hunting, I was 16 years old and I loved it.  12 years later, I rewatched it for this review and, oddly enough, I did not love it.  In fact, I barely even liked it.  However, one thing that I did better appreciate the second time around was the performance of Robin Williams.

Good Will Hunting was, of course, written by its two stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.  It tells the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a self-taught math genius who, as a result of being abused as a child, is full of anger and refuses to allow anyone to get close to him.  His only true friend is Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), a construction worker.  Will works as a janitor at MIT and, when he’s caught secretly solving a complex math problem, he’s taken under the wing of Prof. Gerard Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard).  While Will pursues a volatile romance with a med student named Skylar (Minnie Driver, who is good in an underwritten role), Lambeau arranges for Will to become a patient of psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams).  The recently widowed Sean helps Will to come to terms with his abusive childhood and deal with his anger issues.  When Skylar tells Will that she’s moving to California, Will is forced to decide whether to follow her or to just push her away like he does with everyone else.

I can still remember that the first time I ever saw Good Will Hunting, I had such a crush on Will Hunting.  After all, he looked like Matt Damon.  He was smart but he could still stand up for himself.  He was a jerk but that was just because he needed the right girl in his life.  When he finally talked about being abused by his foster father, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to be there for him while he cried.  When he drove off to see Skylar in that beat-up car of his, I thought it was such a romantic moment.  Like, seriously — Oh.  My.  God.

That was the first time I saw the movie.

However, when I recently rewatched the film for this review, I had a totally different reaction to Will Hunting.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I’ve had to do deal with real-life versions of the character but this time, I actually found myself very much not charmed by Will Hunting and his condescending verbosity.  Whereas originally it seemed like he pushed the away the world as a defensive mechanism, it now seemed like Will was basically just a sociopath.  People in both the audience and the movie assumed that, because he was so smart, there had to be something more to Will than just bitter negativity but actually, there was less.  And even Will’s intelligence seemed to be more the result of the fact that director Gus Van Sant and screenwriters Damon and Affleck were kind enough to surround Will with less-than-articulate characters to humiliate.  It’s easy to be the smartest person in the room when you’re surrounded by strawmen.  I got the feeling that we were supposed to impressed because Will cites Howard Zinn at one point but, really, Howard Zinn is pretty much the historian of choice for phony intellectuals everywhere.

(In the interest of fairness, I guess I should admit that I may be biased because I once dated a phony intellectual who was always citing Howard Zinn, despite having not read anything that Zinn had ever written.  Don’t get me wrong.  He owned a copy of A People’s History of the United States and he always made sure it was sitting somewhere where visitors could see it but he had never actually opened it.  I imagine he has since moved on to Thomas Piketty.)

Instead, I found myself reacting far more positively to the character of Chuckie Sullivan.  Chuckie may not have been a genius but at least he was capable of holding down a job, actually cared about his friends, and was capable of communicating with people without trying to destroy their self-esteem.  If I had been Skylar, I would have dumped Will and spent my last few months in Boston enjoying the working class pleasures of Chuckie Sullivan.

But here’s the thing — the main reason that we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is good inside of Will Hunting is because Sean Maguire tells us that there is.  As I rewatched Good Will Hunting, I was surprised by just how good Robin Williams’s performance really was.  The compassionate psychologist has become such a stock character that there’s something truly enjoyable about watching an actor manage to find nuance and individuality in the familiar role.   Sean is such a kind and likable character (and Robin Williams gives such an empathetic performance) that we’re willing to give Will the benefit of the doubt as long as he is.  In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams once again had the beard that gave him gravitas in Awakenings.  But he also had the saddest eyes.  It’s the eyes that you remember as you watch the film because it’s those eyes that tell us that Sean has had to overcome the type of pain that Will Hunting will never be capable of understanding.

It’s those eyes, more than anything, that convince us that there might be some good in Will Hunting.

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In Memory of Robin Williams #3: Awakenings (dir by Penny Marshall)


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The 1990 Best Picture nominee Awakenings is exactly the type of film that seems to have been designed to make me cry.

Taking place in 1969 and based (very loosely, I assume) on a true story, Awakenings features Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer.  Dr. Sayer is a dedicated and caring physician but he also suffers from an almost crippling shyness.  He’s at his most comfortable when he’s dealing with a group of patients who have spent the last 40 years in a catatonic state, suffering from a tragic disease known as encephalitis lethargica.  (One thing that I learned from watching this film was that, from 1917 to 1928, there was an epidemic of this disease, with millions either dying or being left catatonic.)  While the rest of the medical establishment (led by John Heard, who always seems to be the embodiment of the establishment in films made in the 90s) assumes that the patients are destined to spend the rest of their lives in a vegetative state, Dr. Sayer is convinced that the patients can be awakened.  He soon discovers that, even in their catatonic state, the patients will react to certain stimulii.  One woman can catch a baseball.  Another appears to react well to music.  And finally, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) — who fell ill with this disease when he was a child — tries to communicate with a Ouija board.

Over the objections of his supervisors, Dr. Sayer treats the patients with an experimental drug.  Leonard is the first one to get the drug and is also the first one to wake up.  While the rest of the patients wake up, Dr. Sayer tries to help Leonard adjust to the 1960s.  At first, everything seems to be going perfectly.  Leonard even manages to strike up a sweet romance with a woman named Paula (Penelope Ann Miller).  However, it soon becomes obvious that the awakening is only going to be a temporary one as Leonard and all the other patients start to descend back into their catatonic states…

It’s easy to criticize a film like Awakenings for being manipulative and sentimental.  And the fact of the matter is that the film is manipulative and it is sentimental and undoubtedly, it probably is a massive simplification of the true story.  (The character played by John Heard is such an obvious villain that he might as well have a mustache to twirl.)  And yes, you know even before it happens that there’s eventually going to be a montage of an amazed Leonard staring at a girl in a miniskirt while Time of the Season plays on the soundtrack.

But, no matter!  It’s a tremendously effective film and it earned the tears that I shed while watching it.  Both De Niro and Williams give excellent performances which add a good deal of depth to scenes that could otherwise come across as being overly sappy.  De Niro has the more showy role but it really but it’s the performance of Robin Williams that really carries the film.  As played by Williams, Dr. Sayer is a fragile soul who hides from the world behind his beard and his professional determination.  When he finally asks a nurse (Julie Kavner) out to dinner, it’s impossible not to cheer for him.

It’s also impossible not to cheer a little for Awakenings.

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In Memory of Robin Williams #2: Cadillac Man (dir by Roger Donaldson)


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Cadillac Man is a film that I had never heard of until I came across it while skimming what was available OnDemand last week.  It was a film that I only watched because it starred Robin Williams.  I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about including it in a tribute to Robin Williams because Cadillac Man was definitely one of his lesser films.  However, while Cadillac Man may not be a very good movie, it does feature a very good performance from Robin Williams.

Released in 1990, Cadillac Man tells the story of Joey O’Brien (Robin Williams), who is the type of car salesman who has no problem approaching a widow at a funeral and telling her that now is the time to consider buying a new car.  Joey’s a good salesman but he’s also deep in debt.  He not only owes alimony to his ex-wife (Pamela Reed) but he also supporst two mistresses, a married one (a hilarious Fran Drescher) and a single one (Lori Petty).   He’s also owes money to the local mafia don and, as the film begins, he’s been told that he has to sell 12 cars in two days or else he’ll lose his job.

On top of all that, Joey also has to deal with Larry (Tim Robbins),  an insane jerk with a motorcycle and an assault rifle who takes the entire car dealership hostage because he’s convinced that his wife (Annabella Sciorra) is cheating on him.  Larry spends most of the movie firing his rifle up in the air and screaming at the top of his lungs (and yet, it’s also clear that the audience is supposed to like him).  As the cops surround the car dealership, Joey attempts to keep Larry under control while also trying to get back together with his ex-wife…

After I watched Cadillac Man, I looked up the rest of director Roger Donaldson’s credits.  What I discovered was that Donaldson has directed a lot of movies (including guilty pleasure Cocktail and the upcoming The November Man) but only one of them has been a comedy.  The majority of his films are dramas like Thirteen Days and action films like November Man.  In short, Roger Donaldson is not a comedy director.   And when directors who aren’t experienced with comedy attempt to make a comedy, they almost always resort to having all of the actors shout their lines and run around like characters in a live-action cartoon.  That is certainly the approach that Donaldson took in Cadillac Man and the end result was a film that far too often tried to substitute chaos for genuine comedy.

(As just an example of Donaldson’s lack of comedic touch, Annabella Sciorra went through almost the entire film with a bloody cut on her forehead.  Even if her lines or her character had been funny, I would have never known it because I was spending too much time worrying about what the eventual scar would look like.)

And yet, here’s the thing.  As bad as Cadillac Man turned out to be, Robin Williams was actually pretty good in it.  Joey isn’t exactly a likable character but you root for him because of who is playing him.  What’s interesting is that the role, even though it was definitely comedic, didn’t lend itself to the manic intensity that was the trademark of much of Williams’s comedy.  Instead, the humor comes from the way that, while everyone else in his life is essentially going crazy, Joey O’Brien struggles to maintain his facade of calm and confidence.  Williams portrays Joey as being the ultimate salesman and when Joey has to try to convince Larry to release his hostages, he approaches it almost as if he’s trying to sell Larry a car and it’s impossible not to admire Joey’s determination to close the sale without anyone else getting shot.  As played by Tim Robbins, Larry is thoroughly unhinged.  In fact, it’s probably one of the worst performances of Tim Robbins’ career but it’s obvious that he and Williams enjoyed playing off of each other.  Whenever Robbins’ performance goes over-the-top, Williams’ performance brings things back down to Earth and provides whatever pleasure one can hope to get from a film like this.

And that’s why, despite the fact that Cadillac Man is not a particularly good film, it’s an appropriate tribute to the talent of Robin Williams.  It’s one thing to give a good performance in a good film.  However, it takes true talent to give a great performance in a total misfire.

And that’s exactly what Robin Williams did in Cadillac Man.

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In Memory of Robin Williams #1: Dead Poets Society (Dir by Peter Weir)


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Last Monday, after I first heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I struggled to find the right words to express what I was feeling.  Finally, I ended up posting this on Facebook:

I keep trying to write something about Robin Williams but the words aren’t coming to me. It’s all too big and strange and sudden and I can’t find the words to sum up my feelings. I feel like a part of my childhood died today. So, instead of trying to be more eloquent or wise than I actually am, I’m just going to say R.I.P., Robin WIlliams.

Finally, a little over a week later, I still don’t know what to say.  How do you sum up a life in just a few words?  I don’t think that they can be done for anyone.  It certainly can’t be done for as iconic a figure as Robin Williams.  So, instead of trying to do the impossible, I’ve spent the last few days watching and reviewing a few of Robin Williams’ films.

And, of course, one of those films had to be the 1989 best picture nominee Dead Poets Society.

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Now, a quick warning.  The review below is going to contain spoilers.  I’m going to talk about some very important plot points.  But surely you’ve seen Dead Poets Society already.  And even if you haven’t seen it, surely you’ve heard what the film is about and surely, you know what happens.  After all, who doesn’t?  But if you are one of those people who does not know or who has not seen the film — well, why haven’t you?

The first time I ever saw Dead Poets Society was in a high school creative writing class.  Our teacher — who, it quickly became apparently, considered herself to be the real-life version of the teacher played by Robin Williams — showed it to us, over the course of three class periods, as an introduction to writing poetry.  I enjoyed the film but the rest of the class absolutely loved it.  Especially the guys.  For the rest of the class year, I would listen to those guy as they bragged about how they were seizing the day.  I remember one day, the classroom was empty except for me and one of the boys.  I can’t remember what led to him doing it (and it could very well have been my suggestion that he try) but he eventually ended up standing on top of a desk just like the students at the end of the film.  Unfortunately, public high school desks aren’t quite as sturdy as private school desks and my friend soon ended up crashing to the floor as the desk slipped out from underneath him.

Ah, memories.

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Yes, Dead Poets Society is one of those films.  It’s a film that everyone seems to have seen, loved, and found to be inspirational.  And I have to admit that I’ve grown to appreciate it more over the years since I first saw it back in creative writing class.  With each subsequent viewing, I find myself less critical of the film’s melodramatic and predictable moments and more willing to accept the film for what it is — a celebration of life, poetry, and teaching.  Dead Poets Society, from the very moment that Robin Williams makes his first appearance sitting at the end of a line of stodgy old men and flashing an unapologetically impish smile, is a film that defies easy cynicism.  It’s a film that embraces you and you have to be very hard-hearted not to embrace it back.

Dead Poets Society, of course, tells the story of a private school in the 1950s and what happens when a new teacher (Robin Williams, naturally) encourages his students to celebrate creativity, to “seize the day” as the saying goes.  Not surprisingly, just about every other adult thinks that the students would be better off not seizing the day but instead preparing for a life of WASPy conformity.  This leads to a few of Mr. Keating’s students forming a secret society where they can read poetry, talk about their feelings, and basically do their best to honor the memory of Walt Whitman.

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There are seven members of the Dead Poets Society:

There’s Gerard Pitts, who doesn’t really make much of an impression.  The main thing that I always notice about Gerard Pitts is that he looks like a young version of Sam Waterston.  This made sense when I checked the end credits and I discovered that he was played by James Waterston, son of Sam.

Stephen Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) is another one who doesn’t actually get to do much (beyond boast about the fact that he has a genius I.Q. and create a makeshift radio) but, with his cute glasses, unruly hair, and friendly manner, it’s impossible not to like him.

Of the three main villains in Dead Poets Society, none of them are quite as loathsome as Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman).  The stern headmaster (played by Norman Lloyd) and the judgmental father (played by Kurtwood Smith) at least have the excuse of being old and set-in-their-boring-ways.  Cameron, however, starts out as a member of the Dead Poets Society but still has absolutely no problem betraying them.  As opposed to the adults in the movie, Cameron is someone who still had a chance to be something more than a worm. That being said, Dylan Kussman makes Cameron into a memorable worm.

Then there’s Knox Overstreet (played by Josh Charles, who appears to have only aged a year or two in between this movie and the first season of The Good Wife).  We know that Knox is rich because his name is Knox Overstreet.  Knox has a crush on a girl who goes to the local high school.  Knox’s subplot doesn’t really amount to much but it’s impossible not to like him because Josh Charles was (and is) simply adorable.

Charlie Dalton (played, quite well, by Gale Hansen) is the one who most enthusiastically embraces the idea of seizing the day.  He’s the one who pretends to get a tattoo, who demands to be known by a new name, who attempts to protest the school’s out-dated traditions, and who ultimately is punished with expulsion after he physically attacks Cameron.  (And, as sorry as I was to see Charlie leave the movie, Cameron totally deserved it.)  For a few months in 2008, Gale Hansen was a very active participant on the IMDB message boards, answering questions, giving advice, and generally just being a very gracious guy.  However, he suddenly stopped posting and, just as mysteriously, all of his previous posts were subsequently deleted.  Hansen, himself, hasn’t acted since 1998 and that’s a shame because he really did do a good job as the enthusiastic, idealistic, and not-quite-as-worldly-as-he-thinks Charlie Dalton.

Neil Perry (played by Robert Sean Leonard) is the one who, inspired to seize the day, appears in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, as a result, earns the wrath of his overbearing father.  Seen now, in the shadow of Robin Williams’ tragic death, the scene where Neil commits suicide takes on a terrible poignance and it no longer feels as melodramatic as it did the first time that I saw it.  Whereas, originally, it seemed hard to believe that a character played by the energetic and charismatic Leonard would end up committing suicide over a play, we now know that energy and charisma do not necessarily equal happiness.

And finally, there’s Todd Anderson (played by a very young Ethan Hawke), who is pathologically shy and who, at the end of the film, finally finds the strength to climb up on his desk.  After years of seeing in him in various Richard Linklater films, it’s strange to see the usually verbose Hawke playing such an introverted character.  But he does a good job, turning Todd into the film’s moral center.

Robin Williams In DPS

And then there’s their teacher, John Keating who, quite frankly, might as well be named Robin Williams.  That’s not to say that Williams doesn’t give a good performance as Keating.  Indeed, Williams is the glue that holds the film’s ensemble together and his performance so dominates the entire film that, every time that I’ve seen it, I’ve always been surprised to discover just how little screen time he actually has in Dead Poets Society.  As embodied by Robin Williams, John Keating becomes the type of teacher that everyone wishes they could have had just once.  The power of his performance comes from the fact that he not only inspires the viewers to “seize the day” but he actually makes you believe that the day is worth holding on to.  Without Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society would be easy to dismiss as just being a film about a bunch of privileged teenagers reading poetry and pretending to be rebels.  With Williams, however, the film becomes a celebration of life.

Robin Williams, R.I.P.

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Scenes I Love: Dead Poets Society (dir. by Peter Weir) R.I.P. Robin Williams


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With each passing year I get older and part of that process means many of the people I grew up admiring and looking to for inspiration has passed. They’ve all left an indelible mark on me and continue to push and prod me in making my own mark on the world before my own time comes to pass.

So, it was with a sad heart when I found out that Robin Williams passed away today. As to the manner of his passing I won’t dwell on it, but instead on how he has made an impact on my life and on the world. He might have just been a comedian and an actor known to have entertained several generations of people, but he would always be John Keating to me, first and foremost.

I was already a fan of Williams from watching his hit show Mork & Mindy. I’ve even been a fan of his films, but I truly began to admire the man after his performance as English teach John Keating in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. He was able to take his rapid-fire gift for gab but meld it with such a poignant and emotional performance as a teacher in a tradition-bound prep school who really cared about the kids in his charge.

I would say that his performance and this film was instrumental in opening up the world of literature and the joys of the written word to my teenage self. This film and his work in it showed me that literature shouldn’t be something to be endured, but instead something that should nurture and inspire me.

To say that Robin Williams has been an inspiration to me would be an understatement.

Rest in peace, my captain and you’ve certainly left your verse on this world.

Film Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler (dir by Lee Daniels)


Dare I admit it?

When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I was not impressed.

Yes, the audience applauded as the end credits rolled.  And yes, I know that almost all of the mainstream critics have given it a good review.  I know that Sasha Stone has been hyping it as a surefire Oscar contender.  I know that, up until 12 Years A Slave introduced us all to an actress named Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey was considered to be the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But it doesn’t matter.  The Butler did little for me.

I also realize that the film ended with a title card that announced that what I had just watched was dedicated to the American civil rights movement.  In many ways, that title card felt like emotional blackmail, implying that if you criticized The Butler than that meant you were also criticizing the brave, real life men and women who risked their lives to fight for equal rights.

However, when you put emotions and good intentions to the side, the fact of the matter is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not that good of a movie.  One need only compare The Butler to some of the other films that were released this year that dealt with the African-American experience — films like 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station — to see just how safe and uninspiring The Butler truly is.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the son sharecroppers (played by David Banner and Mariah Carey) in the deep south.  After Cecil’s father is murdered by plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), Cecil is raised and educated by the wealthy Annabeth Westdall (Vanessa Redgrave).  Eventually, the teenaged Cecil leaves the plantation and ends up working in a hotel where he’s educated in how to be a master servant by the elderly Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who brings a quiet dignity to his role).  Cecil eventually gets promoted to a hotel in Washington, D.C.  It’s there that he meets and marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).

In 1957, Cecil is hired to work at the White House.  Along with befriending two others butlers (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), Cecil also gets the chance to observe history play out first hand.  Starting with Dwight Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) and ending with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, giving a performance that is incredibly bad), Cecil watches as President after President deals with the civil rights movement.  Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) are portrayed as being heroes while others, like Richard Nixon (John Cusack), are portrayed as being villains but all of them have the watchful eye of Cecil Gaines in common.

Meanwhile, at home, Gloria has a brief affair with Howard (played by Terrence Howard and really, you have to wonder what Cecil was thinking leaving his wife alone with anyone played by Terrence Howard) and Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved with the civil rights movement and grow increasingly estranged from his father.

The Butler actually starts out pretty well.  There’s a lengthy sequence where Louis and a group of students are trained on how to conduct a sit-in that’s extremely compelling to watch.  However, then John Cusack shows up wearing a big fake nose and the entire film starts to fall apart.

From a cinematic point of view, the film fails because it ultimately seems to be more dedicated to trotting out a parade of celebrity cameos to actually telling a compelling story.  As is his usual style, Lee Daniels directs with a heavy hand and, as a result, the film is full of emotionally-charged scenes that fail to resonate for longer than a handful of minutes.

My main issue with The Butler is that the film literally contains no surprises.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens and, at no point, is the audience actually challenged to consider the way they view history or race relations.  Whereas films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave truly challenge our assumptions, The Butler encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for being so enlightened.  Every single frame of The Butler is specifically designed to fool us into thinking that we’re watching an important and challenging movie.

Because of a silly copyright lawsuit, the official title of The Butler is Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  However, that title is very appropriate because The Butler is definitely a Lee Daniels film.  Even if you didn’t know it beforehand, it would be easy to guess that the  same man who directed Precious and The Paperboy also directed The Butler.  As a director, Daniels specializes in making simplistic points in the most bombastic way possible.  The results are films, like The Butler, that are more concerned with manipulating an audience than challenging an audience.  When audiences applaud at the end of The Butler, they aren’t so much applauding the film as much as they are applauding themselves for having seen it.

Poll: Who Would Be The Perfect Oscar Host?


While I was off celebrating my birthday yesterday and my fellow editors were putting together Lisa Day here on the Shattered Lens (and I have to say — thank you and I love you all!), some really silly and stupid things were going on as far as next year’s Oscar ceremony is concerned.  Basically, to recap, notoriously bad director Brett Ratner was hired to produce the upcoming Oscar telecast because — well, I’m not sure why.  I mean, doesn’t Brett Ratner kinda represent everything about the film industry that the Academy usually tried to pretend doesn’t exist?  Anyway, Ratner convinced Eddie Murphy to host the show.  Ratner then apparently commented that “rehearsing is for fags.”  Naturally, this led to a lot of people getting upset, even though none of them were apparently upset by all the sexist and homophobic comments Ratner made before he was hired to produce the ceremony. Ratner then stepped down as producer, which was expected.  What wasn’t expected was that Eddie Murphy would follow by stepping down as host.

So, now, Brian Grazer (who is probably about as Hollywood establishment as you can get) is producing the show and looking for a new host.  Now, there’s been some speculation that the job might go to Billy Crystal or maybe even Robin Williams (and all I can say to that is “Please God — no!”).  Myself, I’m hoping that they surprise us by going with someone totally unexpected — like maybe Joel McHale or the nosy kittens waiting to be fedOr maybe even me!

So, with all that in mind, who do you think would make the perfect Oscar host?  Vote once, vote often.