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Oscarcast: Rappin' with the stars

Jon Stewart, host of the 78th Annual Academy Awards, gestures during rehearsals at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES -- Sunday night's Oscarcast may be the first in recent history where the presenters and performers outdraw the nominees. This year's field of films and actors is of an unusually high standard, which translates to a smaller audience, given the general rule that the better something is on TV, the fewer people watch it. Consider that "Dancing With the Stars" outdrew the Olympics.

Oscarcast producer Gil Cates has courageously resisted having anyone dance with the stars on Sunday night's telecast. But he has assembled presenters who will presumably appeal to a young demographic, and the show will include one of the first rap songs in the history of the Academy Awards.

Consider such presenters as Jessica Alba, Jennifer Aniston, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, Queen Latifah, George Clooney, Salma Hayek, Terrence Howard, Uma Thurman, Naomi Watts, Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, the Wilson boys, Luke and Owen, and the recent best actress winners Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron. All big with younger viewers. Who else will present? Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks and Lily Tomlin, who merely happen to be immortals.

Cates, having rejected pleas that Placido Domingo perform the nominated song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow," has assigned the Memphis-based rappers Three 6 Mafia (Jordon "Juicy J" Houston, Paul "DJ Paul" Beauregard and Darnell "Crunchy Black" Carlton). Beauregard and Houston wrote it, along with Cedric "Frayser Boy" Coleman. He will join them onstage, along with Taraji P. Henson, who sang in the film. Terrence Howard, who writes and sings the song in the movie, passed on an invitation to join them, saying he wasn't that sure about his live singing abilities.

The song as performed in the film contains many words not routinely heard on the Oscarcast. The composers say they've cleaned up the lyrics for the academy: "Your kids don't have to wear earmuffs," Houston told USA Today.

Two other nominees will perform their own songs: Kathleen "Bird" York sings "In the Deep" from "Crash" and Dolly Parton, who stands outside all demographic groups, will perform her "Travelin' Thru," from "Transamerica."

Apart from guesses about who will actually win (see below), much of the pre-show speculation centers on the choice of Jon Stewart as the host. Although his "Daily Show" on Comedy Central is required viewing for the young, the hip and the liberal, many viewers may be seeing him for the first time. That number includes Illinois Gov. Blagojevich, recently interviewed for "The Daily Show" but who had never seen it, did not know it was satirical, and was startled to be asked if he was "the gay governor."

Stewart is quick, smart and funny. How he will work as an Oscar host is a good question. The last host not actually part of the Hollywood community was David Letterman, whose appearance in 1995 was not a triumph. Chris Rock, although a genuine movie star, got mixed reviews last year. The all-time favorites in modern (post-Bob Hope) history have been Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal, with applause for Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon.

They all had the advantage of knowing the crowd. Stewart is an outsider from New York whose success will depend on genuinely funny material, and the kind of self-deprecating ingratiation that works on his show. George Bush is one of his favorite targets. Will he get into politics? If he does, it might be prudent to aim for the funny, not the ideological; that would not rule out Bush as a topic.

How about the winners? By now, you have absorbed all the predictions you can possibly desire, and may even have entered the Outguess Ebert contest, hoping for those free trips to Mexico. Instead of fine-tuning my prognostications, let me share the conventional wisdom about the front-runners.

On the Web site Movie City News, David Poland polls 11 allegedly informed sources and charts their predictions. They are 100 percent certain that Oscars will go to "Brokeback Mountain," Reese Witherspoon, Rachel Weisz, and director Ang Lee. They are 91 percent certain Philip Seymour Hoffman will win for best actor, and 73.6 percent certain George Clooney will win for supporting actor. They are 100 percent behind the screenplays of "Crash" (original) and "Brokeback Mountain" (adapted). For foreign film, "Tsotsi" scores 81.8 percent. For documentary, "March of the Penguins" is 90.9 percent.

Do I agree? Not entirely. I predict "Crash" will win as best film and Amy Adams will score an upset as best supporting actress.

If a film other than "Brokeback Mountain" or "Crash" wins as best picture, that will be an astonishing surprise, and the winners may be caught without acceptance speeches. If Heath Ledger wins as best actor, we will see how wide he can open his mouth (cowboys in his native Australia, he told me, talk through narrowed lips to keep the flies out).

The Oscarcast begins at 7 p.m. Sunday on WLS-Channel 7. From 5:30 to 6 p.m., Channel 7 will pick up 30 minutes of a red carpet arrivals program on which Richard Roeper and I join George Pennachio and the KABC-Los Angeles news team. From 6 to 7, we will be followed by beautiful people on an ABC network special. After the late news on Channel 7, which immediately follows the Oscars, Roeper and I will be on the post-Oscar show originating in Los Angeles. We will also dissect the Oscars on Jay Leno's program Monday night.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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