On Sunday night, in living rooms across America, TV viewers will have their Academy Awards pools in hand, anxiously hoping to predict which movie stars are about to strike gold.
But, really, that's child's play. You want a real challenge? Try predicting who will host next year's show.
Not so easy, is it? Not when the Academy, in recent years, has displayed a wild, whiplash-inducing inconsistency with its host-selection process. How can we make an well-informed forecast, after all, if Oscar can't even figure out what kind of show it wants to be?
This year, Ellen DeGeneres takes the wheel, returning to the hosting job for the first time since 2007. DeGeneres, 55, is the proverbial "safe" choice -- someone who can deliver some gentle, feel-good humor without pricking those gigantic Hollywood egos.
She's also a reactionary choice -- an attempt to steer the show far, far away from the wreckage that Seth MacFarlane left behind.
You remember MacFarlane. The brains behind "Family Guy" (and all the potty-mouthed hilarity the show entails), he represented yet another bizarre bid by Oscar to bring younger, "hipper" viewers into the fold. At the time of his hiring, producers called him the "consummate" host who would make the telecast "entertaining and fresh."
What they didn't count on is that he'd also make it a bit repulsive.
MacFarlane's hosting gig, which featured an entire musical number devoted to women's breasts ("We Saw Your Boobs!"), was blasted by critics and viewers, who spewed such colorful adjectives as "sophomoric," "sexist," "racist," "lame," "distasteful" and "cringeworthy."
It left fans to debate whether MacFarlane was a bigger disaster than the one in 2011, when Oscar previously decided to go "young and edgy" -- with a touch of movie-star glam -- by installing James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts. Hathaway, bless her, gave it her all, but Franco basically phoned it in.
It has been quite amusing to watch poor Oscar careen all over the map in a largely clueless attempt to find the right host, tone and balance for a snoozy telecast that continues to suffer from ratings declines. After a 14-year stretch (1990-2004) of stability in which either Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg took the lead for all but three shows, producers have given us a veritable grab bag of emcees.
Among the choices were a brash, in-your-face comedian (Chris Rock, 2005), a witty social commentator (Jon Stewart, 2006 and '08), and a twinkle-toed song-and-dance man (Hugh Jackman, 2009). Then, of course, there were the two-headed host experiments that gave us a pair of middle-aged smirky white guys (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, 2010) and the aforementioned newbies, Franco and Hathaway.
In 2012, Oscar was poised to go in yet another direction when it tapped Eddie Murphy to lead the way. However, he bolted after director Brett Ratner was fired for shooting his mouth off, and the producers called on Crystal to perform a rescue mission.
Crystal, another "safe" choice, was sadly past his Oscar glory days, and his performance was widely panned by critics who considered it too overly familiar and full of old-school shtick.
Now what? After a series of tactical blunders, Oscar has turned back toDeGeneres, a likable, funny daytime TV personality, who earned generally favorable reviews in her first stint. She's not an inspired choice like the Golden Globes duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And she's certainly not an exciting one. Some viewers, including those in the room, will find her to be comfortably conservative. Others will think she's a bland dose of vanilla.
And therein lies the problem. No one can really agree on what makes a good Oscar host or telecast. Theoretically, our emcees should be funny, but not too snarky and insulting. The show should be classy, but not stuffy. And then there's all that pressure of trying to appeal to widely varying demographics, not to mention dealing with the show's inherent obstacles: gasbag speeches, too many who-cares categories, etc.
Our hosts are forced to walk a fine line in what has become a thankless job. DeGeneres knows this all too well. "It's scary as hell," she recently told the New York Times. "If you do great, the reaction is that you were good. Not great -- good. If you don't do well, they just tear you apart, and they never let you forget it."
Well, good luck with that, Ellen. Break a leg, do your best and, perhaps you'll be back next year.
But we're not counting on it.
'The 86th Academy awards'
When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday