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Former Oscars head writer Bruce Vilanch on why ‘Barbie’ wasn’t snubbed, says Ryan Gosling ‘had a more difficult role’ than Margot Robbie

As the former head writer for the Academy Awards, Bruce Vilanch has rubbed elbows with more A-listers than a Beverly Hills dermatologist — and he has the stories to show for it.

Between 1989 and 2014, the veteran screenwriter wrote 25 Oscars telecasts, 14 of them as head writer. He earned two Emmys for his contributions to the 1991 and 1992 Oscars, both hosted by his friend Billy Crystal. He’s also worked with Whoopi Goldberg, who’s emceed the show four times, as well as Jon Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres, who’ve each hosted twice.

While Vilanch hasn’t formally written for the awards show for nearly a decade, his contributions remain a vital part of the ceremony. As seen in the 1999 documentary Get Bruce! he’s the go-to person who celebrities call when they need to spruce up — or “Bruce up” — a joke.

“I wind up getting involved [in the Oscars] every year because people call and they don’t like their material,” Vilanch told Yahoo Entertainment. “I’m known for writing stuff for them, so they say, ‘Can you help?’”

Ahead of the 96th Academy Awards, airing March 10 on ABC, the writer, 75, held nothing back about his take on this year’s nominees and how the awards ceremony has evolved over the years.

Will people tune in?

Since its inception in 1929, the Oscars have served as “a publicity gimmick” that studio executives capitalized on to bring in ticket sales, Vilanch said. The addition of other shows like the Golden Globes (1944), Emmys (1949), SAG Awards (1995) and Critics’ Choice Awards (1996) may fuel a sense of awards “fatigue” for some, but Vilanch said Hollywood still views the Academy Awards as the grande dame.

“That will never go away,” he said of the Oscars.

The most-watched Oscars in the telecast’s history was 1998, when more than 55 million viewers tuned in to watch Titanic win Best Picture. In the following years, viewership floated between 27 million and 47 million until 2020, when ratings dipped to 23.6 million, according to Deadline. That number fell to 10.4 million the next year, a record low. Ratings have been building slowly since, with 16.6 million viewers in 2022 and 18.8 million viewers in 2023.

Host Jimmy Kimmel speaks onstage during the 95th annual Academy Awards in 2023.Host Jimmy Kimmel speaks onstage during the 95th annual Academy Awards in 2023.

Jimmy Kimmel hosting the Academy Awards in 2023. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“When the movies are popular, the ratings go up,” Vilanch said. Films like Oppenheimer, which earned nearly $1 billion in global box-office sales, and Barbie, which grossed $1.4 billion globally, were especially popular last year. That’s a sign that Oscars viewers may be “coming back this year.”

“There will be people tuning in to see what happens with Barbie [snubs] and how it’s handled, or if Jimmy Kimmel will wear a pink tuxedo,” he said.

The host with the most

Kimmel is hosting this year’s ceremony for the fourth time, after previous emceeing stints in 2017, 2018 and 2023. According to the Associated Press, only Bob Hope, who hosted 19 times, Johnny Carson, who hosted five times, and Crystal, at nine times, have emceed the show more than Kimmel.

“With Billy Crystal, we would make a playbook,” Vilanch said. “You find where the host is in the show, and what he’s going to be following, or what they are going to be following I should say, and prepare yourself for something that could happen. At that point, you could come up with something spontaneous in the wings. I mean, Billy pioneered that.”

Oscar host Billy Crystal onstage at the 2004 Oscars.Oscar host Billy Crystal onstage at the 2004 Oscars.

Billy Crystal at the Academy Awards in 2004. He’s hosted the show nine times. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Recurring hosts are typically a win-win for everyone involved, Vilanch explained, as they provide a “certain familiarity for the people who are doing the show, and the advertisers, they feel it’s in good hands.”

Hosting can also be a thankless job, Vilanch said, and not everyone can keep up with the show’s pace.

“The idea is to keep the show alive,” he explained. Over the years, Vilanch and its hosts learned how to manage last-minute snafus.

Familiar faces also help keep the stars happy. “You can’t come out and make fun of people who don’t know who you are,” Vilanch said. “That’s the first rule, and it’s why they look for an Oscars host who is as big a star as the people in the audience.”

Was ‘Barbie’ snubbed?

After the Oscar nominations were announced in January, fans rushed to the defense of Barbie director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie (whose company LuckyChap Entertainment produced the film). Although Barbie received eight Oscar nominations — including Best Picture — Gerwig and Robbie were left out of the Best Director and Best Actress categories, respectively.

Despite the hoopla, Vilanch said “there are no snubs” when it comes to the Oscars.

“The Oscars is the only awards show for the movies voted on by people who actually make movies. These are not movie critics. These are not people polled in a mall,” he explained. “People vote for who they like, whose work they like.”

It’s not a snub when someone doesn’t get enough votes, said Vilanch. “It’s not like they’re saying, ‘Oh, I hated that!’ I mean, the idea that there’s a concerted intelligence that says, ‘We hate this, we’re not going to acknowledge it,’ that is crazy.

“Ryan Gosling had a more difficult role than Margot Robbie,” he said. “Ken is a hard nut to crack. He did it. Barbie is much easier to play, and [Robbie] is not without accolades. She got nominated [as a] producer [for Best Picture]. It’s not like they all hate Margot Robbie. She was nominated previously for I, Tonya.

Barbie stars Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig pose on the red carpet.Barbie stars Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig pose on the red carpet.

Barbie stars Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

The “old boys’ club” of directors is a different story, Vilanch said. While fans have accused the academy of snubbing Gerwig, one of eight Oscar-nominated female directors in history, he pointed out that French filmmaker Justine Triet scored a nod this year for her film Anatomy of a Fall.

“Maybe [Triet] got one vote more than Greta Gerwig,” he said. “The fact that Greta Gerwig made a blockbuster doesn’t mean that directors think it was a well-directed picture, or the best-directed picture. To turn it into a feminist argument, I think, is beside the point.”

That’s not to say the conversation isn’t important. Vilanch said it’s a sign of progress.

“It’s a product of the academy becoming more diverse, more international and younger,” he said. “I don’t think 10 or 15 years ago you would have seen movies like Parasite or Everything Everywhere All at Once. I don’t think movies like that would be winning Best Picture if the academy hadn’t made a concerted effort to widen the tent.”

Where do the Oscars go from here?

“We’re in a period of figuring out how to balance the experience of going to the movies with the experience of sitting at home and watching them [instead],” Vilanch said. “Tech moved in and became the competition. It’s not an easy marriage, tech and the movie business, with Amazon, Netflix and Apple.”

To that end, he explained, viewers are hungry for edgier material from the show’s host — and a shorter telecast runtime.

“To really evolve, the academy would have to let go of some categories and the network would have to let go of some of the entertainment they insist on the show having,” Vilanch said, naming performances from the Best Original Song nominees as an example.

Many have tried and failed, but as Vilanch explained, people still want the reliable formula of the Oscars.

“Every year, the producer comes in and says, ‘I’m going to reinvent the wheel’ and then discovers that the wheel works for a reason. You can’t really reinvent it,” he said.

The 96th Academy Awards air March 10 at 7 p.m. ET on ABC and stream on Hulu Live.

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