The last time Chris Rock hosted the Oscars, in 2005, the job description went something like this: Tell some jokes, make them funny, and allow that some people in that gilded audience in the Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre should be scandalized, but not too scandalized.
Remember (above all) that these are the Oscars, strictly designed to make those who comprise the world’s most prestigious industry feel good about themselves, and not feel like they’ve just been flayed. . . .
Fast forward to this Sunday night. The job description has changed in light of the diversity controversy surrounding this year’s ceremony. But to “what” is precisely what makes the 88th Academy Awards telecast potentially the most exciting — or calamitous — in its history.
For already overwrought nominees and Academy members, there’s also the bright side: When was the last time anyone called this show “exciting,” potentially or otherwise? Chris Rock is about to enter the building. (Will the building still be standing in the morning? How about Chris?)
Rock is “going to look past the controversy from the popular perspective,” said Ali LeRoi, a longtime collaborator, going back to their late ‘90s HBO comedy series, “The Chris Rock Show.” “Chris finds a way of getting beneath popular opinion to something truer and more pointed. Not everyone will be happy with what he says, but no one will deny that it’s true, and it will be funny. If nothing else, the ratings for the first hour will be bigger than ever.”
“You know the Academy is going to get what it paid for,” says Michael Dennis, a Philadelphia filmmaker and creator of the Reelblack.com movie website, who’s known Rock since his student days at NYU when Dennis produced a short documentary on the before-he-was-famous Brooklyn-raised comic.
“It’ll be Chris Rock mining the truth of the matter, and clearly that’s the elephant in the room,” Dennis said. “I would hope he doesn’t spend the entire show on that, but however he addresses the subject should be smart and on-point.”
Nevertheless, it is precisely the heavy approaching footsteps of that elephant that has made the Academy so nervous, and Sunday’s telecast such essential viewing.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” admits TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of Herman Mankiewicz (“Citizen Kane”) who remains one of the enduring and cherished symbols of the very same Hollywood establishment that will come within Rock’s sights when the broadcast begins.
“The hosting job of the Academy Awards is already hard enough without the weight or responsibility that comes with this particular one,” Mankiewicz said in a recent phone interview. “If this is a ‘nine’ to begin with in terms of difficulty, then this year’s unique challenge makes it go up to an ‘11.’ This is a degree of pressure which hosts have never seen . . .”
Or, for that matter, Academy members. When Rock agreed to host the 88th awards last year, other circumstances had also changed from 2005. An African-American, Reginald Hudlin, had been named to co-produce the program, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs — also African-American — had vowed to diversify the awards and to add more black members to what has long been an overwhelmingly white (and male) institution.
Then the nominations were announced in January, revealing just how far her stratagems — and perhaps the Academy itself — had really advanced. With no acting nods for black actors for the second year in a row, the Oscars were thrust directly into the rancorous Hollywood diversity debate. Spike Lee said he would not attend the ceremonies. Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith followed. There were calls for Rock to back out as well. He remained silent, but his actions have instead spoken for him so far.
In one of those instances of you-couldn’t-make-this-up-if-you-tried — because, after all, why try? — Rock’s monologue Sunday is now one of the most anticipated — or feared — in Oscars’ telecast history.
And that’s a history that has included monologues by Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Johnny Carson, and of course Rock himself — who arrived 11 years ago to shake the dust off these awards.
He got some critical flak for that 2005 hosting job, although hardly for poking the Academy’s presumed complacency over diversity. In fact, just the opposite. He mostly pulled his punches during the show (One joke: “[Hollywood] at least makes movies for white people to enjoy . . . with real names, like ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Black movies? Don’t even have real names. ‘Barber Shop?’ That’s not a name. That’s a location . . .”)
But not quite 10 years later, Rock changed the punchlines — or sharpened them enough to draw blood. At the BET Awards in 2014 there was this: “Tonight you’re gonna see something you never see. You’re gonna see black artists getting credit for something they created.”
Later followed by this: “A lot of people think ‘Scandal’s a hit because of Kerry Washington, but the real reason is that every Thursday at 9 people can tune in to see a white president again. For one hour, it’s back to normal.”
And, for the coup de main, this: “Here’s a rule about all civil rights movies. If you make a civil rights movie and white people like it, it’s not a good movie. You don’t see Germans coming out of Holocaust movies saying, ‘That was great!’”
Later that year, Rock wrote a blistering essay for the Hollywood Reporter on Hollywood race relations.
A brief sampler:
“There are almost no black women in film. You can go to whole movies and not see one black woman. They’ll throw a black guy a bone. ‘OK, here’s a black guy.’ But is there a single black woman in ‘Interstellar’? Or ‘Gone Girl’? ‘Birdman’? ‘The Purge’? ‘Neighbors’? I’m not sure there is.”
Race and Hollywood were in fact subtexts of his 2014 film, “Top Five,” about a big star desperately trying to segue into serious films and away from the debasement that made him that big star in the first place — Hammy, the Bear, a cop who wears a bear suit.
But Hammy wasn’t so easy to shake and the message wasn’t either: That Hollywood’s happy to put black actors into metaphoric bear suits, less happy to put them into serious roles, or iconic ones.
Meanwhile, there was an obvious and insistent flip side to the message: Black actors and black filmmakers have a responsibility to their art too. Go ahead and put on the Hammy costume, but don’t blame Hollywood — especially when the millions start to roll — because you chose to make a fool of yourself.
Dennis, Rock’s old acquaintance from the early days, says that “The last time he hosted the Oscars he was talking about the lack of imagination in black films too. He wasn’t just making a one-sided argument about race and diversity in Hollywood, he said while the establishment can do better in terms of creating opportunity, we can do better too in terms of making films. Ultimately, Chris doesn’t think people deserve recognition if their work isn’t of the same caliber.”
So: lacerating, smart, funny, incendiary, or thoughtful? Which Chris Rock will turn up Sunday? Possibly all of them?
BEFORE THE SHOW
Countdown to the Red Carpet (1:30-5:30 p.m., E!)
E! Live from the Red Carpet (5:30-8:30 p.m., E!)
Oscars opening ceremony: Live from the Red Carpet (7-8:30 p.m., ABC/7)
The Oscars (8:30-11:30 p.m., ABC/7)
AFTER THE SHOW
E! After Party (11:30 p.m.-1 a.m., E!)
Jimmy Kimmel Live: After the Oscars (12:05 a.m.-1:07 p.m.)