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New tune, but song’s the same

Times Staff Writer

Oh, cruel Oscar world, with your caste systems and not-so-subtle slights! I know that this year’s telecast was designed to streamline things, to head off the collective unconsciousness that tends to kick in around hour three. But all the little stylistic changes -- barring some winners from going onstage, limiting Robin Williams to 10 jokes about Beverly Hills face-lifts -- couldn’t save the show from devolving into the overblown TV event it wants always to be. It doesn’t matter where you place Scarlett Johansson to talk about technical achievement, the Oscars are a popularity contest that pretends also to honor the boulder pushers who spend months of their lives applying makeup to a celebrity’s puss at 5 in the morning.

Those would be the makeup artists, among the categories in which the winner accepted the award in the aisle, like an audience member asking a question on a daytime talk show. Lacking a great race for best picture and fearing the audience fatigue that has seen ratings for the Oscar telecast -- and other award shows -- spiral downward in recent years, the PR strategy this year was to plug its “dangerous” host, Chris Rock. By the time Rock took the stage Sunday night, so many thousands of words had been written about what he might say and whom he might alienate that it seemed the fate of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear capability hung in the balance. Rock did filter the broadcast through the prism of his comedy in a way that at times felt indecorous, if not dangerous, and he shook things up about as much as could be expected when you’ve got a five-second delay on your script and a movie career -- his own, namely -- to think about.

He kept bringing it all back to race, in a kind of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner"-ization of the Oscars. The asides gave the evening whatever tension it had, and it didn’t have much.

“Black movies don’t have real names,” Rock said in his opening monologue. “ ‘Barbershop,’ ‘Cookout,’ ‘Car Wash,’ -- you know ‘Laundromat’s’ coming soon. And after that ‘Check Cashing Place.’ ” You can hear Rock do this joke anywhere, and the monologue, overhyped as it was, was anticlimactic -- a separate, out-of-context event grafted onto the event at hand. In his brief set, Rock took several passing jabs at President Bush but, bizarrely, ended up incensing more people in the house with a running gag about the cinematic omnipresence of Jude Law. “Who is Jude Law?” he carped, and hours later, presenting the award for best actress, Sean Penn peevishly called out Rock for sullying the name of “one of our finest actors.”

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Rock wasn’t the best choice for the gig; he was the best choice to get people talking about tuning in. “Sideways” is a nice movie, and so is “Finding Neverland,” but this year’s Academy Awards, you just knew, weren’t going to make anyone forget that on Sunday night at this time ABC is usually showing “Desperate Housewives.”

So here was Rock, in a made-for-TV event. It was a ruse. If you’ve seen him perform, it takes Rock about 30 minutes to get going -- his anger builds, his rhythm picks up, he’s eviscerating black street culture.

This, on the other hand, was 10 minutes before kicking it over to Cate Blanchett. One of the reasons Billy Crystal dominated the awards as host for so many years is that the night lends itself to a Vaudevillian master of ceremonies, someone who enters doing light shtick.

That’s not Rock. And so he mostly behaved, and pretty soon it was the same old three-hour-plus ritual again, only with rearranged furniture. By the end, the most memorable segment was one that Rock and his writers taped at the Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles. There, he asked black moviegoers to list their movies of the year. One guy said “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Several others said they really liked “White Chicks,” which became the running joke -- applaud yourself all you want, Hollywood, but your business is built on the opening-weekend take of “White Chicks” at the mall in the predominantly black neighborhood. You could feel the self-congratulatory air back at the Kodak Theatre being sucked out of the room, and for a brief moment it felt as though Rock had blown the show open.

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