Review: Chris Rock’s hot mess of an Oscars show: powerful, confounding, possibly revolutionary
The 2016 Oscars telecast was a hot mess, but it certainly wasn’t boring.
An event most often criticized for being self-indulgent and self-congratulatory — so over-long, repetitive and predictable that the host is all but required to joke about its absurdity — this year’s Academy Awards was a strange compilation of atonal moments in which the audience was kept perpetually off-balance. Host Chris Rock called Hollywood out on its racism and then sent his daughters out to sell Girl Scout cookies. The mood whipsawed from the shocking to the familiar and back again, often in the space of a few moments.
It was also the first Oscars in memory that, nakedly and unapologetically, attempted to do something other than hand out a bunch of gold statues. Which is revolutionary in and of itself.
From the moment the nominations were announced, the focus has been less on who made the list and more on who didn’t. Speculation about how Rock would handle hosting the #OscarsSoWhite ceremony ran to near frenzy. From the moment he stepped onto the stage in a white tuxedo jacket, it was clear he was not messing around.
“I counted at least 15 black people in that,” he said in reference to the show’s opening montage of the year’s films, adding: “Welcome to the white people’s choice awards.”
Narrowing the conversation about diversity to a black-and-white issue, he first downplayed the importance of this year’s protests — in past years, black people were “too busy being raped and lynched to care about best cinematographer,” he joked — before addressing them directly.
“Is Hollywood racist?” he asked finally. “You damn right Hollywood’s racist.”
After moving in and out of a few more jokes, he brought it back to the point: “We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. And not just once.... All these guys get great parts all the time. But what about the black actors?”
For all its flaws, Rock’s Oscars had some of the most powerful moments seen in the telecast’s history.
— Mary McNamara
Those who bet Rock would limit the issue to his monologue and then move on to more standard comedy lost that Oscars pool. Again and again, Rock returned to the theme of racism, in ways that sometimes worked — a clip in which best picture nominees were envisioned with black characters was very funny — and often did not. The evening’s oddest moment was Rock’s introduction of Stacey Dash as the academy’s new head of outreach. The bit left many baffled and reaching for Google. (Dash recently called for an end to Black History Month, among other things.)
In between Rock’s moments onstage, a more traditional ceremony occurred. Ryan Gosling sparred with Russell Crowe, Buzz and Woody revisited their cinematic bromance, Louis C.K. pointed out that the best documentary short subject was the most important award of the evening because it was the only Oscar “going home in a Honda.”
The cast of Best Picture winner “Spotlight” takes a selfie backstage at the 88th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Actress Stacey Dash speaks onstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on Feb. 28, 2016.(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
Michael Keaton and the cast and producers of “Spotlight” celebrate after winning the Oscar for best picture.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The production team and cast of Spotlight celebrate the award for best picture.(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, winner of Best Director with Tom Hardy(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Whoopi Goldberg(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Rylance thanks Steven Spielberg before accepting his Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Adam McKay, front, and Charles Randolph with their Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
But the show also swung from women in dog collars dancing as the Weeknd sang “Earned It” to Vice President Joe Biden calling on the audience to help end rape and sexual assault on campuses before introducing Lady Gaga and her nominated song “Til It Happens to You.”
On top of the political challenges, this year’s telecast had brand-new producers, Reginald Hudlin and David Hill, who initiated several changes including a thank-you crawl, in which the people to whom winners felt indebted ran along the bottom of the screen, and a narrative order that purported to follow the timeline of filmmaking.
Taken together, it was, well, difficult to take together. Stitched into a new format and given the extra features of activism and admonishment, the evening often felt like the Franken-Oscars, a whole different sort of creature that no one could quite control. At times, it felt as if the winners were almost incidental.
Yet for all its flaws, Rock’s Oscars had some of the most powerful moments seen in the telecast’s history. His decision to honestly answer the question “Is Hollywood racist?” was brave and effective. Even when the jokes became one-note, there was no denying that, with the exception of the documentary and the foreign film categories, the winners were a procession of white people. Honestly, why can’t feature films be as reflective of human experience as documentaries?
Somewhere at the midway point, academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage, as the academy president always does.
Jennifer Lawrence(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
“The Martian” actor Matt Damon(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Actress Priyanka Chopra(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Taylor Kinney, left, and Lady Gaga arrive at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.(Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)
“Titanic” costars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite on the red carpet.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Amy Poehler and Michael Keaton(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Charlize Theron(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Weeknd and Common
(Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP; Angela Weissangela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
Oscar nominees Cate Blanchett (“Carol”) and Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo”).(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (supporting actress, “Spotlight”).(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
From left, actress Margot Robbie, best actor nominee Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) and actress Jennifer Garner.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
People protest the all-white slate of acting Oscar nominees and lack of diversity in the industry near the 88th Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center.(David McNew / AFP/Getty Images)
Taylor Kinney, left, and Lady Gaga(Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)
“Director Ridley Scott and Giannina Facio, left, and supporting actor nominee Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”) with Charlotte Riley.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Supporting actor nominee Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”) with actress Charlotte Riley.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Best actress nominee Cate Blanchett (“Carol”).(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Nominees and former costars Kate Winslet (supporting actress, “Steve Jobs”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (best actor, “The Revenant”).(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Leonardo DiCaprio(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Actor Christian Bale with wife Sibi Blazic.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Reese Witherspoon(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Model Heidi Klum(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Model Chrissy Teigen and husband John Legend(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Kerry Washington(Christopher Polk/Getty Images; Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Supporting actress winner Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”).(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Naomi Watts, Olivia Munn, Priyanka Chopra(Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP; Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP; Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Cinematographer Ed Lachman, Spirit Award winner and Oscar nominee for “Carol.”(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Mindy Kaling(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Jordan’s foreign-language nominee “Theeb” is represented by, from left, director Naji Abu Nowar and actors Jacir Eid and Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Sofia Vergara, costar of ABC’s “Modern Family,” on the red carpet.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Actor Byung-hun Lee.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Governors Ball chef Wolfgang Puck.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
From left, model Heidi Klum, best actress nominee Saorise Ronan (“Brooklyn”) and last year’s supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”).(Left and right - Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; center - Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
“Room’s” young actor Jacob Tremblay shares a stretch of red carpet with “Modern Family’s” Sofia Vergara.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Original song nominees Jimmy Napes, left, and Sam Smith (“Writing’s on the Wall,” “Spectre”).(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Nominated film editor Hank Corwin (“The Big Short”) and wife Nancy arrive at the 88th Academy Awards.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Actor Orlando Jones during the arrivals.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Tobias Lindholm, center, director of Denmark’s foreign-language nominee “A War,” arrives with the film’s lead actor Pilou Asbæk, right.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
“Beasts of No Nation” actor Abraham Attah.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Morning show host and former NFL player Michael Strahan addresses the media on the red carpet.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
“Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Composer Carter Burwell, nominated for original score for “Carol.”(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Model Dorith Mous on the red carpet.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the nominated live-action short feature “Shok” arrive on the red carpet for the 88th Academy Awards.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Sofia Vergara at the 88th Academy Awards.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
“Beasts of No Nation” costar Abraham Attah arrives at the 88th Academy Awards.(Jordan Strauss / Invision/AP)
Orlando Jones arrives for the 88th Academy Awards.(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)
TV personality Stephanie Bauer on the Oscars red carpet.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images)
TV personality Giuliana Rancic at the 88th Academy Awards.(Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
TV personality Maria Menounos at the 88th Academy Awards.( Ethan Miller/Getty Images, left, Jason Merritt/Getty Images, right)
Isaacs has been at the center of the #OscarsSoWhite storm even more than Rock, and her call to those in the audience to be part of the solution was simple and affecting. “It is not enough to listen and agree,” she said. “We must take action.”
After years of being dissed for its irrelevance, this year’s Oscars took action. The results were mixed, to be sure, and Rock did not ever settle into his usual balance of outrage and humanity. But it was an attempt. And if Hollywood believes, as it should, that film is a medium of truth-telling and a catalyst for change, then moments of self-examination should occur at least as often as those of celebration.
Even if they are not seamless evenings of splendid extravaganza.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
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