One of the biggest questions going into this year’s Oscar ceremony isn’t whether Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win a lead actor trophy or which one of the best picture nominees will score the night’s big prize.
It’s WWCD (What Will Chris Do)?
Speculation has been building for weeks over how the ceremony host Chris Rock will address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has plagued the Oscars since the nominees were announced in January. Voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate any actors of color in the top prize categories.
#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood’s reaction
The furor has put Rock, considered one of the nation’s hottest comedians, into the hottest seat in Hollywood given that several African American artists, including Will Smith and Spike Lee, announced they would skip the ceremony.
It’s a situation that has resulted in Rock, 51, doing what no other Oscar host has done in the past — refusing to do any publicity for the ceremony. Except for a brief appearance at Largo last week to try out some Oscars-related material, he and his writing staff have remained largely underground.
That cone of silence has highlighted the delicacy of Rock’s mission: to address the controversy with the right tone but still stay focused on maintaining the spirit of the evening, which is to honor the best film achievements of the year.
The dilemma has prompted commentary from a stream of insiders and observers — ranging from entertainers who have worked with Rock to academics who study race in Hollywood — to predict how Rock will do when the curtain rises at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday.
“I think he will definitely be in the pocket,” said comedian Chris Spencer, executive producer of BET’s hit reality spoof “Real Husbands of Hollywood” on which Rock has appeared. “He will make some people very uncomfortable, but he will also be very, very funny.”
Added Lee Bailey, executive producer of EUR/Electronic Urban Report (EURweb.com), a website dedicated to black-related entertainment news and issues. “This is a tailor-made situation for Chris. His stuff has always been about race. He’s been known to go hard, and I’d be shocked if he didn’t. The Oscars need him more than he needs them. They are in deep doo-doo.”
Scenic artist Rick Roberts touches up the Oscar statue props that are slated for placement on the red carpet and at the Dolby Theatre amid preparations for Sunday’s Academy Awards in Hollywood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Virginia Belloni puts the finishing touches on Oscar statues that will be placed on the red carpet and at the Dolby Theatre for Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Arrivals team Frank Roach, right, hoists an Oscar statue while Kevin Crowley spots him during preparations for Sunday’s Oscars in Hollywood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Dena D’ Angelo, right, and Virginia Belloni touch up a giant Oscar statue on the Oscars red carpet in Hollywood on Tuesday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Pedestrians walk past crews working on the Oscars red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Dolby Theatre.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Derek Medevic gets one of the many Oscar statue props in top condition ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Dena D’ Angelo, right, and Virginia Belloni work on a giant Oscar statue at the entrance to the Dolby Theatre amid preparations for Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The Dolby Theatre is the site of the 88th Academy Awards coming up Sunday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Workers install signs in preparation for the Oscars in Hollywood.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Workers set up the red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard in preparation for the Oscars in Hollywood.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Oscars red carpet is rolled out Wednesday morning in Hollywood as preparations continue for the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
While the comedian will no doubt be armed with the fearless sharp-edged punch that has made him an A-list star — and which he employed when he first hosted the ceremony in 2005 — observers say he will face far more scrutiny than Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Seth MacFarlane, Neil Patrick Harris or other previous masters of ceremonies of the Academy Awards.
Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, said that Rock’s hosting “creates an opportunity for a huge impact. This is something that will really define who Chris is.”
Those who have worked with Rock are confident he’ll rise to the occasion. “Chris will have a staff of comedy writers working on his monologue with him, so a lot of thought will definitely go into it,” said Franklyn Ajaye, an actor, writer and comedian who was a writer for Rock when the entertainer appeared in the mid-1990s on “Politically Incorrect.” “My guess is that Chris will go at it straight in his usual direct and fearless manner. He’ll comment on it upfront to make a point, and then not dwell on it the whole night, which would make the evening a downer.”
Rock gave a bit of a clue as to what he might do as host when he dropped in unannounced last week at the Largo during a comedy night hosted by writer-director Judd Apatow.
Highlights from the Oscars -- Hollywood’s most prestigious night -- through the years.(Los Angeles Times)
Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki hold their Oscars as they embrace after winning for supporting actor and supporting actress for their roles in “Sayonara.”(Los Angeles Times)
A large crowd waits at the Pantages for the arrival of celebrities attending the 32nd Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Burt Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor hold their lead actor and actress Oscars -- he for “Elmer Gantry,” she for “Butterfield 8,” at the Academy Awards in 1961.(Los Angeles Times)
Barbra Streisand holds her Oscar at the Academy Awards Governors Ball in 1969. With her is then-husband Elliott Gould.(Los Angeles Times)
Academy Award winners George Roy Hill, left, and David S. Ward with their Oscars -- and Elizabeth Taylor -- in 1974.(Los Angeles Times)
Lead actress winner Sally Field and lead actor winner Dustin Hoffman.(Los Angeles Times)
Sissy Spacek wins for lead actress in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”(Los Angeles Times)
James L. Brooks, director of “Terms of Endearment,” left, and two of the film’s stars, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, with their Oscars at the 1984 Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Robin Williams with his supporting actor Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” and Jack Nicholson with his lead actor award for “As Good as It Gets” backstage at the 70th Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Björk on the red carpet at the 73rd Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Adrien Brody surprises presenter Halle Berry with a kiss after he wins lead actor for “The Pianist” at the 75th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Presenter Julia Roberts wipes her lipstick kiss off Clint Eastwood’s face as he accepts his Oscar for director for “Million Dollar Baby,” during the 77th Academy Awards.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Actors Will Ferrell, left and Steve Carell present the Oscar for makeup during the 78th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Reese Witherspoon kisses her then-husband, Ryan Phillippe, after hearing her name announced as the lead actress winner for “Walk the Line,” during the 78th Academy Awards.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Steven Spielberg snaps a photo of Ellen DeGeneres and Clint Eastwood while Beyoncé looks on during the 79th Academy Awards.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Forest Whitaker escorts Marion Cotillard off the stage after presenting her the Oscar for lead actress at the 80th Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Legendary actor Sidney Poitier and actress Angelina Jolie chat backstage. Jolie was the recipient of the 2014 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Actors Liam Neeson and J.K. Simmons, right, chat backstage at the 87th Academy Awards after Simmons won a supporting actor prize for “Whiplash” in 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
With “Star Wars” reintroduced to a new generation by “The Force Awakens” film, it seemed only fitting to have droids R2D2 and C3PO grace the Academy Awards stage once again.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Brie Larson is ecstatic as she walks off the stage with the lead actress Oscar for her role in “Room.”(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
In a “Titanic” meetup, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet kiss backstage at the Oscars. DiCaprio won the lead actor Oscar for his role in “The Revenant.”(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The New York Observer’s Andy Wang, who was present at the performance, wrote that Rock’s material addressed the furor over the lack of diversity among the nominees, adding that Rock had “an impressive arsenal of material” to polish before the show.
The comedian explained why he wasn’t abandoning the ceremony, and considered how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might react to the issue if he were alive. Wang wrote that Rock riffed on the absurdity of one particular boycott: “That bit included a withering, perfect punchline involving two celebrities, but Mr. Rock knew it was too lewd to get by the Oscars censors.”
Other jokes delivered that night — a reference to the uproar over actresses earning less than actors, suggestions on making the pool of Oscar nominees more diverse — were examples of why Rock still resonates in the comedy world. Jamie Masada, the founder of the Laugh Factory comedy club, called Rock “a doctor of the soul.”
Rock, of course, has never been silent on the subject of race. In his first Oscar stint in 2005, his opening monologue touched on the African American nominees that year, who included lead actor nominee Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) and supporting actor nominee Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”).
A few of the nominees for the top awards -- picture, director, actor and actress -- and other selected categories at this year’s Academy Awards.()
Winner: Picture | Original screenplay. Nominations: Supporting Actor - Mark Ruffalo | Supporting Actress - Rachel McAdams | Director - Tom McCarthy(Kerry Hayes)
Winner: Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio | Cinematography | Director - Alejandro González Iñárritu. Nominations: Picture(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox)
Winner: Actress - Brie Larson. Nominations: Director - Lenny Abrahamson | Adapted screenplay(Ruth Hurl / Element Pictures)
Winner: Original score. Nomination: Supporting actress - Jennifer Jason Leigh(Weinstein Company / TNS)
Winner: Supporting actor - Mark Rylance. Nominations: Picture | Original Screenplay(Jaap Buitendijk / DreamWorks)
Winner: Animated feature. Nominations: Original screenplay.(Handout )
Winner: Visual effects. Nominations: Original screenplay.(AP)
Winner: Sound mixing | Sound editing | Film editing | Costume design | Production design | Make-up and hairstyling. Nominations: Picture | Director - George Miller(Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)
Winner: Supporting actress - Alicia Vikander. Nomination: Actor - Eddie Redmayne(Agatha A. Nitecka / Focus Features)
Winner: Adapted screenplay. Nominations: Picture | Supporting actor - Christian Bale | Director - Adam McKay(Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)
Nominations: Picture | Actor - Matt Damon(Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox)
Nominations: Supporting actor - Sylvester Stallone(Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.)
Nominations: Picture | Actress - Saoirse Ronan(Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corpo)
Nominations: Actor - Bryan Cranston(Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Bleecker Street)
Nominations: Original screenplay(Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures)
Nominations: Actor - Michael Fassbender | Supporting actress - Kate Winslet(Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures)
Nominations: Actress - Jennifer Lawrence(Twentieth Century Fox)
Nominations: Actress - Cate Blanchett | Supporting actress - Rooney Mara(Wilson Webb / Weinstein Co.)
Nomination: Animated film(Paramount Pictures)
Nomination: Actress - Charlotte Rampling(Agatha A. Nitecka / Sundance Selects)
“It’s a great night tonight — we have four black nominees tonight,” he said. “It’s like the Def Oscar Jam” (both Foxx and Freeman won).
He has been an equal opportunity provocateur when it comes to unleashing his rants against both whites and blacks. His 1996 HBO special, in which he prowled the stage like an eager boxer during his routine about black people and the N-word, is considered a classic.
Rock wrote a scathing article in the Hollywood Reporter in 2014 denouncing the lack of multiculturalism in Hollywood and calling it a “white industry.”
It’s that brutal honesty that many feel makes Rock the perfect Oscar host now.
“The Oscars are about the celebration of film, and Chris will uphold that part of it, but he will also talk about us having the opportunity to tell our stories,” said Felischa Marye, chair of the Writers Guild of America West’s Committee of Black Writers.”
Amy Aniobi, a writer who is working on HBO’s upcoming comedy series “Insecure,” said she has lost interest in tuning into the Oscars until she remembered that Rock was going to be the host. “I was just over it. Then it dawned on me. This is really the best scenario that could happen.”
Spencer has already made his plans for Oscar night. “I’m going to have a bunch of people over. Then when Chris’ monologue is over, we’ll go into another room. I’ll have one of my white friends watch the awards, and when Chris is back on, he can call us in to watch.”