By MARY MCNAMARA
Los Angeles Times
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?”
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 CK 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.”
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. 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.