Inside the Oscars: How Chris Rock Tried to Save the Show

Chris Rock Oscars 2016
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

On TV, Chris Rock delivered a biting opening monologue at the Oscars, as he acknowledged the absurdity of this year’s awards season and shamed Hollywood for overlooking black actors. But inside the Dolby Theatre, his one-liners about race felt even more pointed. Rock had the audience of industry insiders roaring, often uncomfortably, and unlike last year’s host Neil Patrick Harris, who frequently looked out of place, Rock’s stand-up comedy background suited him for the difficult task at hand. He played the voice of reason, offering catharsis after weeks of headlines about #OscarsSoWhite.

How great was Rock? He reminded viewers at home, as well as executives in the crowd, that Jamie Foxx wasn’t getting the same opportunities as A-list white male stars. He compared racism in Hollywood to a cliquish sorority, where those invited to join looked like everyone else, and he laid the groundwork for a provocative, challenging telecast. The fact that the show didn’t deliver isn’t surprising. There’s only so much a host can do when the nominees don’t reflect the tastes of the moviegoing public, an argument that was nicely summed up in a skit where Rock conducted man-on-the-street interviews at a theater in Compton (actually Baldwin Hills) with people who didn’t believe “Bridge of Spies” was a real movie.

Attending the Academy Awards is not unlike a day at an amusement park, if the patrons of Disneyland were celebrities decked in ballgowns and tuxedos. The Los Angeles sun made the red carpet swelter, as many of this year’s honorees, including Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Rooney Mara and Jennifer Lawrence, largely bypassed the press line (or spoke only to the few TV reporters who cornered them). The below-the-line nominees were less shy, but they frequently stumbled when it came to answering questions about diversity in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the writers behind two of the best song nominees (from the movies “Youth” and “Racing Extinction”) expressed disappointment to Variety about not being able to perform onstage, as they were told there wasn’t enough time.

When Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars two years ago, she interacted with the audience at the commercials, by ad libbing and keeping their energy on her side. But Rock only took the stage when he was on TV. There’s no doubt that the Academy’s failure to nominate a single actor of color for the second consecutive year cast a cloud over the ceremony. That also meant the show became a tricky balancing act, which often played out like an earnest apology. Many presenters were paired at random — like Quincy Jones and Pharrell Williams — to contrast the widely held (and true) notion that the movie industry is run by white men.

Rock followed his introduction with an amusing montage that enlisted the help of Whoopi Goldberg and Tracy Morgan imposed into this year’s Oscars movies, carrying on a tradition that Billy Crystal started as host. After Stacey Dash made a brief appearance onstage, for a joke that befuddled most viewers about Black History Month, Rock pointed to someone in the audience, as if to acknowledge he knew it had fallen flat. After that, the rest of the telecast slowly came unglued.

A smattering of people stood at the end of Sam Smith’s Bond anthem “Writing’s on the Wall,” but the room’s reaction to the performance was mostly cool. By the time that the best supporting actor category was announced, where Mark Rylance from “Bride of Spies” emerged as the upset winner over favorite Sylvester Stallone in “Creed,” it felt like all the energy had been drained from the Dolby. During the steady trudge of victories for “Mad Max: Fury Road” in the technical categories, one of the winners in best sound dropped the f-word onstage, but it was bleeped on TV.

Unlike the Golden Globes, the Oscars don’t allow its guests to nibble on food or sip on drinks while watching the show. That’s why many of the attendees, such as Alejandro G. Inarritu, fled to the upstairs bar as the show dragged on past the three-hour mark. And while there weren’t platters of catered food such as that rolled out by the Hollywood Foreign Press (or even a buffet similar to what reporters covering the Oscars enjoy backstage), there was a table with small packets of trail mix and Hershey’s kisses in the lobby.

Oddly enough, the first standing ovation of the night went not to an actor but a politician: Joe Biden, who introduced Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground.” The off-kilter camera angle seen at home meant that the opening lines of her song were shot through a hole in a wall, which was knocked down so the crowd could see her behind a white piano. Gaga’s vocals were electrifying in person, more powerful than her “Sound of Music” tribute at last year’s Oscars, and the crowd gave her the second enthusiastic standing ovation. Her loss a few minutes later to Smith, for a mediocre Bond movie song, was one of the most puzzling moments, and further derailed the momentum inside the Dolby.

There would be two more standing ovations before the night was over: for Ennio Morricone (who finally won an Oscar on his sixth try for “The Hateful Eight” score) and DiCaprio’s best actor win in “The Revenant,” which drew the loudest applause. As the night came to a close, there was a sense of confusion over which film would claim the best picture crown. At the bar, guesses ranged from “The Revenant” to an upset for “Mad Max” to “The Big Short.” But when “Spotlight” emerged as the underdog champ, it seemed like a fair compromise for a telecast that never found its footing. For once, it wasn’t the host’s fault.

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  1. Lance says:

    Wow, are you off base. Chris Rock set a bad tone: a soap box to preach his political beliefs. The show started off poorly and went downhill from there, where everyone brought their own political agenda to an award show that is supposed to be entertaining. And where were the stars? The Oscars used to be a who’s who of major stars trotting out their finery and enjoying themselves. When this year’s presenters came onstage it was more a question of who?

  2. Sharron Hammer says:

    This is the Oscars, not a corporation that has to answer to Affirmative Action.

  3. tom says:

    The headline makes it seem like this is a behind the scenes look instead of a review. So misleading

  4. sam says:

    YOU are one of the few people who didn’t like the ceremony!!! Didn’t think the ceremony found it’s footing? Ridiculous.

  5. Gary Troy says:

    did you see the same academy awards show that i saw because no-one saw what you did. what were you on?

  6. dan says:

    so my question is are the blacks going to allow all diversity when they have the bet awards (black entertainment awards)
    will there be white hosts
    shoud the bet awards be protested

    • Brutus says:

      Dont have to. Cos its an awards show from BLACK entertainment television.
      Only an idiot would draw parallels with the BET awards and the Oscars anyway.

  7. noonecares says:

    watched a great episode of the Walking Dead last night….wait was my tv on AMC or ABC??

  8. Ron Southart says:

    Forgive me, but I have always thought the Academy Awards were given out as a reward for excellence in film making, be it acting, cinematography or directing, etc, etc.. Are we now to witness the transformation of the Awards from a legitimate talent-driven venue into a boorish recognition of diversity by skin color? Perhaps the Academy Awards should henceforth be known as the Token Awards, given out for an excellent job of diversity in a film?

  9. I gather you were not impressed. Pity because I had a great time noticing all of the places where the Academy was falling out over itself to make some amends, or was that amendments? First, I have to wonder what was offered as an incentive for Chris Rock not to withdraw as the host? Could it have been a role in a big studio quality project? The montage of scenes from best pictures with a Black actor inserted were vicious. I most enjoyed the send up of The Martian; it was wicked. Similarly wonderful was the 60 second tribute to Black History month that honored — Jack Black. The apology offered on behalf of the Board of Governors was a bit of a low, but all was forgiven when the presenter for Best Picture was none other than God his own self, or at least an actor who has portrayed him, Morgan Freeman.

  10. tlsnyder42 says:

    The Oscars were invented to be a showcase for the major distributors in Hollywood, not for “independent” cinema that few frequent moviegoers have even heard about, much less have even seen. With all due respect to the final winners, especially Brie Larson who seemed to have really excelled in ROOM, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Harrison Ford were just as great in the STAR WARS flick as any of the nominees. Shouldn’t Ford have won the Best Supporting Actor over the guy in BRIDGE OF SPIES, no matter how well he did? Are we awarding FILM acting, or stage acting, when it comes to the Oscars? Alsop, with all due respect to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE REVENANT, which were fairly popular movies, why snub such popular movies as THE FORCE AWAKENS, JURASSIC WORLD, FURIOUS 7, CINDERELLA, INSIDE OUT, THE MINIONS, or THE MARTIAN, which were even more popular. For example, they had eight nominees this year. Why not make it an even 10 by adding INSIDE OUT, THE FORCE AWAKENS, CINDERELLA, or even STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON? I don’t get it. I really don’t. As for the critical establishment, well, most of their nominees and winners are minor movies that will be a blip on the radar of cinema history. After all, looking back on 1975, shouldn’t JAWS have won Best Picture that year? C’mon!

  11. Eyeroll McGree says:

    shit….next to vapid white women blacks have to be the most protected class in the world. smh….this is right up there with the wage gap bs….it’s like the more absurd an issue the more people annoyingly harp on it.

  12. Dan says:

    The viewership was down because everyone was sick & tired of hearing this thing beat to death. Chris didn’t save the show, he ended up ruining it for everyone. 5 to 10 mins was funny and got the point across, but when it continued for the entire evening, it got to be painful to watch.

  13. I just want the public and the industry to remember that the overt discrimination in Hollywood affects writers also, and that if there are efforts to hire writers of inclusion (this should include white writers over 40 who are continuously ostracized. And although it would have been great for black members of the WGA to have been considered to write films such as The Wedding (the book was written by a black person. But, the film adaptation was not.), we writers of color can and have written for caucasian characters. We can write for Empire as well as Major Crimes. We can write for Black-ish as well as The Big Bang Theory. Producers, networks, studios know this, but pretend they don’t. Like the one-percenters in big business, the ninty percent in charge of the entertainment industry don’t want to share the opportunities. And supporting the actors and writers and producers are over two hundred crew people per show or per movie. Let’s take inclusion there also. It’s not as if we’re asking for jobs that we have not proven we’re qualified to perform successfully at. Have I got a pilot for you.

  14. Dylan Stark says:

    Chris Rock is TRASH!

    Instead of sticking it to The Academy with a nice bevy of hard slamming jokes in his opening monologue like expected and then moving on to politics, world events Etc. He continued on a racial tirade that was boorish, uncouth and like Whoopie Goldberg aka the former Caryn Johnson who became a Black Jew to win favor with all the Hollywood Jews for work.Went too far. Hey Whoopie why don’t you give your Oscar back in protest you pathetic hypocrite. Gays, Woman, Bi-sexuals,Muslims, Jews, Lesbians, Transgender, Christians, Asian Americans Etc. The list of the disenfranchised and discriminated against is ..long and continues with no compensation. Yet the Black community is always there thinking they deserve more. As a woman I just got the right to vote less than 100 years ago. 1919. As a tax paying lesbian woman I just got the right to marry in 2015.My partner of 21 years died before we had that legal right. So shut up. And stop whining! GAY LIVES MATTER TO!!

    • Brutus says:

      How are you gonna drop that ridiculously bitch-ass tantrum of a monologue, then end it by saying “stop whining”???
      Youre familiar with irony, right?…

  15. Nanny Mo says:

    Sure he did, yawn! Just like Hitler tried to save Germany by being a racist pig. Boy, the Academy better figure this out quick before NOBODY cares any more. And they used to be a society of artists interested in people, not just race and gender. Sad to watch it die a racist death.

  16. Chris Rock means next to nothing in England and i hope to never hear his voice and racist comments again Just because a person is black white yellow doesnt mean they should be nominated

  17. E Wison Jr. says:

    oh, Rock “shamed Hollywood” did he? Is that what he did you fool? You weak sissy democrats give a platform to this insistent mentally ill meritless hate from black people and you expect us to endure your product? Fuck you all for abusing us with your PERSONAL problems and unprofessionalism. You immature fools have stolen from every artist last night as you CAVE TO THE PERPETUAL TANTRUM. Hollywood is over now

  18. Conshimfee says:

    Would it be impossible to actually list the below-the-line person’s name? Mark Mangini dropped the F bomb- FYI (he’s a distinctly talented Sound Designer who has been around for years) and who were the people on the carpet you mention? You name all the actors and writers and musicians by name…and lump the below the liners together. Come on- how hard is it to remember who they are and what they do?

  19. Grrrrrrrrr says:

    Penske — please just kill reader commenting entirely except for those who are paid subscribers to VARIETY.

  20. Connie says:

    I think Chris was as racist as I’ve ever seen him. That’s his gift to the world – racist jokes. He took it way to far outshining the actual winners with his “Tom Foolery”. It was a presentation show not a side show for him. He was a good sport to do it but not everything is black and white. There are many other colors that won, some not even speaking English. When do we have “White” history month. With all the hoopla about the Oscars it should be very soon. And Black lives don’t matter anymore than any other race matters. Anything less is just not American.

  21. Sonny Bono says:

    Editors too hungover to come in to work today?

  22. Momus15 says:

    There was no upset in the Mark Rylance award – an actor’s actor, he is adored and revered by his fellow actors. I imagine that most all of the actors’ branch, plus the rest of the Brits in other branches, voted for him. What was the surprise here?!

  23. Green says:

    Harlem? Really?

  24. AtillaThehun says:

    So you DO want an affirmative action award system

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