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.