A more mild-mannered than mouthy Chris Rock briefly steered his opening monologue toward politics in a complicated riff that took President Bush to task for driving up the deficit and taking the country to war.
Comparing what Bush did while still managing to get re-elected with what an employee at the Gap clothing store would face for doing something similar, Rock said Bush took over when the country had a surplus and turned that into “a $70 trillion deficit.”
Bush then “started a war,” Rock went on, suggesting that was analogous to the Gap going after the Banana Republic for “toxic tank tops.” Only to discover, he wound up, that “they never made tank tops in the first place.”
The audience in the Kodak Theater applauded the joke, though not more vigorously than any other the comic made in a relatively clean and mostly movie-focused 10-minute opening routine.
The anti-Bush comments were part of an overarching theme about movies nobody wanted to make.
These included Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” — Rock said Moore could more easily have made “Super Size Me,” since “he’d done the research” — and “The Passion of the Christ,” which he described as being as distasteful to Jews as “Soul Plane” and “White Chicks” should have been to blacks.
Along with Bush, Colin Farrell (no Russell Crowe he) and Jude Law (no Tom Cruise he) also came in for jibes from Rock.
To the relief, no doubt, of Oscar organizers and TV execs, none of the presenters or award winners, including outspoken liberal icon Tim Robbins, touched on politics in their remarks.
Rock even managed to conclude his monologue with the now almost obligatory thanks to the troops, a note reiterated later onstage by Academy president Frank Pierson.
Nor did the bleep machine need to go into overdrive: It caught one vulgar blooper from Rock’s opening remarks and another from one of his prerecorded sketches. It did not know what to do with “dog’s bollocks,” though, which was uttered by the winner of the live action short film.
Although none of Rock’s remarks had the punch of Moore’s anti-Bush rant at last year’s event, the anti-Bush theme, limited though it was, inevitably will contribute to the cultural rift that has cleaved the country into liberal and conservative bastions.
That’s because no comment, no criticism, no caveat thrown out by showbiz biggies — be it about the war in Iraq, gay marriage or oil drilling in Alaska — goes unnoticed, or uncontested, these days.
Even the Academy’s nominations were criticized by assorted radio and TV pundits and Internet bloggers.
Right-wing radio talkshow hosts went to town on the Academy when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” failed to get a best pic nom, describing it as a slap in the face to the heartland’s moral values. Pic did get noms for music, cinematography and makeup. Commentators had much less to say about the fact that Moore’s anti-Bush doc “Fahrenheit 9/11” was shut out by the Academy.
Hollywood has, in fact, become one of the most potent touchstones in the culture war — decried by its detractors as a den of iniquity where licentiousness is shamelessly flaunted or dismissed as out of touch with the family values on which America rests.
Even from the back seats of their limos, the Hollywood upper crust may have noticed the disconnect.
Staring down at them from two giant billboards near the Kodak Theater was an unusual advertisement erected by a Washington-based group called Citizens United. The ad cheekily thanks Hollywood for its help in getting Bush re-elected. In the background are shots of politically active celebs like Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Ben Affleck and Whoopi Goldberg — arguably some of the least popular thesps in fly-over country.
“What more sardonic symbol of this newfound chutzpah from the heartland could there be than these advertisements,” opined one Oscar-goer on the eve of the event.
Much has changed since last year’s largely upbeat Oscar celebration of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Not only did Bush get re-elected, throwing the Dems and many of their Hollywood supporters into a decided funk, but Tinseltown itself has come under increasing scrutiny for its products and business practices.
D.C. solons are giving media consolidation a second look and, for the moment, moves to deregulate the TV biz — giving big players a bigger piece of the pie — have been put on hold.
Under pressure from constituents, politicos also have been spurred to come down harder on indecent material in the movies and on TV. Fines have been jacked up 10-fold over the last year for on-air vulgarity, leading webheads to insist on time delays in their live awards broadcasts to avoid on-air wardrobe malfunctions and verbal boo-boos.
In keeping with renewed pressure to maintain decency standards, ABC instituted a seven-second tape delay in the Oscarcast last year and repeated it this go-round.
While there has always been ambivalence about Hollywood in the hinterland, outright disdain for ultra-liberal Tinseltown values is not that unusual these days.
And yet, few are utterly immune to the glitz.
Folks in Paducah are tuning in to “Desperate Housewives” just as avidly as those in Palo Alto.
In the end, entertainment still unites the country more than politics divides it.