Once upon a time, you could rely on one host for the Oscars, Bob Hope, who hosted for 19 years, a record that is never to be broken. No, not when we look upon Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, and Chris Rock as old-timers with each of them having hosted twice. No doubt, each would make a great host again, maybe as early as next year. Speculation is already brewing on who the next host will be for 2017. As for this year, the Oscars will be remembered for one thing: what Chris Rock had to say.
We once had the Bob Hope gold standard full of wry humor and brash for its time. Bob Hope told it like it was. And Chris Rock tells it like it is today. After all the mounting pressure from #OscarsSoWhite, Rock masterfully defused, and refocused, the situation with some passionate humor and honesty. He began by asking, “Why this year? Why now?” and then went for the kill, “In all those other years, we had more important things to protest about, like getting lynched!” His monologue was the highlight of the show, a message for today and beyond. As I had stated earlier, I was in a perfect vantage, the 25 Degrees bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. What I observed was a very attentive audience for Mr. Rock.
Making a political statement at the Oscars is far more challenging than it may appear. Chris Rock did it with skill and heart. He had been honing new material in the days leading up to his monologue and it resulted in something that ranks up with the best. The Oscars have that tradition of protest. It rarely works. However there are exceptions. The best, perhaps the first, is Sacheen Littlefeather refusing to accept the Best Actor Oscar on behalf on Marlon Brando for “The Godfather” in 1973. This was a protest over the treatment and depiction of Native Americans in the media as well as reaction to Wounded Knee. Talk about arguing for diversity! It is a graceful, articulate, and authentic moment, a far cry from the blather of today.
The 88th Academy Awards ceremony had a number of responses to the current outcry. One of the funniest had notable African-American stars Leslie Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, and Chris Rock green-screened into nominated films. Leslie Jones steals the show as the bear from “The Revenant.” And Tracy Morgan follows with his line, “I’m a Danish Girl!” as he bites into a pastry. More to the point, a segment with Chris Rock interviewing moviegoers in Compton helped to demonstrate that the typical outcrop of Oscar nominated films like “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” did not resonate with a black audience.
In the end, Chris Rock rose to the occasion. He was presented with a significant moment in time, recognized it, and ran with it. On that night, he filled the big shoes of the likes of Bob Hope and left a pair of big shoes of his own.