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.
Chris Rock interviews Compton moviegoer
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.
I found myself in Los Angeles these last few days of February for a number of reasons. Let me put it to you this way, I was there as much to enjoy a day long visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as I was for anything else. And, of course, I devoted a chunk of time to the Oscars. Here is the key to a lot in life: keep an open mind. Now, when it comes to entertainment, the more flexible you are, the better. I keep things to a broad spectrum, from the intellectual to the spectacle. That said, I’ll share with you some observations from this last visit. In the end, we can explore the idea of what it is to be entertained.
The Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, Los Angeles
Seattle is my home base. It is in this relatively small, yet bustling, city that various forms of entertainment are created by some very talented individuals in music, film, fiction, comics, and so on. And then there are just as many, perhaps even more, individuals involved in commenting on all this creative work. That’s something I am very sensitive to as I am both a creator and a commentator. Let’s just say I appreciate when the air has gotten too thick. Sometimes, you just want some frog legs at The Gumbo Pot in the Farmers Market, which I definitely enjoyed. And, to be sure, the level of discourse at tables was quick, smart, and unpretentious. If I say I am going to talk to you about the true meaning of fiction or entertainment, it’s in the spirit of an open discussion without the pretense. Please, we have too much of that.
Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” at LACMA
It’s all about going from the specific to the general. Take the time to give one particular subject its due, focus on that, consider its merits, and then reap the rewards of entertainment and insight. I will compare for you two events in Hollywood that are closely related: a tribute to screenwriter George Clayton Johnson at the American Cinematheque this last Friday; and then some observations on the Oscars this last Sunday. I really wasn’t planning on doing this. I want to keep it light but offer you a few ideas. The best thing I can do is jump right in with some observations beginning with the tribute. Here, I want to make clear that much depends upon your understanding and knowledge.
George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood
If such things as the literary background of The Twilight Zone are new to you, then perhaps this will spark interest. I know a great deal about this subject, particularly the writers known as, The Group, from which much of this springs from. George Clayton Johnson was a key member of The Group. He had within his power the ability to write some of the most compelling magical realism. That’s important because, despite the many disadvantages he had in life, he was a writer with not only a vision but a determination. George went on to create some of the most iconic and beloved episodes of The Twilight Zone which is the gold standard for what can be done when melding the art forms of fiction and television. Don’t let yourself think that Masterpiece Theater holds the key. That is too obvious a venue. Actually, it is within The Twilight Zone, at its best, that you will find much that is stimulating and intriguing with great literary merit.
George Clayton Johnson tribute at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood
So, here you have this very special individual, George Clayton Johnson, who understood better than most, the fundamental inner workings of fiction. He took his insight, skill, and hard work and did what he did with it. He primarily wrote for television. All of his work on The Twilight Zone is remarkable. This led to him writing the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast. Among other TV work, he wrote an exceptional episode of Kung Fu where the main character experiences a flashforward, as opposed to a flashback, to help him save his life. And, to cap it all off, George and William F. Nolan wrote the classic dystopian novel, Logan’s Run. Beyond those achievements, it is George’s life story that is inspiring. He was close friends with such greats as Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. George was simply a man who loved to keep it simple: write what you believe in, give back to the community, love thy neighbor. The outpouring of love and admiration for George at this tribute was very moving. I had the opportunity to get to know George. I can fully understand how bright his light shines.
Chris Rock tells it like it is at the Oscars.
A couple of nights later, lo and behold, it’s the Oscars. Now, mind you, I did not have any set plans. How I wish my Comics Grinder credentials would have gotten me a press pass. Perhaps they would had I pursued it. I’ll tell you something, I am a keen observer and a friendly interviewer. I can easily adapt to any situation. This segues to what I did for Oscars night. Due to a few things going on that night, I found myself outside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Let me back track a bit, a buddy of mine suggested that as a great spot to maybe see something going on. In fact, the plan was to meet up with him. I show up and, yes, it is a great spot, right on the corner of Orange and Hollywood overlooking that whole block of Madame Tussauds, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the Dolby Theatre.
25 Degrees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
Well, on that corner are a bunch of onlookers, of course. Shades of “The Day of the Locust.” I mingled for a bit. No one knows exactly what to expect, if anything. I then made my way into the Hollywood Roosevelt and 25 Degrees, one of the hotel’s seven bars. 25 Degrees is known for its gourmet burgers and onion rings, which I fell in love with. I patiently waited for a cozy table overlooking the bar and two big screen TVs broadcasting the Oscars. Chris Rock was doing his monologue. I saw any number of what appeared to be otherwise jaded industry folk carefully listening and giving way to outbursts of laughter. Just as I was assured by my hostess that I could have the table, this one lady sat down at that very same table. The hostess explained to her that I had already been given that table but I said it was alright. Sure, it’s the Oscars, I’ll share the table. Well, it was definitely for the best. The lady turned out to be an executive with a Mexican network. We ended up chatting about the decline of culture in general and the disturbing rise of Donald Trump.
Behind the scenes at the Oscars
It always comes down to the coveted issues of time and space. That table had a fixed value of one hour. You could not stay at that table beyond an hour. I sweet talked my hostess into letting me begin a new hour given that I had to share it. In the meantime, my new friend, the Mexican TV executive, had hoped that I could hold on to the table as she had wanted to return after a while. Well, there must have been a lot of discussion in the back. At first, yes, I could keep the table if I ordered more food. After having the delicious Patty Melt, and a half jug of Pinot Noir, I opted to start with a Dark and Stormy. Later, the supervisor negotiates with me. It turns out that the table really needs to be relinquished. If I am alright with moving to the bar, he will treat me to another drink. Well, that’s fine with me. And, well appreciated too!
Behind the scenes at the Oscars
We always hear the long-running jokes about the Oscars being too long. The crowd that night enjoyed every minute of it and would have been happy to see more. The high points were the Chris Rock monologue, the announcement for Best Actor to Leonardo DiCaprio, and the announcement for Best Picture to “Spotlight.” In between, and throughout, careful attention was given to each category. I ended up chatting a bit with other patrons at the bar. The consensus seemed to be that this was one of the best Oscars. I certainly found myself in a perfect setting. The bar, with its old-school charm, was impeccable.
Here I am in front of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.
One Oscar tradition never fails to move me. That’s when a tribute is given to notable members of the Academy who had passed away in the previous year. I was certain that George Clayton Johnson would receive a mention. While he wrote primarily for television, he also co-wrote the story that was the basis for “Ocean’s Eleven” and he also co-wrote an Academy Award nominated animated feature with Ray Bradbury, “Icarus Montgolfier Wright.” But he did not get his mention. That left a sad note hanging in the air. But it was still grand to be at the Hollywood Roosevelt on Oscar night. I can tell you, I can share with you, the fact that both nights, the tribute to George and Oscar night, were both magical. George is still remembered and people will enjoy his work whether they realize he wrote it or not. George will always be part of that magic that people seek out whether they know it or not.