Chris Rock opened one of the most fraught Oscars ceremonies ever with a winning monologue that let everyone off the hook and put everyone on the hook at the same time.
Wearing a white jacket and black pants, Rock fastened onto the Oscars’ diversity problem and he didn’t let go, taking full advantage of the fact that he happened to be hosting in the year of #OscarsSoWhite. He did exactly what his fans expected — and hoped: He grabbed the Academy’s bull by the horns and didn’t let go. He owned the night. His funny-but-serious-but-funny opener made for compelling TV, sparking a charged atmosphere that lasted all the night, well into the third hour when presenter Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G referred to himself as black.
Calling the Academy Awards “The White People’s Choice Awards,” Rock took aim at Hollywood — the largely white power brokers who sat facing him — for years of white-washing. “If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job,” he said. “You’d be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.” He joked about different kinds of racists, calling Hollywood liberals “sorority racists” who are like a college’s exclusive mean girls.
“We want opportunity,” he said to cheers from the attentive audience. “Leo [DiCaprio] gets a great part every year. All you guys get great parts all the time.” He made his points clear without disrespecting or spoiling the night for the actors who were nominated.
But Rock took on those protesting the Oscars with no less ferocity, noting that black people weren’t complaining about the lack of nominations during the first decades of the Oscars. “We had real things to protest at the time,” he said. “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.” Online, critics took him to task for implying that there are no “real” issues regarding race today, even though he did make an ironic joke about how the night’s In Memoriam segment would need to be devoted to “black people shot by cops on their way to the theater.”
Rock had no lighthearted comments for high-profile protesters Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. About Will Smith, he said: “It’s not fair that Will Smith was this good [in “Concussion”] and didn’t get nominated. . . . It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for ‘Wild Wild West’.” He also joked that “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”
Publicists across the town were heard opening their seating-chart files: Note to self – never ever in a million years seat Chris Rock near the Smiths.
Rock seemed remarkably at home onstage and more present than most Oscar hosts. When the night ended with his invitation to the BET Awards, he continued to amuse. Even his attempt to match Ellen DeGeneres’s 2014 pizza moment with Girl Scout cookie sales wasn’t annoying. In short, he was the best host in years.
The Academy acknowledged its racial problem with humor, too. The ceremony included a “Black History Month Minute” that wound up being about Jack Black and an amusing sequence of black actors lampooning nominated films — Leslie Jones in “The Revenant,” Tracy Morgan in “The Danish Girl,” and Rock in “The Martian.”
There were other serious issues in play at last night’s ceremony. The acceptance speeches for “Spotlight” — which won for best picture and original screenplay — honored the victims of priest abuse (as well as paid tribute to Globe reporters, including Mike Rezendes, who got a few sweet close-ups during the night). Sam Smith shouted out to the LGBT community, Leonardo DiCaprio spoke about climate change, and sexual assault survivors stood behind Lady Gaga at the end of her performance of “Til It Happens to You.”
And what of the red carpet? I was tempted to feel badly for the hosts who had to interview Jacob Tremblay, the 9-year-old boy from “Room.” It’s hard to make a kid interesting. “It’s definitely bigger than I thought,” he said about the event.
But then I realized it’s hard to make anyone of any age interesting in the midst of all the swirling and swanning, promoting and false modesty. Seriously, imagine trying to make small talk with Rooney “Good Times” Mara, who appears to have a case of RBF, or talking to Cate Blanchett in her frilly dress without mentioning your grandmother’s plastic-flowered bathing cap.
On E!, Ryan Seacrest tried hard, bringing in fans’ questions, smiling up at Brie Larson despite the fact that she made him look like Tremblay, and serving tea prepared by chef Wolfgang Puck to Brits Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes. That little exchange bought him some lines later on, since — what what? — the two gentlemen stole their teacups! So did Bryan Cranston, who gave him a cookie with his own face on it. “You can eat me,” Cranston told him.
Over at ABC, the microphone people tried harder to matter. Robin Roberts made a point of bringing up the diversity question, and she got a lot of very nice responses. Everyone is in favor of it. Meanwhile, Michael Strahan took selfies with the stars. Because somehow, having footage of yourself talking to them live on TV just isn’t exciting enough.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.