Nominating a slate of all white actors for the second consecutive year and booking one of the country’s most incisive black comedians to host its ceremony may have been exactly what the Academy Awards needed.
Sunday night’s ceremony was one of the funniest and most surprising in recent Oscars history thanks to host Chris Rock relentlessly biting the hand that was feeding him and a few genuine surprises in the actual awards.
This was a tad surprising considering the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does control the event, and it and the in-theater audience have a track record of taking themselves very, very seriously. But you got the feeling about an hour into Sunday night’s ceremony that this was an institution that knew it had messed up and was ready to take its punishment.
Rock was happy to oblige.
He came out of the gate welcoming viewers to the “White People’s Choice Awards” and saying he thought about pulling out of the ceremony, as some had called for him to do.
“I realized, they’re gonna have the Oscars anyway,” he said. “They’re not gonna cancel the Oscars because I quit. You know? And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart, O.K.?”
So, he made the most of the forum he was given, not only delivering a searing monologue that even went after some of the people protesting the Oscars – “Jada is going to boycott the Oscars,” Rock said, referring to actress Jada Pinkett Smith, the first high profile artist to declare she was boycotting. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.” – but continuing with jokes peppered through the evening and at least three pre-recorded video segments addressing the controversy.
In one, black actors including Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones stood in for white roles in nominated films. Another echoed a bit from Rock’s first Oscars hosting turn in 2005, where he interviewed moviegoers at at Magic Johnson Theatre in Los Angeles, highlighting the gulf between black filmgoers and the Oscars. As he named the best picture nominees, one woman asked if he was making the movies up.
In a lighter moment, Rock also had his daughters and members of their Girl Scout troop come into the audience and sell Girl Scout cookies, somewhat echoing Ellen DeGeneres’ pizza order a few years ago. Even Vice-President Joe Biden, who was there to introduce Lady Gaga’s performance of the Oscar-nominated song Til It Happens to You from The Hunting Ground, reportedly gave Rock some money for cookies.
Gaga’s performance was one of the other surprises that made this ceremony sing. It was positioned much later in the ceremony than more popular nominees, including the eventual winner, Sam Smith’s The Writing’s on the Wall from the James Bond film Spectre. But the song about sexual violence from a documentary addressing the same subject was a powerful moment, giving Gaga standout performances in the first two major entertainment awards shows of 2016.
Louis CK, of all people, had another great cameo, presenting best documentary short with a quick comedy routine that basically explained why the Oscars continue to present these sorts of awards, which most other awards shows have jettisoned to pre-shows, on its main stage.
“These people will never be rich as long as they live,” CK said of the short documentary filmmakers, “so this Oscar means something. All they do is tell stories that are important. Now you all do, but you also get rich. But for these people, all they’ve got is this Oscar that’s going home in a Honda Civic. This Oscar is going to be the nicest thing they own in their life. It’s going to give them anxiety to keep it in their crappy apartment.”
The Oscar went to A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, though we do not know what kind of car it is going home in. The routine did automatically trigger an online call for CK to be tapped for Oscars host.
Some surprises in the awards also kept the show interesting, including Bridge of Spies Mark Rylance upsetting Creed’s Sylvester Stallone for best supporting actor. Rylance obliged with a lovely and generous acceptance speech.
Mad Max: Fury Road had all but an early-evening sweep of technical awards, though it was The Revenant that appeared on its way to best picture victory with wins for best cinematography, best director (Alejandro González Iñárritu) and best actor (Leonardo DiCaprio).
But when Morgan Freeman named the best picture winner, it was Spotlight, the drama about The Boston Globe investigation into sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. It won only one other award in the evening, the first one given, for best original screenplay, and became the first best picture winner since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953 to win only one other award, also for writing.
The show was not perfect, of course. As usual, it did tend to drag at points — the Oscars didn’t stop being bloated in one year — and there were some pointless moments leading up to the midnight sign off. But overall, the elements came together for a surprisingly good Oscars night, the show even appropriately playing out to Public Enemy’s 1990 hit Fight the Power.
But the thing the Academy and Oscar voters need to remember is while this weirdly coalesced into an entertaining night this year, if they come back with a white slate of nominees in 2017, they will have taken this beating for nothing, and far fewer people will be ready to laugh.