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Rock, Well . . . Didn't

By Tom Shales
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page C01

Chris Rock jokingly welcomed viewers to "the 77th, and last, Academy Awards" last night but this Oscar show, nervously televised from Hollywood on ABC, will more likely turn out to be the first, and last, to be hosted by Rock. Though a brilliant and caustic stand-up comedian, Rock's stint as an Oscar host was strangely lame and mean-spirited.

Since we are apparently still living in the aftermath of Janet Jackson's overexposure at the 2004 Super Bowl, and because Rock is a comic known for raw and risque material, there was much hullabaloo in the weeks leading up to the ceremony about whether Rock would misbehave, perhaps earning ABC a scolding and sanction from the Federal Communications Commission, which now doles out fines the way Hollywood doles out awards.

Hilary Swank would have done better to follow the lead of Best Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman and kept it short. (Gary Hershorn -- Reuters)

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But the only real controversy generated by Rock came during a so-so monologue in which he insulted several actors, Jude Law among them, as being small-timers who got parts only when better actors were unavailable. Rock had also pre-taped a peculiar bit of man-on-the-street comedy in which a collection of Hollywood moviegoers, most of them African American, said they hadn't seen or even heard of many of this year's nominated films. It was unclear if this routine was some sort of commentary on racism or a gratuitous slap at Hollywood, but either option is hardly encouraging.

The first half of the show was dominated by the film "The Aviator," about the life of Howard Hughes, but then the show was taken over by "Million Dollar Baby," a gritty drama about a woman who wants to be a professional boxer. "Aviator" won for art direction, costumes, supporting actress (Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn) and cinematography, but "Million Dollar Baby" won the million-dollar awards: Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Picture and best performance by an actress, the toothy Hilary Swank.

Swank also took dubious honors for one of the evening's most torturous and prolonged acceptance speeches, refusing to be cut off by the orchestra, which had managed to silence a few blabbermouths who preceded her. Few winners followed the sterling example set by Morgan Freeman, who was named Best Supporting Actor in the same film and whose speech was brilliantly brief.

Producer Gil Cates made a few brave tries at shortening the show. Some awards were handed out in the audience, eliminating a few of those agonizing long walks to the stage (which some shrewd winners always draw out by stopping to shake hands with everybody they met in Hollywood on their way to the top). Nominees and winners of craftsmanship and technical awards were already gathered onstage when their awards were announced.

That led Rock to joke that next year some Oscars will be presented in the parking lot, with winners taking advantage of a quickie drive-through lane.

This year's Oscars featured, for the most part, such a gloom-and-doomy array of nominees that it would have been very hard to turn the show into a funfest, or even a decently entertaining three hours of self-indulgence.

Fearing that the lackluster box-office performance of the nominated films would translate into low ratings for the Oscar special, Cates and other producers of the program hired hot comic Rock and then sent him on a publicity tour during which he repeatedly suggested he would not soften or homogenize his material. The promise appeared to be that this year's Oscars would be racy and sexy and a slap in the face of blue-nose pressure groups who have currently declared open season on TV and its allegedly offensive programming.

But the brave front was a sham. Robin Williams was scheduled to perform a song ridiculing censorious fringe groups, but according to news reports the song was deemed so inflammatory, and was so heavily edited by ABC censors, that its authors refused to let it be performed. When Williams stepped onstage, he'd affixed a piece of white tape over his mouth to symbolize the censorship.

His comedy routine included some of the material that had been in the song -- jokes about comic-book and fairy-tale characters having scandalous private lives -- but the song itself was gone, revealing ABC censors to be chickenhearted in the way that almost all censors are, and handing a victory to the pressure groups, one of which recently charged that the popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants was sending out secret pro-homosexual messages in his animated adventures.

"SquarePants is not gay," Williams jokes. "Tight Pants? Maybe. SpongeBob HotPants? You go, girl!" The cartoon, which airs daily on Nickelodeon, is one of the most popular programs of any kind on cable TV.

The annual Academy salute to motion picture figures who died during the previous year was movingly accompany by a Yo-Yo Ma cello solo. As was only fitting, the personality saved for last and given the most time during the tribute was Marlon Brando. Earlier, however, the Academy badly fumbled a chance to offer a tribute to Johnny Carson, who hosted the Academy Awards many times in the '70s and '80s, back when the show still had a vestige of energy and the nominated movies still had some glamour and pizzazz.

This year's Oscar show was certainly more ethnically diverse than ever, but so much attention was called to this that it made the program seem lopsided, a celebration only of films that qualify as politically correct. Actor Jamie Foxx, who won for playing the great singer Ray Charles in the film "Ray," seemed to be exploiting the racial angle by implying his victory was a victory for African Americans. He gave essentially the same speech he gave at the Golden Globes, replete with threats to break up in tears when he got to the part about his dear old grandma and her influence on little Jamie when he was a child.

That influence included "whippings," Foxx said, but he claimed to be grateful even for those. In the audience, Oprah Winfrey gave Foxx a big wave as if she somehow shared in the award for his acting talent and heartfelt performance in the movie.

The Oscars are losing their status as a big national party and turning instead into de facto political conventions -- and if there's anything TV and the nation don't need, it's more of those. Chances are the ratings for this year's Oscar show will not be especially high and might be especially low, unless Rock turns out to have been enough of a name to bring viewers back to their sets. More likely, the whole horrible mess will have to be rethought once again, and next year's Oscarcast will be preceded by a fresh wave of hype about how new and improved it all is.

Perhaps Billy Crystal will come riding in on a white horse again and rescue the show with a zippy performance as host.

There can't really be great Oscar shows, however, without great movies. The fault for this year's dry and dreary fiasco isn't Rock's or the windy speechmakers thanking half the population of North America. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in our motion pictures.

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