Oscar host Chris Rock faces unprecedented pressure to balance comedy and commentary

Has the host for an Oscar telecast ever been under more pressure than this year’s Chris Rock?

More pressure than usual, that is. The task, beginning with the monologue, is always hard and, except for David Letterman, the hosts have always taken the comedy assignment seriously. Rock had begun working on his monologue long before the nominations were announced on Jan. 14, prompting outrage and calls for him to join Spike Lee, Will Smith and others in a boycott of the Feb. 28 show.

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“Easy for them to say,” Rock might have said.  All they would have had to do is put on a tux and show up. He would have to break a contract and miss the opportunity to seduce a global audience of about a billion people.

The question now, as he retrofits his monologue to address the charges of racism being flung at the academy and the American film industry at large, is how far to go and how tough to be in his satirical criticism without casting a pall over what for more than 80 years has been a subjective celebration of achievement in movies.

One thing is certain; Rock won’t repeat the opening to his monologue when he hosted the show in 2005. After saying there were four black nominees, he triumphantly stated “It’s kind of like the def-Oscar jam tonight!” The four nominated actors he referenced and who were in the audience were Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo from “Hotel Rwanda,” Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby,” and Jamie Foxx, who was nominated for both “Ray” and “Collateral.” (Freeman and Foxx won.)

Later, as a guest of Letterman, he was asked if he would host the Oscars again and he said “Yeah, if there were a lot of black people on it, I’d do it again.”

Well, now what’s he going to do?

Rock is a smart and funny guy and he’ll find a way to chasten the academy and indict the industry without turning the Oscars into a Black Actors’ Lives Matter protest, if only because there won’t be any other black actors there.

I hope he doesn’t take a cue from Whoopi Goldberg and appear on stage in white face. Whoopi did that in 1999, costumed as a ghostly Queen Elizabeth doing a tribute to the actresses who’d portrayed the virgin queen that year, and while the audience loved it, it wasn’t a good look for her.

By the way, there were no black nominees in the audience that night, either.

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Photo: ABC 

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