Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Chris Rock is to host next year’s Oscar ceremony. It’s a bold choice; Rock has hosted the ceremony once before, in 2005, and drew mixed reviews. But it’s also a booking that shows that the Oscars’ new producers have learned from recent ceremonies’ mistakes.
In 2005, Rock was admirably willing to mix it up with celebrities, making such gleeful fun of Jude Law’s hyper-prolific moviemaking schedule that Sean Penn was moved to respond onstage. Rock also specifically made fun of Nicole Kidman for seeming overly excited to lose an Oscar to Halle Berry and broadcast a taped bit at a Magic Johnson movie theater in which black moviegoers revealed no awareness of nominated films like Sideways and Finding Neverland.
The first two of these gags revealed an adept skill at provoking Hollywood by pointing out its hypocrisies in a cutting but not gratuitous way. Though they were controversial at the time, a decade’s worth of hosts from Seth MacFarlane (too mean) to Anne Hathaway (too nice) show just how difficult a needle Rock threaded. And the final bit, in which Rock showed how little concordance there was between Oscar voters and black moviegoers, was a masterstroke then and looks prescient now.
It’s that point-of-view that the Oscars so sorely lacked last year. The fact that all 20 acting Oscar nominees were white drew both criticism from the moviegoing public and a hamhanded response on the part of host Neil Patrick Harris, who, in attempting to engage with black celebrities in the room as presenters, ended up embarrassingly mispronouncing David Oyelowo’s and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s names and enlisting Octavia Spencer in a bit creepily reminiscent of her role in The Help. If Rock’s booking is in part a reaction to an Oscars ceremony that revealed Hollywood’s self-awareness about race somehow moving backwards in time, so much the better.
But, months before we know who this year’s Oscar nominees will even be, the choice seems canny for reasons other than responding to last year’s slate. The awards hosts, at the Oscars and otherwise, who’ve really worked lately have been ones who managed to let a little air out of the balloon of the evening’s grandiosity in a knowledgable way. Andy Samberg’s recent Emmys-hosting gig revealed that the actor is willing to go big and absurdist (which we already knew) and that he (perhaps with some help from his writers) is truly obsessed with TV in an appealingly fannish way. Ellen DeGeneres, a master of massaging stars’ egos on her daytime talk show, brought to her recent Oscars gig a canny sense of how to deflate the nominees (making them take part in a selfie and a pizza party) just a bit.
Sure, DeGeneres is sunny and genial whereas Rock, in 2005, was more derisive. But both have a sharp, intuitive sense of how celebrity works; Rock is also a movie obsessive whose humor at his last Oscars drew specifically upon references to specific details of stars’ personas and work. Oscar purists are always concerned about too-critical or too-ironic hosts deflating the glamour of the evening, but a host whose humor stems from a savvy awareness of Hollywood, earned by being one of the nation’s biggest stars, is exactly the sort of person who can credibly bring the audience in on the fun. Where Harris ultimately fell short was that his humor (largely puns and magic tricks) had nothing to do with the movies at all. Rock is guaranteed to have seen, and have strong opinions on, all of the nominated films. And if a presenter is moved to criticize him from the dais again—then, at least if history is guide, we’ll still be talking about it ten years from now.