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Don't blame Chris Rock for a canned, bland show

Posted 2/28/2005

The Academy Awards have always been as much about selling movie tickets as about recognizing artistic merit, but this year's Oscar ceremony seemed more than ever to be just a promotional tool for the industry.

Host Chris Rock pointed out the problem comically early on with a man-on-the-street interview segment in which he made fun of how few of the filmgoers at one of the Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles had actually seen the best-picture nominees.

Perhaps it was because many of the nominees came from films no one would have felt compelled to see if they hadn't actually been nominated, but this year's Oscar ceremony seemed bland and insubstantial.

Don't blame Rock. Hyped as a cutting-edge comic who could potentially enliven what was expected to be a battle of Hollywood insiders, he entered to a standing ovation only to tell the audience, "OK, OK, sit your (butts) down." He proceeded to say he wouldn't bash President Bush, then discreetly did exactly that, and he dissed Jude Law and Colin Farrell while dropping a couple of "sucks" into his opening monologue.

After that, however, he was lacking in the ad-lib commentary that distinguishes a good host. While he slipped in double entendres like, "You won't be able to take your eyes off these next four presenters, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek," he also did a lame canned routine pretending to step in for an absent Catherine Zeta-Jones alongside presenter Adam Sandler.

The tribute to the late Johnny Carson as an Oscar host only served to point up how lacking Rock was in unscripted moments.

Director Gil Cates tried to open things up by bringing some nominees onstage and giving out other awards in the crowd, but neither stunt produced any memorable acceptance speeches.

Such is the state of award ceremonies in the "wardrobe malfunction" era. The five-second delay imposed by the ABC Network, airing locally on WLS-TV Channel 7, was sadly unnecessary. The most controversial moment of the night came when Robin Williams entered to present the Oscar for best animated feature with tape across his mouth. A song lampooning the right-wing controversy over whether SpongeBob SquarePants promotes homosexuality had been axed by ABC censors. He slipped many of the lyrical jokes into his remarks, but it wasn't the same.

It took Hilary Swank's humble, heartfelt acceptance speech, acknowledging her fellow best-actress nominees, to cut through the Hollywood crapola. Pushed off the stage by conductor Bill Conti, she shut him right down by saying, "You can't do that because I haven't gotten to Clint (Eastwood) yet."

Otherwise, high points were few and far between.

Understatement of the night: Rock saying, "I saw 'The Passion of the Christ' - not that funny, really."

Ooh, topical humor: Rock's steroid joke.

Worst hair day: Adam Duritz's Sideshow Bob 'do.

Runner-up: Laura Linney, going the other way with the straightest hair of the night.

Best audition for next year's host: Kathy Griffin, perched in a tower for the E! red-carpet show, said, "I wish I had some water balloons up here. It would just be fun."

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