In any other year, the suspense heading into Sunday’s 88th Academy Awards would center on the nominees. Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally take home his first Oscar? (Yes.) Will The Revenant’s Alejandro González Iñárritu join the esteemed likes of John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz by landing back-to-back Best Director trophies after winning the prize in 2015 for Birdman? (Probably.) Will the tremendous Mad Max: Fury Road become the first post-apocalyptic action movie to win Best Picture? (No, but it’s an honor just to be nominated.)
This year, though, the Oscars are different. This year, all eyes are trained on comedian Chris Rock, who is hosting the show. He’s expected to kick off the festivities with a monologue addressing the “Oscars So White” controversy that erupted in January after the nominees were announced and no minorities made the cut in the four acting categories.
Rock was wise to ignore the call to boycott the ceremony by Will Smith (a potential nominee for Concussion) and Jada Pinkett-Smith (who played a supporting role in Magic Mike XXL). Their “We won’t go!” stance came off as self-serving and ultimately meaningless. What better way to bring attention to the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees — and, by extension, the entire film industry — than to address the issue live on television, while millions of people are tuned in? Staying at home to sulk accomplishes nothing.
Besides, Mr. and Mrs. Smith will be watching the show anyway: How could they not? The Oscars are, first and foremost a glamorous gala in which the film industry celebrates itself. The ceremony is a giant pageant of ego-stroking, which has always been part of its allure.
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The spell Hollywood casts over popular culture has changed every decade: Today, a lot of what passes for film writing — especially on the Internet — is devoted to parsing teaser trailers of the latest comic-book adaptation or debating the philosophical underpinnings of The Force Awakens. It’s clickbait noise.
But as long as movies matter, so will the Oscars, if only as a vehicle for office betting pools and viewing parties with friends. Winning an Academy Award won’t make Spotlight or The Big Short better or more important. DiCaprio already has established his spot in Hollywood history books: An Oscar will just be one of many bullet points on his biography.
Rock, however, has a chance to make a lasting impression. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has already taken action to change the group, putting in new requirements and regulations designed to alter its 6,000-plus overwhelmingly white, older, male membership and make it more inclusive.
But that won’t change the way studio executives think about audiences or decide what kinds of films to make. Oscar voters can only vote on the movies that have been made, and even though they will always make bone-headed decisions — explain to me again how Carol didn’t land nominations for Best Picture or Best Director? — the Academy is only a reflection of the diversity issue, not the cause of it.
While the world watches, the outspoken Rock — a veteran actor, writer, producer and director who has worked within the film industry for more than half his life — is bound to address the problem in his typically hilarious, insightful manner. Rock is an industry insider with the ruthless honesty of an outsider, and he knows how to crack wise without being Ricky Gervais-mean.
In an essay about Hollywood’s lack of diversity for The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, Rock wrote “Now, when it comes to casting, Hollywood pretty much decides to cast a black guy or they don't. We're never on the ‘short list.’ We're never ‘in the mix.’ When there's a hot part in town and the guys are reading for it, that's just what happens. It was never like, ‘Is it going to be Ryan Gosling or Chiwetel Ejiofor for Fifty Shades of Grey?’”
So even if Spotlight snags the Best Picture prize (here’s hoping!) or if Fury Road’s George Miller somehow manages to steal enough support from Iñárritu to win Best Director (fingers crossed), Rock’s monologue is destined to be the highlight of the night — he will be a movie star calling out Hollywood from its most prized stage. In a couple of years, most everything about Sunday’s Academy Awards will be largely forgotten and relegated to trivia-game answers. The film industry won’t change its ways overnight, either. But right now, for the moment, the Oscars have our attention, and that has little to do with the nominees. Sorry, Leo.
The 88th Academy Awards air on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.