Critics: A Good Oscars, with a So-So Host

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By: Brian Orloff

Fashion roundups, lists of winners, and show high- and lowlights dominated today’s newspaper coverage of the Academy Awards telecast, but many critics also weighed in on the Great Chris Rock Experiment. While most critics agreed that the show’s streamlined structure worked, and appreciated the relatively slim running time of three hours and 15 minutes, many felt let down by the volcanic Rock.

Phil Rosenthal, television critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, raved about Rock’s repartee in his column, headlined “Rock solid, and never scared.” Rosenthal, who called Rock an “extraordinary stand-up comedian” waxed enthusiastic about his bravura entrance, writing: “The Hollywood crowd gave … Rock a standing ovation just for walking onstage. … And he started earning it as soon as he told them, ‘Sit your asses down. … Welcome to the 77th — and last — Academy Awards.'”

Rock, a fiery and sometimes controversial comedian, riled some in days leading up to the ceremony with inflammatory remarks about the Oscar telecast and its viewership. Many daily critics commented on the controversy factor in their post-Oscar coverage.

“No controversies, no surprises,” wrote Sid Smith, arts critic of the Chicago Tribune, in an article headlined “Rock can’t break monotony.” Smith was disappointed with Rock’s jokes, criticizing them as stale and “so-so in wit and so last year in timeliness.” Smith was especially unimpressed with Rock’s trademark rant-style delivery, which he employed in the opening monologue, dubbing it “more of a screech” and “almost painful to hear.”

Washington Post critic Tom Shales was equally underwhelmed by Rock’s emcee performance. He wrote, “though a brilliant and caustic stand-up comedian, Rock’s stint as an Oscar host was strangely lame and mean-spirited.” Shales also longed for the return of Billy Crystal, writing, “Perhaps Billy Crystal will come riding in on a white horse again and rescue the show with a zippy performance as host.”

Robert Bianco of USA Today commented on Rock: “Loud, snide and dismissive, he wasn’t just a disappointment; he ranks up there with the worst hosts ever — particularly when you factor in the expectations. When the show ran a salute to Johnny Carson’s years as host, the comparison was so painful, it made you think the academy would have been better off just letting a computer-generated Carson host again.”

But Sharon Waxman and David M. Halbfinger of The New York Times disagreed with the Rock-bashing, writing that “Rock fulfilled his promise to shake up the established Oscar traditions as M.C. of the event, weaving racial humor throughout the show.” Compared to past emcees, Rock was positively unruly, they wrote. The article addressed the disparity between Rock’s style and former hosts like Billy Crystal and Steve Martin. “This was not the sort of gentle, in-crowd humor that had been provided in years past,” they wrote.

Most critics favorably reviewed shakeups in the telecast’s structure, including producer Gil Cates’ decision to have some awards presented in the audience and others with nominees assembled onstage. Rosenthal called it a “daring idea” and St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times critic Steve Persall wrote that the techniques abbreviated the show and were “a victory for producers trying to trim the notoriously long broadcast.” Shales dubbed them “brave tries at shortening the show.”

But USA Today’s Bianco said that among “a host” of awful ideas, “the worst was the decision to make second-class citizens out of the nominees for the technical awards. … They made the nominees for some of those awards, such as art direction and documentaries, stand together on stage while their names were read, like American Idol contestants at the results show.”

Writers from the Los Angeles Times weighed in the Oscars’ controversy factor. John Horn and Susan King termed Rock’s technique “take-no-prisoners patter.” Their article also referenced threats by ABC to censor the show and revealed that network censors objected to lyrics from a planned song by comedian Robin Williams skewering conservative Christian attacks on the alleged homosexuality of cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants. Williams did not perform the song and walked on stage with his mouth taped, ostensibly in reference to the censorship. He did, however, riff in a monologue about cartoon characters’ sexuality.

Newspapers also spilled ink on questions of diversity, with some arguing that, in terms of nominees, the show was the most diverse ever. Shales agreed, but criticized the media attention on racial issues, writing, “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.” He later wrote that Oscar telecasts are losing their celebratory vibe and turning into “de facto political conventions.”

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