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This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Chris Rock has hit a wall. It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, and the Oscar host has been holed up on a Hollywood soundstage since breakfast, shooting what he’d argue is a never-ending string of promos for the big show, still two and a half months away. He jokes, “You could learn how to take out a pancreas in two and a half months.” Rock swears hosting didn’t require this much work or draw this much early scrutiny back in 2005, the first and only other time he emceed. And this is all weeks before the 88th awards show will become a flashpoint in a national debate about race.
By 4 p.m., he’s run through the battery of prepared riffs — “I’m hosting the Oscars — someone at ABC is going to get fired for this” and “The Oscars: where blood, sweat and nepotism finally pay off ” — and he’s starting to get punchy. “My favorite Disney memory?” he winds up: “I remember I was disappointed as a kid that the Tower of Terror wasn’t as scary as my neighborhood.” A dozen or so crewmembers dissolve into howls. Rock goes again, his smile growing wider: “My favorite Disney memory? I became so rich and famous that I could skip in front of white people in line. Now you know how it feels to be black.” Neither joke is likely to air on Disney’s squeaky-clean ABC, but that kind of unflinching commentary is precisely what makes many excited — and others nervous — for the Feb. 28 telecast.
On this day, Rock says he hasn’t settled on the guts of his monologue, though he points to pay inequality and the superhero glut as prime targets. (During his first Oscar foray, digs at actors, including Jude Law and Tobey Maguire, passed as controversial. “Clint Eastwood is a star, OK? Tobey Maguire is just a boy in tights,” he quipped of the Spider-Man star.) Nor at this point in December has Rock, himself a director, producer and star, seen many of the movies in contention. Of those he has, his picks include African-American-led films Straight Outta Compton and Dope.
“I told my agent I wanted to present because it’s like, what’s easier and better than presenting? You come in, do something really funny and get out of there,” said Rock, photographed Dec. 14 at Sowden House in Los Feliz.
When Rock turns up two days later at a Hollywood Reporter cover shoot for a profile that will never materialize, he acknowledges he hadn’t been clamoring for the job of host. “I told my agent I wanted to present because it’s like, what’s easier and better than presenting? You come in, do something really funny and get out of there,” he says. “But it just seemed like a good time. I hadn’t [hosted] in a while, and I’m in between projects.” Though Steve Martin ranks as his all-time favorite Oscar host — “Steve Martin wanting to be funny is about as funny as a human being can get,” he says — he admires what Ellen DeGeneres did with the show. “And let’s not get it twisted: I’m only here because Ellen said no.”
Not five weeks later, this year’s 20 acting nominees — exclusively white for the second consecutive year — will be announced. #OscarsSoWhite will grow from a Twitter trending topic to a social movement, with high-profile African-Americans including Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith vowing not to attend the ceremony and the Academy enacting bold plans to diversify its membership. Rock will chime in once, tweeting Jan. 15 to his 3.8 million followers: “The #Oscars. The White BET Awards.” But it will be the last comment from him about the controversy that has engulfed the awards show. In the weeks that follow, he will clam up and cancel all press opportunities he had leading up to the show, including his THR cover profile. Everything Rock has to say on the topic will be saved for the Dolby stage.
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